A Document of Regulation and Reflexive Process:Michael Asher’s Contractual Agreement Commissioning Works of Art (1975)
Eric Golo Stone
“Artists have a responsibility to represent themselves… I deﬁne criticism as an ethical practice of self-reﬂective evaluation of the ways in which we participate in the reproduction of relations of domination.”
—Andrea Fraser, Roundtable: The Present Conditions of Art Criticism, 2002
“Responsibility is not attendant. In beginning to think about a work, I try first to be accountable for its reception and distribution.”
—Michael Asher, interview with the author, January 23, 2011
Responsibility means having the capacity to respond, and within this capacity is the allowance, if even privileging, of analytical self-reflection. This mode of reflexive work, and the struggle to secure the capacity for this mode of work, is crucial to understanding the discourses that Michael Asher has advanced within his artistic practice spanning more than forty years. This paper examines how Asher’s work is engaged in reflexive analysis, while simultaneously contributing to the work’s actual and projected reception. A critical inquiry into the work that artists do to intervene in and articulate the particular conditions for the reception of their art requires examining the work within its specific points of reference and on its own terms.
The speculative passages of this paper are grounded in their orientation to the historical context, developed as a case study, of Michael Asher’s process of writing and submitting a contractual agreement between 1974 and 1975. This study is largely based upon primary research drawn from the personal archive of Michael Asher, as well as the Getty Research Institute in relation to the aforementioned document. Michael Asher began writing his contractual agreement in January of 1974 in direct response to the gallerist Heiner Friedrich’s attempt to sell an installation work of Asher’s to a number of different collectors, a mistaken understanding of the artist’s site and temporally specific practice. In organizing his distinct mode of discourse and analysis, Asher was responding to a lack of administrative methodologies available for the artist at his historical moment. That is, Asher responds to and articulates the necessary administration of the limited means and methods of intervention available. Asher’s document articulates the multitude of things that can go wrong in the process being undertaken when realizing artistic interests, as well as the many ways in which the artist and his interests are under threat or can be subtly undermined. In this procedural work, the artist is keenly aware while engaged in creating works that more closely bind him to the surrounding efforts. And it is precisely because of this keen awareness that Asher implements work that puts demands on the reception context of his art—a work that is applied recurrently as a set of self-organized protocols, and a work that involves the artist confronting the addressee, or particular recipient of their art, by critically discursive means. This paper will demonstrate how this work, by incorporating an extraordinary degree of involvement by the artist to inform conditions for the reception of art, challenges expectations for how the artist should perform within the reception context of their art, and thereby revisits questions of artists’ control and responsibility in confronting the socio-economic conditions of artistic production.
Artists reform, as well as reproduce, the shifting economic conditions at their particular historical moments. In an influential essay from 1990, art historian Benjamin Buchloh posited that “Conceptual Art truly became the most significant paradigmatic change of postwar artistic production at the very moment that it mimed the operating logic of late capitalism and its positivist instrumentality.” For Buchloh, conceptual artists of the 60’s were not just keenly aware of the discontents of late capitalism, but also embraced and reproduced its systems of commodity logic. Buchloh’s essay argues that the historical period between 1962 and 1969 saw emergent modes of artistic production in direct correlation with new economic structures. This argument is amplified by the years following the 1960s and the historical moment today. Creative professionals including artists, curators, art historians, critics, and other cultural producers frequently embrace entrepreneurial convictions in order to face the precarity of the current economic situation. Deregulation of the market persists as the dominant economic ideology in the US context, despite clear evidence that such an ideology reinforces schizophrenic economic conditions and vast disparities of wealth. At the same time, artists continue to employ the strategies of corporate and consumer culture while navigating the various institutions of art that duplicate corporatist policies.
