Preparation A4 – Space, conceptual art and institutional critique

Michael Asher’s work in the Claire Copley Gallery (1974) addressed the gallery space as artwork from a perceptual and a social context perspective. As seen before it is important for the reception of any artwork to consider the historical context as well as the social and art theory context of his time. Otherwise, when looking backwards one may be biased by a different mediated perspective. Asher is often related as a conceptual artist in the movement of institutional critique.

Short history of art around 1960 -1980:

(Fraser, 2011; O’Doherty, 1999)

Stefan513593 - assignment 4 - preparation - art history

Fig. 1: Stefan513593 – assignment 4 – preparation – art history


The gallery space was already a topic for investigation with Marcel Duchamp  Twelve Hundred Coal Bags Suspended from the Ceiling (1938) and First Papers of Surrealism exhibition (1941), Yves Klein (1958) The Void (Iris Cert Gallery), and Piet Mondrian (1926/1970) Salon de Madame B. à Dresden addressed: reversal of ceiling/floor, whitening of all surfaces, removal of objects (Fig.1 -2). Literal elements that are reflected in Asher’s works.

The term gesture (’emphasizing ideas and emotions, often made only for effect’) was used for artistic inventions in gallery space.

Another aspect associated with Modern Gallery space is the White Cube. The development from 18th century French Salons till MoMA is explored by A .Cain (2017). Basically, Modern Art and White Cube are inseparable related with each other.  The white paint was not only be Yves Klein literally applied but is also key in Asher’s Claire Copley work in restoring the display standard.

Modernist painter in the mid 1960s, e.g. Frank Stella, Kenneth Noland, embraced the modernist white wall, and their paintings activated the surround wall (Fig. 3).

The gallery wall as such was considered not only as a presentation support, but as a painting as such. Literally represented by e.g. William Anastasi in his work West Wall (1967, Fig. 3). This work also had an after effect that after removal of the painting one could consider the wall as a ‘ready-made mural’ as O’Doherty described it (1999).

Other earlier approaches were e.g. Daniel Buren‘s work at the Gallery Apollinaire, Milano  (1968) where he closed all entrances with his iconic stripes (Fig. 2).


Images in my paper log:

The Artist & the Gallery

What brings me to look at the artist, artwork and relationship with institutions. Difference I can discern between (as a dialectic approach with difference and similarities):

  • the Modernist conception of the self-conscious, self-referential and subjective artist and
  • the gallery, as a ‘sanctuary’ for transcendental art display, commercialization and commodification.

Besides above mentioned examples, it is Joseph Kosuth‘s work The Ninth Investigation, Proposition (1972, Fig. 4) that builds on the notion of the gallery as a ‘sanctuary’ place.

Both sides do inherit a certain myth: The myth of the creative artist, and the mystified contemplative perception of Modern Art in a White Cube gallery

Both matters on both sides is space and context.

Stefan513593 - assignment 4 - preparation - Context on Art

Fig. 6: Stefan513593 – assignment 4 – preparation – Context on Art

(remark: keywords collected and assembled from my research on Institutional Critique and Conceptual art)

Since Modernist Art the artist had a special, often mystified role. With modernist critique, structuralist, post-structuralist and post-modernist theories, authorities and subjectivity were put into question. With Foucault’s notion of the episteme, the social and historical prevailing framework of representations and the relationship between discourse and power, the role of the artist changed as well. Butler noticed that the notion of the dependence of the artist on institutions ‘legitimized’ the work of art in the museum as a ‘secular temple’ through a ‘pseudo-clergy of curators and their dependent critic reviewers’. (Butler, 2002:92)

To draw upon that difference one can also see certain similarities:

Stefan513593 - assignment 4 - preparation - Role of Artist

Fig. 7: Stefan513593 – assignment 4 – preparation – Role of Artist

… or to express it visually as a ‘life cycle’ under capitalist conditions:

production in artist’s studio => display in gallery => (re-)commodification in storage (and sales)

Stefan513593 -life cyle art

Fig. 8: Stefan513593 – life cyle art

It seems as a constant self-conscious struggle of the artist to find its place and its voice, to differentiate from institutional commercialisation and at the same to embrace those cultural frameworks.

The division between artistic production and separate place for exhibition was of concern of various artist end 1960 and 1970s seeking for alternative spaces systems. One example to overcome that division, as well as to take back ownership of display, was the studio practice by Constantin Brancusi (Fig.4). Brancusi considered the spatial relation between his sculptures and the surrounding space crucial, and his exhibition spaces in his studio on 1920s became itself a kind of artwork. A notion that very much resonates with Asher’s conception of gallery space as artwork, but with removed objects.

