PRINT February 2001


Benjamin H.D. Buchloh

THIS FIRST OF TWO VOLUMES collecting the art-critical writings of Benjamin H.D. Buchloh runs to more than 500 pages; its companion, already in press, will weigh in with equivalent heft. The effect, if my reading is right, will be a new revelation of an intellectual figure who is already widely recognized but curiously unassimilated within the larger verbal machinery that surrounds contemporary art. The strength of Neo-Avantgarde and Culture Industry is that it serves as an occasion not just to celebrate a career that has genuinely changed the terrain of advanced art but to contend anew with a kind of philosophical summa that has taken shape over years through widely dispersed essays and articles.

Buchloh has roughly divided the contents of these two collections into his essays centered on individual artists for volume one and those of a broader thematic character for volume two. The distinction is in some ways academic in that most of the essays in the first volume have all the intellectual reach one could desire from the genre of criticism; at the same time, this concentration at the outset on individuals is entirely appropriate in light of Buchloh’s record of prescience in identifying and championing artists who've made the greatest critical difference in altering the artistic landscape.

There is a remarkable roster of artists, of widely divergent degrees of mainstream celebrity, whom informed observers now see in a continuum of practice through and because of Buchloh’s advocacy. Michael Asher, Daniel Buren, Piero Manzoni, Niele Toroni, Dan Graham, Marcel Broodthaers, Martha Rosler, Hans Haacke, James Coleman, Jacques de la Villeglé, Stanley Brouwn, Louise Lawler, and—in fraught, long-standing engagement—Gerhard Richter: That this litany of names today registers as a coherent grouping and adds up to a case for the cultural centrality of art practice is Buchloh’s doing. And it's an ongoing process; never content to rest with an aging band of favorites, he has lately produced trenchant arguments, not included in this volume, on behalf of Raymond Pettibon and Gabriel Orozco (considering the latter's currently wide exposure, it’s now quite difficult to recall the deep, third-world obscurity in which he was laboring when Buchloh first took up his cause).

That record in itself would ordinarily be enough to ensure a critic’s stature, but there is far more at stake here than the successful handicapping of reputations. Reading again the assembled writings that accomplished this feat, one recognizes how much Buchloh’s own critical project is inseparable from those of these artists, that it comes alive only as the art itself is activated once more in the reader’s mind and memory. The all-too-familiar figure of the critic as petty sovereign, free to elevate himself above what artists can actually accomplish, is absent from these pages.

Which is not to say that his standards for serious consideration are anything but rigorous or that any but a small minority of artists will ever earn his attention. Buchloh’s stringency goes to the heart of his sense of vocation, his decision to pursue art criticism and history having been a conscious conclusion drawn from the predicaments of the arts in the late twentieth century. After formative study in literature, he could no longer find in that field the cognitive and diagnostic instruments that the current conditions of culture required. “In contrast to visual modernity,” he writes in his essay on Coleman, “literature, theater, and the cinema retained in all but the most radical instances . . . a complex network of interrelationships with the representational conventions that modernist aesthetics had set out to displace.” By contrast, visual modernity “insisted not only on its absolute break with tradition, but furthermore on its proximity to, if not congruity with, the ‘real,’ emphasizing its characteristic of immediate intervention within its parameters.”

That last phrase might benefit from a gloss, and I think that there is one at hand from a seemingly unanticipated source. In 1947, Clement Greenberg wrote, “The best visual art of our time . . . is that which comes closest to non-fiction, has least to do with illusions, and at the same time maintains and asserts itself exclusively as art.” I cannot see Buchloh dissenting from the proposition (which has a modernist pedigree going as far back as Roger Fry); indeed his occasional, scathing remarks on Greenberg’s modernism in practice demonstrate the high price that its exponents paid for their failure of nerve in not pushing this insight to its logical conclusion. Buchloh himself reaches toward that conclusion by making the latter clause dependent on the former: The best art in our time depends for its identity on that asymptotic approach to nonfiction, on its antagonism to all illusory consolations—and this can take place only in the realm of the visual arts.

