In Review: Benjamin Buchloh’s Formalism and Historicity, Part I

This is the first part of the review of Benjamin H.D. Buchloh's Formalism and Historicity: Models and Methods in Twentieth-Century Art. The second part and conclusion are, respectively, here and here.)

In the visual arts, ideology critique remains a common, albeit no longer quite hegemonic, approach to grasping how an artwork is situated politically in a capitalist context. This negative strategy enacts a disenchantment of the world, by revealing the falsity of an artwork’s putative independence – a bourgeois concept – from that broader world. Such critique highlights both how an artwork’s form and content are structured by the economic mode of production; and how an artwork can serve, in turn, to reproduce that mode’s material, political, and ideological foundations.

Ideology critique insistently and specifically prioritizes the dominant, institutional frame in which an artwork functions and has meaning – or is even visible in the first place. That background frame can be more micro-level: the global artworld system, dedicated to the circulation of art; its museums, alternative spaces, private galleries, festivals, auction houses, and wealthy collectors; and the integration of this entire apparatus with the fashion industry, mass media, real estate development, and architecture and design. That background can also be more macro-level, namely the totality of capitalist relations. 

This approach to art and politics may sound good at first but is still narrow and not-uncontroversial, whether in terms of the past or of 2015. 

First, there is the realm of being, that-which-is; included here is the institutional, capitalist frame. Second, and conversely, there is a realm of non-being, that-which-is-not; included here is a necessarily illusory, imagined world in which, capitalism has been overthrown. Third, there is a realm of becoming; included here are the actually-existing political movements – with their shifting victories and defeats and incomplete character – against capitalism’s myriad oppressions. The tradition of Ideology critique, with its relentless, analytical centrality of the realm of being, can strongly displace effective recognition of the realms of non-being or becoming. 

As is better understood today, this displacement is a problem in terms of fighting for a new, post-capitalist world. If we cannot even envision, in creative artworks or the imagination, a new situation, that-which-is-not, then we are certainly less likely to fight for it in practice. Red Wedge editor Adam Turl, in discussions of art and the spiritual, has addressed some implications of this conundrum.

Margaret Thatcher and friends

For example, in the 1970s the UK’s Conservative Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher infamously claimed “There Is No Alternative” to capitalism (TINA). In this respect, she was quite successful. Current difficulties in even envisioning a new, genuinely socialist alternative are a result of this neoliberal, ideological offensive; and of the late-1980s / early-1990s collapse of “really-existing socialism,” in the Soviet Union, eastern Europe, and elsewhere. The idea that no alternative is possible is a powerful factor in the weakening of revolutionary, anti-capitalist tendencies over the past three-plus decades.

The critic Benjamin H.D. Buchloh, long associated with the theoretical journal October, is among the most influential in this tradition. Examining his work is a requirement for examining ideology critique, its historical determinants, and its ultimate political valences. The MIT Press released in February a second compilation of his key writings, Formalism and Historicity: Models and Methods in Twentieth-Century Art

Buchloh grew up during the Cold War era in the Federal Republic of Germany (FRG), then known as “west” Germany. Beginning in the 1970s, Buchloh became prominent in the U.S. in debates around art, partly through certain essays in this recent, and an earlier, volume. He is now Andrew W. Mellon Professor of Modern Art at Harvard University’s Department of History of Art and Architecture and has contributed to canonical works such as Art Since 1900: Modernism, Antimodernism, Postmodernism, written with October co-editors Hal Foster, Rosalind Krauss, and Yve-Alain Bois.

The twelve selections in Formalism and Historicity were originally published from 1977 through 1996 and discuss mostly general artistic questions and tendencies, such as conceptualism, appropriation art, and Soviet factography. Neo-Avantgarde and Culture Industry: Essays on European and American Art from 1955 to 1975, Buchloh’s last compilation released in 2000, covered roughly the same years of original publication, 1977 through 2000; and featured monographic essays on individual artists.

The long, fifteen-year gap between the two books is elliptically addressed by the Acknowledgments. Buchloh describes the collected writings in Formalism and Historicity as having “obsolete aspirations” (xii) and “antiquated hopes” (xii); and states that he initially could “not figure out how to justify [their] republication” (xi). Notably, Buchloh exhibited no such reticence in his introductory commentary to Neo-Avantgarde and Culture Industry. (Moreover, most after-the-fact updates are minor and made only for the purposes of consistency.)