Yet corporatization should not be conflated with professionalization. Attempts by artists to inform the economic conditions of artistic production, reception, and consumption through the organization of professional interests and protections can be misconstrued as evidence of artists’ mere managerial competence of their careers. Artists’ efforts to address the unfixed status of artistic labor—which often take the shape of engaging, with equal commitment, in methodologies of administration and of artistic production—require continued theorization and historicization. It is only through the most uncritical habits that this work done by artists has become synonymous with the bureaucratization, technocratization, and corporatization of the artworld.
Michael Asher’s Contractual Agreement Commissioning Works of Art, 1975
From 1969 to 1972, Michael Asher developed works that were conceived for and determined by the existing social, political, and architectural elements of a given exhibition venue. Over the course of these four years, Asher established this artistic practice in a number of museum, non-profit, and artist-run exhibition contexts, including the San Francisco Art Institute Gallery; the Seattle Art Museum; the Museum of Modern Art, New York; the Pomona College Art Gallery; and the Market Street Program, Venice, California. In 1973, Asher began to produce works for a number of commercial galleries in Europe and the United States. Keeping to a practice of producing works that were “defined equally for and by the situation into which they were inserted,” Asher proposed distinct installations that were contingent upon the specific site and context of each commercial gallery.
For his second individual exhibition in a commercial gallery, at the Heiner Friedrich Gallery in September of 1973, Asher had the ceilings throughout the interior of the galleries, hallways, and administrative offices painted a tint slightly darker than the floors. The installation was representative of Asher’s other works within commercial galleries, which involved the displacement, removal, or reconstruction of their architectural surfaces (that is, walls, ceilings, or floors): for example, Asher’s canonical exhibitions at Galleria Franco Toselli in Milan, for which he had the walls of the gallery sandblasted to expose an underlying plaster; and his exhibition at Claire Copley Gallery in Los Angeles, for which he removed a wall that separated the exhibition space from the office of the gallery.
In 1974, the Cologne-based dealer Heiner Friedrich, without consulting Asher, promised the sale of Asher’s installation for the Friedrich Gallery to a number of different collectors, including the Milanese collector Giuseppe Panza di Biumo. Asher’s realization that the dealer had attempted to sell the installation without being consulted had a profound effect, prompting Asher to go far beyond merely terminating immediate relations with Friedrich as a dealer of his work. For Asher, Friedrich’s imprudent attempt at distributing the work did not simply evidence the pitfalls of working within a commercial gallery context or the inconsiderate maneuverings of a particular dealer. Rather, what Asher came to understand in dealing with the gallerist was that his installation work necessitated further discourse—a mode of discourse that would account for and protect its specific material and temporal interests.
The Writing of an Artist Contract by Michael Asher Between 1974 and 1975
As a direct result of his entanglement with Friedrich, Asher began drafting a contractual agreement that would become a template for all of the artist’s future negotiations concerning the exhibition, transfer, and sale of his work. This document would go through a number of revisions between 1974 and 1975. For Asher, the process of writing the contract became a way for the artist to think through the parameters of his artistic practice, and it evolved into a process of mental conditioning in which Asher would attempt to articulate the parameters of the discourse set forth by his work in its entirety. Asher’s contract was put to work as a tool that the artist could routinely implement, and he used this tool to anticipate the discourse at the conception of his work, preceding its production, reception, and consumption. If by the early 1970s Asher had established a methodology of artistic production that was contingent upon a specific exhibitory context, his contract extended that organizing system by providing a means for the artist to account for variables while simultaneously conditioning future action.