This is not to say that the task remains anything but endlessly difficult and testing of an artist’s resources. The first essay in this volume, devoted to two pieces by Michael Asher, serves as an uncompromising demonstration of the above position, one in which ethics and aesthetics are inextricably combined. Asher’s interventions, staged at the two principal art museums of Chicago, managed to frame and transform each institution in its entirety, all without adding or subtracting anything from the substance of either one: Each entailed the simple displacement of a symbolic element from the building’s facade (a patriotic statue at the Art Institute and an abstract, geometric frieze at the Museum of Contemporary Art), where it was barely missed, to the interior collection, where the inauthentic intruder from the public realm assumed a paradoxically elegant appropriateness. The deft economy of each work (magnified in their combination) lay in its generation of surpluses of meaning on a scale that far outran the near-invisibility of the artist’s act. These effects allow Buchloh to advance his case against the domestication of Duchamp’s legacy; Asher’s material came ready-made, but the works themselves abjured the trite dependence on incongruity and willful artistic fiat found in standard ready-made tactics.

In that the readymade can now be as easily the occasion for meretricious spectacle as any more antique feature of high-art expressivity, Buchloh’s implicit argument is that only the most adept instances of critical art practice can revive its potential in the present. His vigilance goes hand in hand with an unblinking inquiry into the relentless industrialization of fantasy and the consequent corrosion of subjectivity initiated by imposing intellectual forebears on the order of Georg Lukács or Walter Benjamin. The difference between their circumstances and his lies in their ability still to build theory around literature and its fictions. While remaining deferential to this legacy of critical philosophy, Buchloh elevates artists—some verbally articulate, others less so—to the place once occupied by the literary/philosophical intellectual; it's now the practical dialogue of the former that one must follow in order to continue an adequate investigation of modernity. Where literary deconstruction has been forced to an insistent project of reading against the grain of its material, seeking thereby to defeat the indefeasible powers of narrative presence, Buchloh finds himself free to read with the grain of his. And in diametric context to the position of an Arthur Danto, who is pleased to regard the readymade as a concluding concession of art’s prerogatives to philosophy, Buchloh’s artists, in taking the readymade as point of departure, assume the tasks of philosophy, leaving the talkative aestheticians behind.

Not that Buchloh finds this hollowing-out of language anything but a cause for regret: In our time, as he has written, the “neo-futuristic myth of innovative forms of communication” has in fact “delivered a universally governing techno-scientific pseudo-competence as the substitute for the linguistic constitution of the self, . . . those practices and cultural institutions in which the dialectic between the imaginary and the symbolic, unfolding as the constitution of identity between the subjective and the social, had been traditionally staged.” As this lost being-in-language cannot simply be reconstituted at will, an extraordinary burden falls on the words of the critic, as he must accept the devaluation of his own tools in advance. The quotation above is typical of the abstract density that characterizes Buchloh’s own solution to this dilemma. But what distinguishes his prose from the clotted abstractions now so customary in the writing of theoretically inclined humanists is the fact that a meditated, consistent weight rests on each term; when the reader again encounters one of these words, it will mean exactly the same thing that it meant the time before (and he or she will be expected to remember). While Buchloh can be too sparing with explanatory unpacking, one soon gets the idea and finds welcome relief in his workmanlike practice (and unexpected eloquence) from the slippery, unexamined jargon that serves in the hands of others as substitute for argument.

Buchloh’s writing therefore exhibits a resistance to imprecise imagery and suggestive metaphor that parallels the salient qualities he finds in the most decisive artistic innovations of the century just past. And he assumes that artists confront demands as exacting as the requirements he places on his readers. This is to say, in light of the special cognitive weight placed on the visual arts, he assumes a responsibility to remember. Once entered into the public realm, any artistic innovation is a fact to which later practitioners will ineluctably respond, whether they do so in full knowledge of the past or in ignorance of it. In that something like comprehensive knowledge of the avant-garde system is indeed possible, he therefore can posit a real approximation of the communicative rationality that a Jürgen Habermas, building his social model on an impossible scale, must leave in a purely counterfactual condition. As Buchloh puts it in the introduction, “In spite of some extreme formulations that position aesthetic practices at the threshold of the opaque and hermetic, all aesthetic practices insist on their potential and collective legibility. In fact, I would go so far as to suggest that artistic production is in itself an integral element in defining the actual conditions of public experience, even if it is not at all evident that the ‘publicness’ of aesthetic experience is still considered a subject of general concern.”

