See Footage from the Late Michael Asher’s Controversial 2010 Whitney Biennial Work

Michael Asher’s Bucksbaum Award-winning 2010 Whitney Biennial piece was simply called “No Title.” It was self-effacing and subtle in its appearance, and remained mostly hidden (except for wall text on each of the exhibition’s floors) to visitors as they passed through the museum at their leisure — any time, day or night, for its three-day duration.

Its subsequent controversy and impact were larger than the sum of its parts, reinforcing the fact that pieces of institutional critique (the movement that Asher championed) could shape some of the most impactful pieces of art and activism produced.

Originally proposed by Asher to last for a full week, “No Title” called for the museum to be open continuously to the public all 24 hours for an entire week. The museum claimed that limitations of “budgetary and human resources” couldn’t support his radical proposal, so the duration of the piece was shortened to three days with pay-as-you wish admission fees during early morning hours.

Central to the work was the challenge it posed to the museum and the tension it caused just by existing as a proposed idea. Unlike his more physical interventions, the Biennial piece revealed limitations that arise in the push-and-pull relationship of ambitious artists dealing with finite resources. The medium of time with which Asher attempted to play with was an intimidating abstract agent force.

The graduate critique class he taught at CalArts for decades was the perfect summation of this experimentation. His practice as an educator was trendsetting and unorthodox, consisting of a proactive give-and-take relationship with his students and the institution for which he worked. Though I only attended the school for a semester it was evident that his popular reputation exceeded him. First year graduate students I met admitted to being massively disappointed hearing that he was away that semester due to illness — a major reason some had chosen the school was to study with the legendary man, and take his grueling all-day Friday critique class.

British journalist and author Sarah Thornton dedicated a chapter in her popular art world tell-all “Seven Days in the Art World” to Asher’s class at CalArts, where she sat in and observed, in the end arguing that the course was the most influential piece the artist produced in his career.

In a CalArts press release on the occasion of Asher’s death, School of Art Dean Thomas Lawson was quoted from a recent article published through East of Borneo saying, “Michael devoted his work to exploring the limits of the galleries and schools and museums that give context and space for art, poking at all sorts of barriers and shibboleths with a humor that was sometimes sly, and sometimes hilarious.”

Asher’s critique class was a time-experiment that produced visible results — the effort he put forth as an educator has permanently molded the institution, its alumni, and will continue to influence future students. Other faculty teaching critiques there can and have used him as a model; alumni have attested to their experiences in his class as impactful; and students will continue to flock to CalArts to study where he once taught. In the end, Asher’s work pushing the limits of time has left results that will last a long time.

Watch a compilation of footage from Michael Asher’s 2010 Whitney Biennial work “No Title” below:

— Alanna Martinez