– Autumn/Winter 2000

Michael Asher: His Work at The Renaissance Society, Chicago

Anne Rorimer

Tags: Michael Asher

Michael Asher, The Renaissance Society at the University of Chicago, Chicago Illinois, 1990
Documentation of the partition walls for the exhibition space. The backs of the wall contain the patent numbers from hardware in the gallery alcoves (viewing west)
Photograph by Tom Van Eynde. Courtesy the artist.

The prodigious and protean production of Michael Asher has developed and continues to evolve in critical response to its own definition as art, which perforce is situated within a physical context as well as an economic, social, political, and historical one. Since the late 1960s, Asher has continuously explored methods to engage each work with the relevant aspects of its provided context. In doing so, he frees each resulting work from the conditions that he chooses to investigate. Asher was one of the first artists to give meaning to the term 'site-specific' and for the last thirty years has rigorously adhered to the demands of complying with the work's place of exhibition. Asher's exhibition in the beginning months of 1990 at the Renaissance Society at the University of Chicago - a space on the grounds of the University established earlier in the century for the display of recent art - offers a prime example of his aesthetic approach while ushering the artist's career into yet another decade of activity.

A work by Asher assumes form and content when aspects of its architectural and institutional context are examined critically and revealed within its own parameters. His exhibition at the Renaissance Society coincided with the 100-year anniversary of the founding of Hull House in Chicago and with the 200-year anniversary of the Patent Office of the United States Government. These two anniversaries relate to the two major components of the work: firstly, to the ideology underlying the American Arts and Crafts movement at the turn of the century through excerpted texts of the period and, secondly, to the patent numbers of mechanical fixtures and hardware that are a

  1. Also, The University of Chicago, founded in 1891, was about to celebrate its 100-year anniversary.

  2. See Eileen Boris, Art and Labor: Ruskin, Morris, and the Craftsman Ideal in America, Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1986, for an in-depth historical account of the Arts and Crafts movement.

  3. According to Alfred Kazin in 'The "New Materialism" in American Thought and Life in the 1880s and 90s', a lecture given at the Centennial Conference, Roosevelt University, Chicago on 17 November 1990, 80% of Chicago's population of one million in 1890 came from the large influx of immigrants to the United States at the end of the 19th century.

  4. E. Boris, op. cit., p.131

  5. For background on individual designers linked with the broadly defined Arts and Crafts movement see, for example, Robert Judson Clark (ed.), The Arts and Crafts Movement in America 1876-1916 (exh. cat.), Chicago: The Art Institute of Chicago and Princeton: The Art Museum, Princeton University, 1972

  6. See Maureen Sherlock, Michael Asher, Arts Magazine, 96, May 1990, with regard to 'liberalism's failure to address the need for real change in a world increasingly subjected to the bifurcated instrumentality of the assembly line'.

  7. See Robert W. Winter, The Arts and Crafts as a Social Movement, in Robert Judson Clark (ed.), Aspects of the Arts and Crafts Movement in America, in Record of The Art Museum, Princeton University, Volume 34, Number 2 (1975), pp.36-39

  8. See T.J. Jackson Lears, No Place of Grace: Antimodernism and the Transformation of American Culture 1880-1920, New York: Pantheon Books, 1981, for a full discussion and analysis of the social and cultural factors that ultimately have led to the legitimisation of and accommodation to modern, industrial consumer capitalism.