That last remark is multiply loaded: Buchloh is evoking a process, evident since the later ’70s (the chronological end point of the book), whereby the role of the critic in the realm of art is subsumed under the promotional functions assigned to reviewers of the entertainment media, who serve largely to ratify and amplify expedient judgments already made within the productive apparatus itself. In a larger sense, this is just one of the latest instances whereby a collective failure of historical memory blocks and distorts the legibility within which a work of art has a chance to reach its full aesthetic realization.

The greatest and most dire of these erasures came with World War II: As a young West German, Buchloh found that both enlightened art criticism and informed art practice—as defined by their cognizance of the prewar legacies of Constructivism, Dada, and Surrealism—were still devastated into the ’70s, but on the heels of the otherwise leveling products of global commerce, effective substitutes were arriving from America. That recognition fueled Buchloh’s suspicion of efforts to overcome that traumatic amnesia through fantasy narratives couched in purely German terms (which has made him such a compelling countervoice to the cults surrounding Joseph Beuys and Anselm Kiefer), and it drew him, in an act of self-exile from the overhang of atavistic European nationalisms, to the New World source of those substitutes. Finding, however, an equivalent provinciality in relation to Europe, he set about, with greater success than any other figure, to break down the barriers of ignorance that blocked awareness of a Manzoni alongside a Rauschenberg or, conversely, an Asher alongside a Buren. Europeans had early on shown themselves to be discerning consumers of advanced American art, but, at the time of Buchloh’s first major interventions in the late ’70s. the traffic remained largely one-way. What reciprocal cosmopolitanism North Americans now possess owes much to his positioning himself between the two cultures.

The present volume provides an intense record of that passage as well as documents a further intellectual transformation since the mid-’80s, one on which Buchloh soberly reflects in his introduction: Beginning with work on Haacke (himself always in a hybrid German-American position) and more recently on Richter, Buchloh writes, “I have focused on the aesthetic capacity to construct the mnenomic experience as one of the few acts of resistance against the totality of spectacularization.” In his introductory remarks, he is perhaps unnecessarily harsh on his younger self for concentrating so exclusively on the tasks of institutional critique; but it is true that the early essays assume that artist and critic are in step in advancing that “critical negation” to the exclusion of other values and effects, while the later essays do not. And the gains in range and clarity are manifest, without corn promise to the principles that animate an early intervention like the Asher essay but sometimes run aground in explicating a subject, such as Broodthaers, with whom Buchloh’s ideas and values were at the time so deeply entangled that his analysis verged on becoming a tautological replica of its ambiguous object. By contrast, using to acute diagnostic effect the basic categories established in his affirmation of critical practice from the beginning of the last century—deskilling, seriality, the readymade, the monochrome, the commodity as evacuated allegorical device—he has written the single most insightful account, cutting through all the moralizing triviality, of Andy Warhol, an artist with whom he shares little beyond a common intelligence in their understanding of the power and necessity of these devices.

This expanding, exploratory range has not, however, taken over from the patient explication of artists whose work shares Buchloh’s own consciously diagnostic project: One of the latest and most incisive essays included here excavates the (until now) overlooked legacy of Robert Watts; it continues Buchloh’s long-standing campaign to acknowledge and restore the record of Fluxus practice, which has suffered occlusion at the hands not only of historians but of later Conceptual artists jealous of their claims as innovators. Despite the mass of writing included in the volume and its impending companion, Buchloh shows no sign of relaxing his vigilance against historical amnesia. As no other writer comes close to his stamina in this effort, one still on an upward trajectory, we must count ourselves fortunate to have him.


Benjamin H.D. Buchloh, Neo-Avantgarde and Culture Industry: Essays on European and American Art from 1955 to 1975 (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2001), 532 pages.