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    Michael Asher, 69, conceptual artist, educator

    Students in Mr. Asher’s metal and wooden stud exhibit at Santa Monica’s Museum of Art.
    Students in Mr. Asher’s metal and wooden stud exhibit at Santa Monica’s Museum of Art.

    NEW YORK — Michael Asher, a dean of the conceptual art movement whose cerebral but playful work specialized in dismantling — often literally — the institutions that show art and shape the way people think about it, died Sunday at his home in Los Angeles at 69.

    His death was announced by Thomas Lawson, the dean of the art school at the California Institute of the Arts, where Mr. Asher taught for more than 30 years, earning a reputation as one of the most dynamic art educators of his generation and deeply influencing many younger artists. The death was attributed to a long illness.

    Mr. Asher came of age in the 1960s with a wave of revolutionaries like Joseph Kosuth, Marcel Broodthaers, Hans Haacke, and Dan Graham, who worked to push art more fully into the realm of ideas and acts and away from objects.


    Mr. Asher’s approach, which came to be called institutional critique, focused on the web of underlying and often hidden conventions that surrounded art and how art was viewed, valued, and used in society.


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    One of his first works, at the San Francisco Art Institute in 1969, involved rearranging the movable interior walls used for exhibitions, but leaving the walls empty to make evident that while the walls ‘‘appear to be architectural surfaces,’’ as he wrote, ‘‘they are really planar objects.’’

    That same year at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York, he concealed a blower above a door to create a slab of air that visitors passed through when they moved from one gallery to the next.

    More dramatically, in 1970 at Pomona College, he created a work by reconfiguring a gallery and then leaving it open, without a door, 24 hours a day, introducing light and the noise of the street into the gallery as experiential elements. A well-known 1999 work was simply a booklet listing every art object that had been sold or traded by the Museum of Modern Art in New York since its founding.

    If Duchamp’s work exploded the definition of art by insisting that it depended on context, Mr. Asher’s used context as raw material. In doing so, his installations and interventions, like those of Robert Irwin, a fellow Angeleno, sought to use art to awaken people’s perceptions to the complex, subtle, often unexpectedly beautiful nature of their everyday visual landscape.


    ‘‘Asher doesn’t merely grant privilege to the art idea over the art object,’’ wrote Christopher Knight, art critic for The Los Angeles Times, about a 2008 show at the Santa Monica Museum of Art, in which Mr. Asher reconstituted the bare aluminum studs for the walls built for all 44 previous exhibitions. ‘‘Instead he embraces experience as fundamental to a meaningful work of art.’’

    As a teacher, Mr. Asher became renowned for a kind of endurance performance art in the classroom — marathon critique sessions that often went deep into the night. Writing on Tuesday on his blog, Sergio Munoz Sarmiento, who studied with Mr. Asher, recalled one class that began at 2 p.m. and ended nearly 12 hours later.

    ‘‘This was not a rare event,’’ he added. ‘‘Michael was prone to showing us films and having us read articles or chapters, in their entirety, during class. No material would go unexamined, no thought left unprobed, no stone unturned.’’

    Michael Max Asher was born into an art-world family in Los Angeles. His mother was the noted collector, curator, and dealer Betty Asher, an early proponent of pop art painting. Mr. Asher studied at the University of California, Irvine, and began teaching at the California Institute of the Arts in the early 1970s, along with other influential artist-professors like John Baldessari, Judy Chicago, and Allan Kaprow.

    Like the work of many conceptual artists, Mr. Asher’s suffered, by its nature, in being underrepresented in museums. But Mr. Asher, who pushed the bounds of objectlessness to its extreme, was a special case. His pieces were always site-specific; they were always temporary, with whatever was made or moved for them being destroyed or put back after the exhibitions; and they were not salable, in the conventional conception of the word. (In the early 1970s, Mr. Asher devised a contract under which he was paid fees for his labor and materials instead of for the work itself.)


    In 2010, Mr. Asher won the Whitney Museum’s Bucksbaum Award, a $100,000 prize given to an artist whose work is included in the museum’s biennial. Mr. Asher’s piece for that year’s biennial was characteristic in its deceptive simplicity: to leave the museum open 24 hours a day for a week during the run of the biennial, a fitting accommodation to a city around it that never sleeps.

    Like many of the ideas that were Mr. Asher’s canvases and his clay, this one ended up showing art’s intersection with the real world: For budgetary reasons the museum was able to stay open around the clock for only three days.