In 1975, Giuseppe Panza engaged with Asher directly, commissioning the artist to produce a new work for the collector’s private residence in Varese, Italy. Asher accepted the commission opportunity and offered Panza a proposal that consisted of sketches and notes for the installation of two long wooden benches along an interior wall of the residence in Varese. In addition to the sketches and notes, Asher submitted his contract to Panza for signature. The contractual agreement that Asher submitted to Panza was updated from previous drafts created in collaboration with Arthur Alef, a lawyer who worked closely with the artist in Los Angeles to bolster the language, paragraphing, and legal structure of the contract. In addition to receiving Alef’s legal counsel, Asher researched the existence of applicable legal precedent and consulted “The Artist’s Reserved Rights Transfer and Sale Agreement” (ARRTSA), an artists’ contract written in 1971 by New York lawyer Robert Projanski and the curator and writer Seth Siegelaub. Asher had become aware of the Projansky and Siegelaub contract through its initial distribution, underwritten by the School of Visual Arts in New York, and made available as an insert in the April 1971 issue of Art News. Asher also grew familiar with the ARRTSA contract via his participation in Documenta 5 in 1972, when the contract was reprinted in the exhibition’s catalogue. Although ARRTSA provided Asher with a legal framework from which to gauge specific economic demands and stipulations requiring artists’ consent in the transfer of their work, the contract that Asher submitted to Panza differed significantly in language, theoretical scope, and organizational structure.
Projansky and Siegelaub wrote ARRTSA with the intention that the document would service negotiations between conflicting parties, representing the interests of artists as well as those of dealers, collectors, and museum administrators. In contrast to Siegelaub and Projansky’s contract, which was written without aiming to represent any one particular artist and their work, the Varese contract issued a series of demands that only Asher himself could make because they were interdependently related to his proposed installation. The eight-page contract submitted to Panza for signature in 1975 reflects the scope of understanding Asher possessed even then for his work, and it articulates a number of complex, at times opaque, provisions that were aimed at protecting Asher’s interests in proposing the installation. Asher’s contract for the Varese commission describes a number of explicit conditions that were to be met by Panza. For example: a detailed fee structure demands compensation for the artist’s labor in excess of the materials produced for the project (paragraph 6.1); a provision requires that all drawings, descriptions, and ephemera of the work remain the sole property of the artist (paragraph 7); and one section requests that Panza recognize the extent to which the commissioned work might be “developed further” in future works by the artist (paragraph 9).
The contract also specifies that if the Varese installation were going to be transferred to another site (e.g., for the purposes of exhibition or sale), it would first need to be completely dismantled by the owner and then reconstructed by the artist for the particular context of that subsequent site. Asher’s work is contingent on its display, thus by deciding to move the installation, Panza agreed that the installation work for Varese would cease to exist. As a result of this possible scenario, Panza would then become responsible for initiating the creation of a new work by Asher.
A Close Reading of Michael Asher’s Contract as Submitted to Giuseppe Panza in 1975
Asher’s contractual agreement provides a number of specific points from which to ascertain the particular interests of the artist in proposing works that were to remain “outside of the conventions of relocation or adaptation.” Contained within paragraph five of the contract, Asher articulates a sequence of potential circumstances that offer particular insights into this aspect of his practice:
The artist agrees that the Installation Work may be moved by reconstructing it at a new and different site, provided that it is first completely dismantled and rendered unrecognizable at its prior site. Without assuming any obligations to do so, the artist will favorably consider any request by the owner to recertify the authenticity of the moved Work, provided that the parties agree in advance for compensation and expenses to the artist to visit and inspect the moved work. Except for removals expressly authorized by this paragraph, the owner shall have no rights to duplicate any of the Installation Work or any of the materials which may be furnished him by the artist in connection with the Installation Work.
Paragraph five begins by stipulating that the commissioned installation may be moved to a different site (e.g. transferred to a different exhibition venue), provided that it is first dismantled at its prior site. This progression, whereby the installation is first dismantled “at its prior site,” and then reconstructed at a “new and different site,” raises the possibility of perpetual succession, and provides a method by which the work may be “developed further” at a different site, and at a different time. The temporal dimension of Asher’s work is additionally elucidated if we consider that this particular progression of the work—the owner’s decision to have the installation reconstructed—also marks the instance when the installation must be dismantled. What Asher articulates is that there is a contractually determined period of time in which his installation must cease to exist.
