Visual art manifested as events, gestures or acts

Kirsi Peltomaki

He removed the wall between the gallery office and the exhibition space, which remained empty. He named the lobby of the Los Angeles Museum of Art after himself. He published a catalogue of works that the Museum of Modern Art had removed from its permanent collection, thereby causing the curator serious discomfort.

He is Michael Asher, an internationally known Los Angeles artist and the subject of Kirsi Peltomaki’s current research.

“Asher does not physically make objects. Instead, he works through the removal, displacement, substitution, and reconstitution of objects that already are situated within the institution, “said Peltomaki, a Research Fellow and an assistant profess of art at OSU. “Asher’s site-specific installations, often associated with minimalism and conceptual art, are made exclusively for their site, typically a museum,”

Based in Los Angeles, with work dating back to the late 1960s, Asher is considered to be one of the three most influential artists of the first generation doing “institutional critique.” Peltomaki defines the term as “art that investigates its institutional frame of reference, for example by calling attention to the ideological underpinnings of a museum or gallery context.”

While in residence at the Center, Peltomaki will complete much of the first draft of a book about Asher and the role of the human subject in his work. The artist is cooperating with Peltomaki, and has granted her access to his personal archives.

“This project is significant for two reasons. It will provide a comprehensive critical account of Asher’s materially ephemeral artistic practice, and it will be among the first studies in contemporary art history to center upon the role of the subject—the artist, viewer or curator—as opposed to the object of art. It will also be the first book-length study of this influential artist’s work.”

The anti-material aspect of Asher’s practice has often been analyzed by critics and art historians in the context of the “dematerialization” of the art object in the 1960s and 1970s, said Peltomaki. “On a formal level, however, Asher’s works are more concerned with the participatory role of the human subject than they are with the definition of an object.”

The study will focus on four primary aspects of the role of the human subject in the artist’s work. One will be the way in which he constructs a phenomenological experience for viewers by manipulating the physical properties of the exhibition space. “In his untitled work for the 1970 group exhibition Spaces at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, for example, Asher soundproofed his allocated room so that, by suppressing any kind of sound, it interfered with the exhibition viewers’ ability to coordinate their spatial experience.”

A second aspect will be Asher’s use of actual objects, including removing the wall between a gallery office and the exhibition area, “thus displaying the gallerist and the managerial function of the gallery in an otherwise empty space.” The third aspect will be the use of the artist himself as a culturally and historically specific subject position. “For example, in an untitled 1983-85 installation, Asher named the lobby of the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art after himself, negotiating a contract with the museum that positioned him as the museum’s landlord for a period of eighteen months.”

The fourth focus in Peltomaki’s study is the manner in which “Asher positions and repositions discursively defined subjects in order to manifest their institutional constraints.” An example is his piece in the 1999 group exhibition The Museum as Muse: Artists Reflect, at the Museum of Modern Art. “Asher asked MoMA to compile and publish a catalogue of the works of art that it had ‘deaccessioned’—that is, removed from the collection—from the museum’s Department of Painting and Sculpture. The institution’s response to this project demonstrated symptomatic discomfort.”

Although Asher’s published catalogue of the removed works was produced internally by MoMA, it featured a disclaimer by the chief curator disavowing the accuracy of the listings on the grounds that it was not an official museum publication. “Asher’s catalogue hinged upon a discursively specific set of intersubjective relations,” said Peltomaki. “The artist spoke from the museum’s authoritative position, while the ‘real’ curator performed a frantic disidentification, again in the name of the museum.”
Other contemporary art historians tend to focus on the material aspects of art, such as the status of the art object itself, and fail to account for many changes regarding the subject, said Peltomaki. “Increasingly, visual art is manifest as events, gestures, or acts instead of stable objects or images. Performance, installation, collaborative projects, public art and temporary projects are among the types of contemporary art that rely on interrelated subjectivities, or the subject relations of the artists, viewers, critics, and institutions. Asher’s works are central to these developments because they focus specifically on the viewer’s experience, either through challenging the viewers’ expectations or soliciting participation.”