Dan Asher

Cleveland, Ohio USA 1947 - New York, NY USA 2010

To describe the drawings that Dan Asher has been making since the early nineties is a precarious matter. What can words add to these indefinable, airy structures in ballpoint pen that seem scarcely willing to touch the paper? The loose patterns of moving, restless lines, but also the elongated lines that look like wires, are composed of minuscule points and tugs, which tell one that the pen has been put to the paper time after time. The paper remains largely empty; at most, the fragile lines, thin and thinner, culminate in meticulously executed, dense areas that have something vaguely recognizable in them, a suggestion of a head or a nameless flying creature. But any possible association is immediately destroyed by the realization that interpretations are not intended and are therefore pointless. The work is quickly overwhelmed by explanation; it is too minimal for words.

A general impression will have to suffice here.

The drawings are shy and reticent. Their physical presence does not take one by surprise; their frugality could even make one consider them unfinished, or even worse, doubt their status as a work of art. This dilemma is characteristic of Asher’s drawing manner. Is there really so little or is the viewer missing something? Are they indeed drawings? And what is Asher after?

In an attempt to orient oneself to the works, a strong affinity to writing can be discerned. Drawing after drawing is furnished with a single notation, nearly always starting at the same point in the upper area of the paper. This way of working is, to a certain extent, similar to the act of jotting down a thought; the action coincides with the result. Writing is equivalent to recording. The work of Dan Asher is also determined by the action, which is carried out quickly and directly. This applies to the drawings as well as to the sculptures, which are also kneaded from clay or wax in a single action.

Asher himself stresses the direct, intuitive and almost automatic generative process of his work, which seems to take its own, occasionally rapid course. He himself professes to be capable of executing paintings that are two or three meters high within ten or fifteen minutes. There is nothing staged or contrived about his work. There is a direct dialogue between thinking and doing, and the path taken by the hand remains visible and uncorrected.

In art history, such an intimate alliance of mind and hand was long considered the singular domain of the drawing. Drawings, traditionally done as sketches or preparatory studies for the most part, were regarded as being the direct reflection of the artist’s mental activity. They moreover contained the distinct magic of the ‘sprezzatura’, the handwriting of the artist. From the eighteenth century onward, drawings were appreciated more and more for these qualities, sometimes above and beyond the more craftsmanly end result of the painting. The magic of the ‘sprezzatura’, with its claim to virtuosity, does not happen to be a concern of Dan Asher’s. On the contrary, his drawings seem to want to look as though they could be made by anyone. But in their sparse materiality and their emphasis on directness and intuition, these drawings are exemplary from that classical standpoint.

What remains is the matter of Asher’s objective and the nature of the role that he grants his viewer. The drawings do not allude to himself as an individual or to observations beyond. They actually seem to deal with nothing at all. At most they refer, in their primitive, deliberately non-artistic guise, to a primary creative potential in the human being. Or, as Asher himself says, ‘There are things which have existed for thousands of years and which are of fundamental importance for life. We tend, however, to forget those things.’

These underlying, yet scarcely pronounced considerations do not function as an explanation for the work itself. Asher practically denies the viewer the opportunity for a direct interpretation. His drawings have no past, no message, no definite intention. The moment of origin makes up their entire essence; that alone is their content. Asher gives the eye little grip and thereby also rids it of as much ballast as possible. By doing so, he invites uninhibited observation.

These aspects link the drawings to the video works and the photographs of people on the street, musicians, the blind and the homeless, which Asher, originally trained as an anthropologist and sociologist, has been producing since the seventies. In one of the video works the camera follows, in a single shot of several minutes, the actions of a woman in a doorway. With a certain perseverance, she carries out a series of indefinable actions with a plastic bag. Passersby take no notice of her. There is nothing moralistic about Asher’s concentration on a usually neglected scene. He simply registers, directly and without contrivance, and allows us to look, without prejudice or inhibition.


March 1995