The immense political shifts which arose post-2000 are not made explicit here: the 2001 al-Qaeda attacks in the U.S.; imperialist war drives against Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, Syria, and elsewhere; continuing disintegration of US power, particularly in the Middle East and Latin America; the 2007 global financial downturn, the worst systemic crisis of the capitalist system since the Great Depression of the 1930s; ongoing austerity and anti-working-class assaults; and Occupy in the U.S., the European Squares movement, and the Arab Spring.

This is not surprising. Contemporary politics – as conceived by left militants – only infrequently appear in Buchloh’s texts. (Conversely, various historical forms do, such as the early, Bolshevik revolutionary process.) He never seemed proficient at grasping what was occurring on the ground, in terms of the US mass movements, and integrating that into theoretical work on art. 

Despite the Acknowledgments’ oblique skepticism, ideology critique’s amazing persistence today means that pieces in Formalism and Historicity have continuing relevance. In this review, I will focus on one instance in which contemporaneous politics are absent – to baleful effect, in Buchloh’s interpretations of photographer Nan Goldin’s work. I will then focus on two instances in which contemporaneous politics do make an unusual showing: in considerations of Daniel Buren and of neoexpressionist painting. When these latter political backgrounds burst through the texts’ surface, they suggest a great deal about the historical determinants in which ideology critique has genuine political valences; and by extension whether those valences are still really active today. 

Nan Goldin
Cookie at Tin Pan Alley, NYC, 1983
20 X 24 inches

From the 1994 “Residual Resemblance: Three Notes on the Ends of Portraiture,” this is Buchloh’s cack-handed take on Nan Goldin:

Goldin’s seemingly radical work [is] a typical example of recent victim photography, even though it claims to build an archive of the ‘Other,’ to give voice and representation to those who had been traditionally marginalized from the field of the image. In spite of the work’s ostentatiously declared solidarity, and in spite of all tokens of a private bond between photographer and sitters, the work ultimately merely delivers these images of the ‘Other’ to the panoptic impulses of social taxonomy and control and to the voyeuristic desires of its clientele, the collectors, and the institutions. (501) 

The associated image in the book is the portrait Cookie at Tin Pan Alley, NYC (1983). Cookie Mueller was, in 1983, a writer in New York City and underground actress in John Waters’ films; she would die from AIDS in 1989. 

Relentlessly prioritized here is the role of the establishment – “institutions,” “clientele,” “collectors” – and artworks’ meanings therein. Absent is any broader, oppositional context, outside these institutions, which could give very different meanings to Goldin’s work. Relevant to the subjects of these works are the era’s political movements – women’s, AIDS, transgender, queer, and others. Those strove, however contentiously, to precisely “give voice and representation to … [the] traditionally marginalized.” These struggles were collective and hardly reducible to a “private bond” or relation between two individuals such as “photographer” and “sitter.” Further, these politics were more than a simple “declar[ation],” but mobilized tens of thousands as an on-the-ground, material force. 

Nan Goldin
Misty and Jimmy Paulette in a Taxi, NYC, 1991
Color photograph, Cibachrome print, on paper mounted onto board
27 1/2 X 40 inches

Without recognition of this context, any representation of marginalized peoples – definitionally outside of Buchloh’s preferred institutional frame, even as their “image” appears there – becomes definitionally an “Other[ing],” a “panoptic” mechanism, or a “voyeuris[m].” In this archly structuralist theory, no political space exists from which these dominant meanings can be contested. The state of the situation, to use Alain Badiou’s formulation, simply repeats, and no new element is ever presented. This is but one problem with ideology critique.

Turning to moments in which political struggles are rendered explicit: one instance occurs in the 1977 essay from which the book gets its title, amidst a discussion of French artist Daniel Buren. With other key artists of that period, Buren, as Buchloh puts it, “systematically investigate[d] the historical conditions determining the production and reception of art, its modes of fabrication and distribution, and its principles of installation and display” (48).

Of “production” or “fabrication”: By 1966 Buren had solidified the visual format that his practice would manifest for years afterwards – alternating bands, each approximately 8.7 centimeters wide, of white and one, other color on a flat surface. These works were not hand-painted, aside from minimal interventions in his early years: mediums were prefabricated and commercially available, such as awning canvas; and the artist usually purchased them by the yard. Colors were not selected to signify, and no name or signature appeared. Buren’s visuals emanated a sense of the quotidian.

aniel Buren
Affichage sauvage, Paris, April 1968
Imprinted paper with white and green stripes

Of “distribution” or “reception”: In April, 1968, more than 200 green-and-white, rectangular sheets of paper in his standardized format were pasted, overnight, by Buren on billboards and advertising spaces around Paris. These unannounced, anonymous works stood completely outside conventional institutions, such as museums or galleries, and essentially became part of the urban fabric. Unlike the “white cube’s” fixed, homogenous space, the exhibition contexts of these works were variable. No explanations, akin to a museum descriptive wall-texts, were provided. All of this, and their material properties, made Buren’s in-situ affichages less “paintings” and more a signifier of painting – one that would have barely registered as “art” with passers-by. 

