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A perfect lack of a plan

Santa Monica Museum of Art stumbles into an ideal way to honor its first 20 years.

January 20, 2008|Suzanne Muchnic | Times Staff Writer

IT'S a coincidence. But Elsa Longhauser, director of the Santa Monica Museum of Art, thinks it's great.

What could be better than an installation by Michael Asher to headline a yearlong celebration of the museum's 20th anniversary?

A conceptualist known for grappling with the inner workings of art institutions, Asher has an impressive international resume and a 34-year tenure as a CalArts professor, but the L.A. artist's work is rarely seen in his hometown. Just the sort of artist who should have a forum at the museum -- which, despite its name, does not have a collection and prides itself on filling a gap between commercial galleries and traditional museums.

What's more, his project will dig into the past of the Santa Monica museum at a moment when it is celebrating its exhibition record. "The absolute purity of his vision is the highest exemplar of the work we do," Longhauser says, "and I am very proud that his work is about the history of this museum, which has always been about changing exhibitions."

Asher did not plan his installation as an anniversary bash. That would be out of character. Soft spoken and retiring, he is a giant in the annals of conceptual art but nearly invisible in the commerce-driven art world because he deals with ideas, not objects. More to the point, his works develop as they will, typically through long periods of research and cogitation.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday, January 20, 2008 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 36 words Type of Material: Correction
Michael Asher exhibition: An article in today's Arts & Music section about the Santa Monica Museum of Art says that the upcoming "Michael Asher" exhibition will run Jan. 25 to April 12. It opens Jan. 26.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday, January 27, 2008 Home Edition Sunday Calendar Part E Page 2 Calendar Desk 1 inches; 32 words Type of Material: Correction
Michael Asher exhibit: A story in last Sunday's Calendar about the Santa Monica Museum of Art said the "Michael Asher" exhibit would run Jan. 25 to April 12. It opened Jan. 26.

The Santa Monica project began with an invitation from Longhauser, extended about seven years ago. After much thought and a few ideas that didn't pan out, Asher decided to partially rebuild every temporary wall constructed at the museum since its 1998 move to Bergamot Station. The installation would be a sort of history of the museum's exhibitions -- without the art.

Longhauser was delighted with the idea, but it took a while to get the show on the museum's schedule. When "Michael Asher" landed in the Jan. 25 to April 12 slot, it became the first exhibition in a year of anniversary programs and festivities, including a gala fundraiser, lectures, tours and community outreach.

Longhauser says the timing of the show is astonishingly fortuitous. Asher says it's irrelevant.

Either way, "Michael Asher" is a rare chance to see one of his major installations in the Los Angeles area -- and to get insight into how he thinks.

Search for understanding

"Each one of my works is a problem that I am trying to figure out," the artist says several days before construction of the Santa Monica project is to begin. Of slight build and dressed in faded jeans and work shirt, he sits on a folding chair amid a meticulously organized archive that has taken over the front rooms of his modest home. Filing cabinets line the walls and fill the central space, leaving an aisle to reach the materials.

"I'm trying to figure out -- not answers," he says, "but I'm trying to understand better. So this installation is just one of those problems."

At 64, Asher does not get involved in the art market because he thinks that would compromise the meaning of his work. But he has participated in prestigious international exhibitions, including the Venice Biennale and Documenta in Kassel, Germany, and has done projects at museums such as the Georges Pompidou Center in Paris, the Kunstverein in Hamburg, Germany, and the Van Abbemuseum in Eindhoven, the Netherlands.

At the Art Institute of Chicago, in 1979, he moved a statue of George Washington -- an American copy of a French artwork -- from the outdoor steps to a European period gallery for the museum's "73rd American Exhibition." At the Kunsthalle Bern, Switzerland, in 1992, he moved all the radiators into one room and reconfigured their pipes on walls throughout the building.

His contribution to "The Museum as Muse: Artists Reflect" -- a 1999 show at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, which invited artists to make works based on the collection -- was a book listing all 403 objects sold or traded from the collection since MoMA was founded 70 years earlier. Instead of reflecting on acquisitions, he called attention to the controversial practice of "deaccessioning."

In Santa Monica, Asher will delve into the ever-changing character of spaces that accommodate temporary exhibitions. Although he will deal with the structure, not the content, of the shows, his work may be interpreted as an invitation to think about changing fashions in art and the temporal nature of exhibitions.

Normally, in a museum, he says, "the display system is something that recedes and is supposed to be somewhat neutral. The reason is that the museum wants us to focus on the aesthetic value and the history of an art object. I'm trying to alter that. Instead of showing the artwork's history, I'm showing its support."

But not completely. If he rebuilt entire walls of all 44 exhibitions staged since 1998, no one could enter the space. The plan is to create a sort of skeletal replication consisting of wood and metal frames that supported the Sheetrock walls.

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