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Michael Asher (1943–2012): Parting Words and Unfinished Work

Early in the afternoon of Wednesday, October 17, I got a call from a friend and fellow alumnus of CalArts with the news that Michael Asher had passed away. I set down the phone and quickly scanned the obituaries in the Los Angeles Times and the New York Times. And then that sinking feeling set in. I had not been in contact with Michael for some years, but in the nature of a death both expected and untimely (I was aware he was in poor health), I was not prepared for how the news hit me. I was overcome by a wave of remorse: remorse born of a guilty conscience, of kindnesses not paid and obligations unmet; a remorse too late now for any remedy.

I imagined the calls passing back and forth among Michael’s colleagues, and especially among his former students, exchanging the various stories and anecdotes that, as if through sympathetic magic, could summon him back. I imagined with equal clarity the many texts—now that his oeuvre is a closed book—that could proceed unhindered by the living artist’s stubborn irascibility. How would these texts now position him and to what end? As a practitioner of “situational aesthetics,” that procedural version of site-specificity? What, then, of his absolute refusal to conflate the commodity form and the art object? And what of his attitude towards history, or labor, or his longstanding fascination with the intricacies of infrastructure?

These questions are further complicated by an approach to artistic practice that left few physical traces. Michael’s work was site-specific, but he took the procedure of approaching a site and using “just elements which already existed without a great modification to the space” through all its possible permutations, this disarmingly simple premise eventually encompassing the synchronic and diachronic dimensions of site—phenomenological time and perceptual space, contingency and determination, ideology and history. And yet, despite the scarcity of physical traces left by his artistic practice and his absence from the many indices by which the art world calculates influence and canonical significance (auction prices, gallery shows, presence in museum and private collections), despite his stubborn and unfashionable solidarity with the working class, and a concomitant abhorrence of the sort of lionization that might endanger his fealty to the category of remunerated labor, I would describe him as the most influential artist of his generation—an ironic superlative considering how neatly he evaded most of the criteria customarily employed in according artistic influence.

I didn’t know who Michael Asher was when in the fall of 2000 I entered graduate school. I recall speaking by phone to a second year grad student who mentioned Michael Asher as one of the art department’s most interesting figures, leader of a marathon critique course that met every Friday.

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