Buren polemicized, in February, 1968:

I believe we the only ones to be able to claim the right of being ‘looked at,’ in the sense that we are the only ones to present a thing which has no didactic intention, which does not provide ‘dreams,’ which is not a ‘stimulant.’ Each individual can dream himself and without doubt much better than by the trickery of an artist, however great he may be. The artist appeals to laziness, his function is emollient. He is ‘beautiful’ for others, ‘talented’ for others, ‘ingenious’ for others, which is a scornful or superior way of considering ‘others’ .... Perhaps the only thing that one can do after having seen a canvas like ours is total revolution. (53-54)

Accentuated here are less the institutional non/relations of his coeval work – i.e., the Paris street posters – and more their formal properties. As simple, neutral stripes on a piece of paper, these everyday objects are legitimate things to be “looked at,” since they have no “didactic intention”; provide no “dreams” or “stimulant”; and do not act – as “beautiful,” et al – “for others.” 

Daniel Buren
Photo-souvenir: Peinture-Sculpture (Painting-Sculpture), 1971
Work in situ

Conversely, Buren would later use these formal means to overtly interrogate, to a greater degree, the institutional artworld’s “historical[ly]” determined norms. One example is his ultimately censored, 1971 installation in the Guggenheim Museum’s open rotunda. That was only after the apogee of the 1960s, however. 

The political valence is unmistakable in Buren’s statement. Mere months later were the May events in France, triggered by the student occupation of the Sorbonne in Paris and which almost toppled the Charles de Gaulle regime. Internationally, 1968 was punctuated by numerous upheavals: the National Liberation Front’s Tet offensive, which turned the tide against US occupation forces in South Vietnam; the Prague Spring and popular resistance to the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia; student uprisings in the U.S., Mexico, and elsewhere; and black community rebellions following the assassination of black civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr.; to name but a few. The aftershocks of the political sequence that opened in 1968 lasted, certainly in the U.S., well into the twenty-first century.

The traditional, creative interventions of the artist are mooted by the (brief) possibilities that come into being during the May ’68 events in France. For the millions then on the streets, on strike, occupying factories and campuses, and debating politics and a vision of a new society, “[e]ach individual can dream himself [sic].” (Concretized here is an ideal, the collapse of art into everyday life, which is so signal in twentieth century revolutionary processes.) Importantly, the role of the artworld apparatus is also mooted. There is no critical perspective on that world; nor, indeed, any relation at all, positive or negative. A complete subtraction from that world flowed from May ‘68’s utterly transformative character.

De Gaulle’s riposte to those millions was to secretly visit French generals based in the FRG and prepare for armed suppression of the rebels; organize mass demonstrations in support of the regime, from those elements which most feared revolution; and call for new, June elections, which he ultimately won. The ruling class successfully restabilized France in their favor.

In assessing Buren, Buchloh does not distinguish between, on the one hand, 1968’s immediate, strategic conjuncture and its subtractions; and, on the other hand, its rapid neutralization by the Gaullist reaction. Those two “moments” are not the same: the latter “defeat” would give rise to the “long march through the institutions” and an emphasis on transforming said institutions. Buchloh, instead, understands – I think incorrectly – Buren’s form of ideology critique as fundamentally arising from, and consistent with, May ’68 itself. This elides the difference between the February project, of which Affichage sauvage (April, 1968) is one artifact, and the 1971 Guggenheim installation.

In the next part of this review, forthcoming, I will examine a second instance in Formalism and Historicity in which political struggles are made explicit. This occurs in one of Buchloh’s most prominent essays, “Figures of Authority, Ciphers of Regression: Notes on the Return of Representation in European Painting.”


  • Buchloh, Benjamin H.D. Formalism and Historicity: Models and Methods in Twentieth-Century Art (October Books). Cambridge, Massachusetts and London, England: The MIT Press, 2015. Print.

Paul Mullan is an activist and writer living in Houston, Texas, whose work has appeared in Red Wedge, The Great God Pan is Dead and Marx and Philosophy Review of Books. Paul also blogs for Red Wedge at "Conditions" and can be reached at

    The condition of art sutured to the condition of politics. A blog by Red Wedge writer Paul Mullan.