Paragraph five is titled “Removal and Duplication,” yet as is frequently the case in legal agreements, this paragraph heading notifies the reader of what the provisions in the clause protect against. “Removal” and “duplication” are precisely what is not allowed for Asher’s work if its critical and aesthetic integrity is to remain intact. In her book, The Contingent Object of Contemporary Art, art historian Martha Buskirk states that Asher’s contract “included provisions tightly limiting and controlling the circumstances under which the work could be reconceived for another site.” Buskirk’s strong rhetoric (“tightly limiting” and “controlling”) would seem to infer that Asher’s contract imposed severe measures upon how his work was to be transferred, as if the terms of transfer had not derived from the work itself. Such an inference would result in a mistaken understanding of Asher’s work, and the function performed by a contract designed to articulate the specific terms for one of the artist’s installations. As is the case with all contracts, Asher’s proposed agreement for the Varese commission clearly explicates what is already at stake, namely, the proposed installation. The contract does not vary those terms offered by Asher that are based upon the installation; as a work that is site and context specific—situational specific—the installation may not be transferred in a way whereby the particular interests of that work are undone. The contractual demands, then, do not limit and control the circumstances under which the work could be reconceived for another site, just as the contractual demands do not create the terms already set forth by the work. Rather, the contractual demands pronounce the terms provided by the work itself.
Paragraph six of Asher’s proposed contractual agreement to Panza details fee structures for compensating the artist for “basic services” detailed in two earlier paragraphs of the contract. The fee structure allocates a total sum so that one-third of the total was paid upon signing of the contract. The remainder of the total was then paid to the artist “on the first day of each month commencing on the first day of the month following the execution of this agreement and continuing until the full amount has been paid.” The format of Asher’s fee structure, as a successive monthly stipend, reiterates the artist’s temporally specific practice. To understand how the idea of the fee structure is put in context to Asher’s practice, we must understand how closely tethered the fee structure for Varese was to Asher’s situational specific methodology, by looking to the two paragraphs (3.1 and 3.2) that detail what Asher terms, “basic services.” Paragraph 3.1, and continuing into paragraph 3.2 of the contract, explains the process by which the artist would produce an “outline” and “final design” for the commissioned work:
During the term of this agreement artist will furnish owner in such form as artist may select (whether by verbal or written description, or by preliminary sketch, or otherwise) an outline of the Installation Work.” (…) “The artist shall prepare from the approved outline drawings and specifications setting forth the final design of the Installation Work in sufficient detail to permit its construction.
Reading these the two paragraphs in relation to the fee structure, it would seem to be a straightforward matter in which the artist is compensated for producing an outline and final design (i.e. “preliminary sketches,” “written description,” “drawings,” and “specifications”) for the commissioned installation. However, if we cross-reference these two paragraphs with paragraph seven of the contract, we are reminded that this seemingly straightforward provision is complicated by the artist’s situational specific working method, registering the full extent of Asher’s economic demands:
All drawings, descriptions and specifications are and shall remain the property of the artist, whether or not the Installation Work for which they are made is executed. They are not to be used by the owner or published or displayed by him for any purposes other than the execution of the Installation Work at its original site and for any removal of that design in accordance with the provisions of this agreement.
Applied to paragraphs 3.1, 3.2, and 6, this later provision stated in paragraph seven of the contract is used to indicate clearly that compensation for the production of “preliminary sketches,” “written description,” “drawings,” and “specifications” pertaining to the installation, does not result in Panza’s ownership of these particular documents. Compensation detailed in the fee structure is instead provided exclusively for the artist’s labor (and incidental cost of materials) in producing the documents. Thus, the writing in these paragraphs evidences Asher’s intent to avoid engaging in the sale of objects that may be transferred within the speculative art market. What Asher distinguishes through his contract is an economic system of services, from one of vendible goods for speculation. Asher’s economic demands pose a concrete confrontation with expectations for how the artist is meant to circulate their work in the market: demanding the substitution of an economy that is far less viable from the perspective of the speculative market for another one that has been established as being far more lucrative from that perspective.