Minimal Art & Institutional Critique

As seen above, Minimal Art can be considered as a cornerstone and transitional phase between Modernist Art and Institutional Critique. Michael Fried criticised 1967 in his essay Art and Objecthood the theatricality of ‘Literal’ Minimal Art. On the other side it was Robert Morris as one of the main formalists of Minimal Art who expressed the phenomenological spatial and sensory experience as key for Minimalist Sculpture. An important aspect for Minimal Art was materiality, in a sense that the viewer’s perception is unmediated from it.

This conception was further developed, going beyond mere sensory experience but also including  socioeconomical experience and the intellect (Peltomäki, 2010). And it is especially this extension of space conception that describes the artist around Institutional Critique. Nevertheless, worth to mention that those considered as the founders of that ‘movement’ as Haacke, Buren, Broodthaers, and Asher never used that term. Fraser related this term to her own interrogation 1985 (Fraser, 2005) wheras Peltomäki relates this term to the discourse by Arthur C. Danto and Pierre Bourdieu in the mid 1960s around the ‘artworld’ to include history with art theory. (Peltomäki, 2007:38).

Bottomline, with the development from Minimal Art towards Institutional Critique, space – as seen above – became a dominant role to play. Space not only literally as the space of an artwork to be, but also the institution as space, as a physical and more a social space. The notion of site-specificity became a different meaning as well. As Kwon noted in her essay (1997/2013:41-42), the phenomenological sense of site experience was enhanced equally be a discursive experience in social context. Site became more and more dematerialised  and mobilised. To look deeper at that development exceeds the scope of my assignment work and moves towards part 5 and contemporary art today.

The discourse, disconnected from artwork, pushed artists to produce political art and to address marginalised issues, Marxists conceptions and challenging a the traditional system of the artworld at large. The spectator was challenged, or perhaps sitting in-between, to absorb, to understand, to decode and to look beyond the artworks as object for underlying meanings. One could possibly go that far to state that the unsettling perception for the viewer of art around 1970-1980 is a reflection or mirror-stage of the conflicting situations the artist was experiencing with in the dialectical situations of artwork-art commerce.

In summary, I can pull together a visual map illustrating the difference, as well as similarities between Minimal Art and Institutional Critique:


Stefan513593 - assignment 4 - preparation - Asher in Context

Fig, 9: Stefan513593 – assignment 4 – preparation – Asher in Context



This research highlighted the complex situation in which Michael Asher was situated between end 1960s and end 1970s. Many keywords are included in above illustrations. The question or the task would be to discern those relevant for my argumentation of difference in Asher’s work for the Claire Copley Gallery, 1974. Alongside Asher’s intention, the audience perception and reception as well as the underlying ideologies and canons I will look at simplifying it.

Key aspects that make a difference:

  • Perception (spectator – institution)
  • Estrangement (psychological – social)
  • Space (site  – White Cube – cultural)
  • Context (site specific – socioeconomical)
  • Commerce (commercialisation – commodification – mystification)
  • Meaning (literal – metaphorical – ideological)
  • Artist (producer – co-opting – master/slave)
  • Artwork (object – gesture)
  • Discourse (art theory – history – artwork)


  • Alberro, A. and Stimson, B. (2011) Institutional Critique : An Anthology of Artists’ Writings. Cambridge; London: MIT Press.
  • Butler, C. (2002) Postmodernism: A Very Short Introduction, Very Short Introductions. Oxford ; New York: Oxford University Press.
  • Cain, A. (2017) ‘How the White Cube Came to Dominate the Art World’, in: Artsy Editorial . [Online].  Available from: [accessed 15 Oct 2017].
  • Fraser, A. (2005) ‘From the Critique of Institutions to an Institution of Critique’, in: ArtForum. [Online]. 44(1),  pp. 278–83278-83283,83332,83210,  Available from: [accessed 14 Oct 2017].
  • Fraser, A. (2011) ‘In and Out of Place’, in: Alberro, A. and Stimson, B. (eds.) Institutional Critique : An Anthology of Artists’ Writings, Cambridge; London: MIT Press,  pp. 292 – 300.
  • Kocur, Z. and Leung, S. (2013) Theory in Contemporary Art since 1985, Second edition. ed. Chichester, West Sussex: Wiley-Blackwell.
  • Kwon, M. (1998) Site specificity and the problematics of public art: Recent transformations at the intersection of art and architecture. Dissertation/Thesis. ProQuest Dissertations Publishing. Available from: [Accessed 17 Sep 2017].
  • O’Doherty, B. (1999) Inside the White Cube: The Ideology of the Gallery Space. University of California Press [pdf]. Available from: [accessed 12 Oct 2017].
  • Peltomäki, K. and Asher, M. (2010) Situation aesthetics : the work of Michael Asher. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press.


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