Michael Asher, Storied Teacher and Artist Who Examined, Defied Convention, Dies at 69

Asher in 2008. (Charley Gallay/Getty Images)

Certain things are expected of a successful contemporary artist today—a gallery (preferably a few in various cities around the world), a steady stream of new work for international shows and art fairs, and a healthy auction history. Los Angeles artist Michael Asher, who died on Sunday at the age of 69 after a long illness, had none of those things, which is how he wanted it.

Mr. Asher was one of the pioneers, and arguably the most trenchant practitioner, of a style of art that emerged in the 1970s and came to be known as institutional critique. It seeks to poke, prod, tweak and expose how the art world works. Though the genre itself quickly grew mannered, he always managed to find fresh approaches.

One of Mr. Asher’s classics came only two years ago, at the 2010 Whitney Biennial. His contribution was asking museum administrators to keep the Whitney open around the clock for seven days. The museum agreed to three days, and later presented him with its Bucksbaum Award, which comes with a $100,000 check and the promise of a one-person show at the Whitney.

As the critic Roberta Smith argued years ago, his works are great “tall tales.” They become the sort of stories you can tell students to let them know that art can be many different things, that there are alternatives. He ripped out the wall separating the exhibition and office spaces at a Los Angeles gallery in 1974, moved a statue of George Washington from the front steps of the Art Institute of Chicago into one of its galleries in 1979 and connected the standing walls of New York’s Artists Space to the ceiling of its downtown loft in 1988, bridging the white box and the former industrial space.

After Mr. Asher stopped making objects in the early 1970s, he exhibited infrequently. But he kept busy. Beginning in 1974, he taught at CalArts, in Valencia, Calif. In his storied seminars, artists critiqued one another’s work, sometimes for hours at a time. The art world is filled with students—Christopher Williams, Stephen Prina—who were forced to think and struggle with ideas in his class.

When an exhibition by Mr. Asher ended, his work generally ceased to exist, which led Andrea Fraser—another master of institutional critique—to lament in 2008 in Artforum, “The remains of Asher’s work will not be sacralized in any museum, or valorized at any auction, but buried in our institutional equivalent of Potter’s Field: the archive.” There will be books, though, she noted optimistically. What will posthumous Asher shows look like? One hopes we get to find out soon.

Update, Oct. 17: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated the location of CalArts. Michael Asher, Storied Teacher and Artist Who Examined, Defied Convention, Dies at 69