Asher’s contract set conditions on himself and on the addressee. Contracts are always demanding, yet they are not demanding solely because they ask for monies. Asher’s contract is grounded in concrete demands as much as it is engaged in articulating analytic propositions. Followed only by a short statement concerning arbitration and the lines for signature, paragraph nine serves as a kind of “outro” by Asher, presenting unexpected outpourings just as the contract draws to its close:
The agreement by the artist to design one Installation Work under this agreement shall not in any way affect or diminish the right of the artist to design other works for himself or other clients. The owner recognizes that this work is a portion of the artist’s lifetime work; it is developed in some sense from previous works that the artist has done, and it may in turn be developed further by subsequent works of the artist. The owner is familiar with the earlier works of the artist. The artist cannot assure the owner that the work to be developed under this agreement will be similar to his earlier works, nor can he assure owner that his later works will be dissimilar from the work developed under this agreement. However, while later works may be similar, they will not be the same as the work developed under this agreement.
Paragraph nine of Asher’s contract offers one of the more intriguing passages of the contract, as it attempts to account for “other works by the artist,” and encapsulates a statement requesting that Panza recognize the extent to which the commissioned work may be “developed further” in subsequent works by the artist. In carefully reading Asher’s contract, one gets the sense that it was authored by someone who felt a profound need to extend protections beyond a known point. The contract articulates the multitude of things that can go wrong in the process being undertaken, and imagines the contingent ways and times in which the artist and his interests might come under threat and/or can be subtly undermined. The result is an agreement, which from a legislative imperative, can be opaque, and at times vague.
The contract states that Panza wishes to have Asher authenticate the work (1.2), but the contract clearly states that Panza will have to take additional steps for authentication to take place, and that even if Panza does so, authentication still might not take place (3.3). The contract states that the work will be designed over a period of not more than one month (2) but then goes on to explain that payment will take place over the course of 2 months (6.1). Additionally, the contract lists due dates for Asher but when explaining that Panza needs to provide Asher with information about the site, the contract only states that this must be done “promptly” (4.1).
It is because of these specific conditions on himself, and less specific conditions on the addressee (i.e. Giuseppe Panza), that Asher’s contract could have been misconstrued broadly. These areas of vagueness read as hesitations, as though the author, Asher, can’t quite believe he is actually going to declare the issues that are at stake in realizing his particular artistic interests. At the same time, Asher’s contract hits upon many of the areas that are addressed by consignment contracts today. For example, many of the law review articles dealing with the Visual Rights Act discuss issues of removal and duplication of site-specific work. Part of the mystery surrounding Asher’s contract may in fact be that it was one of the first attempts to write a kind of contract that was only later seen as needed.
What Asher’s contract lacks at times in legal precision it makes up for in scope of understanding—mapping out the areas that explore the full boundaries of the issue, and the major themes that constitute the landscape of its contention. One might surmise that this is what Asher meant when he said he kept the contract as a “tool” to recurrently refer to and prepare him for later discussions. The document shows an understanding, by an artist, of the efforts which surround him and his work, and which can/do impact both him and the work. Asher is keenly aware, indeed he does not want to pretend that he is unaware while he is engaged in creating works that more closely bind him to the surrounding efforts of his work, as he attempts to intervene in and articulate art world protocols of reception and consumption. After reading Asher’s contract, one might not be surprised that Panza was unwilling to sign it. Contracts carry with them the risk of defeat, and the Varese commission was never realized. That the contract may not be completed or performed as the parties intended, is a risk that Asher has come to know well. In fact, his contract has yet never been signed—not by any collector, dealer, or museum administrator, over the course of Asher’s more than forty-years of work.