The mood was one of respect and reflection last Friday, Dec. 7, as hundreds of friends, colleagues, student and teachers gathered in the Main Gallery at the California Institute of the Arts in Valencia to celebrate and remember the life of long-time beloved faculty member and widely regarded conceptual artist Michael Asher.
Asher, who passed away after a long illness on Oct. 15 at the age of 69, is often hailed as one of the most influential figures in the contemporary art world, particularly noted for his work in a genre known as institutional critique, involving artistic takes on the structures of the art world itself, such as museums and galleries.
But he was perhaps even more widely known for the exhaustive attention and critical consideration he gave to his students' work. Within the framework of his famous Post-Studio Critique class, Asher would spend hours and hours discussing a single artwork, deconstructing and examining it from every possible angle. The class meetings, starting at 1:00 pm on Friday afternoons, were known to stretch past midnight (or even later) on a regular basis.
"The primary activity of the class is to enter into a fairly complete discussion of each student's art production," wrote Asher in a collection of writings straight-forwardly entitled Writings 1973-1983 on Works 1969-1979. The president of CalArts, Steven Lavine, told the crowd at the service of how art teachers he had recently met in China had asked him, in amazed disbelief, whether the stories about the iconic class were in fact true -- he said he had assured them that they were. I myself was most fortunate to have attended the class several times as an undergraduate -- but only on Michael's gently-delivered but firm condition that I "not talk too much."
At the servie, we met to honor the memory of this artist at the same time of week that the class used to meet, and attempted to "free ourselves from the pressures of the clock," which Asher always purported to be the goal of the legendary course. (The course is also now the subject of a new film, Walk Through, by CalArts alumnus Redmond Entwhistle.)
"He recognized that art making is a complex intellectual activity," remarked artist and dean of the school of art Thomas Lawson. "He was a patient and very generous colleague... and a very serious person." After Lawson's initial remembrances, nearly two dozen speakers gave full and thoughtful eulogies, reminiscing about Asher's infectious laugh, indelible sense of humor and open, accepting and good-natured spirit. Many told stories of his enigmatic precision, his dry but mirthful wit and his minimalistic lifestyle.
Speakers included artists Dorit Cypis, Andrew Freeman, Connie Hatch and Elsa Longhauser, filmmaker Thom Andersen, photographer Allen Sekula, and artist Dan Graham, who created a quirky, endearing video remembrance. Pianist Vicki Ray delivered a beautiful and sparklingly flawless rendition of John Cage's 1948 composition"In a Landscape." Overall, the entire service lasted for an emotional and heart-warming four hours.
Many of those present sought comfort in the assurance that Asher would live on through his work. Perhaps this is a common thing to think when any well-known artist dies, but it is particularly satisfying is Asher's case, especially as he never created a single work of art that was capable of being sold. Instead, he worked to reposition the consideration of space and meaning in architecture within the context of human experience.
His most recent work was featured in the 2010 Whitney Biennial, in which he proposed that the Whitney Museum remain open 24 hours a day for a full week. The piece was the recipient of the Biennal's prestigious Bucksbaum Award. Due to budgetary constraints, however, the Whitney could only manage to stay open for three full days -- a testament to the difficulty even the creative community has when it comes to reaching outside of one's comfort zone, which is something Asher strove for and achieved on a profound level.
Institutional critique involves the continuous and ongoing examination of these comfort zones, with the aim of taking nothing for granted and making no assumptions about neither art nor reality. The fearless dissection of the sometimes invisible authoritative sources that dictate how art is viewed and understood will be, in part, Asher's legacy.
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CalArts has established a new scholarship in his name. For more information, please visit the university's website.