Formalism and Historicity: Models and Methods in Twentieth-Century Art
by Benjamin H.D.Buchloh
The MIT Press, London, UK, 2015
584 pp., illus. 114 b/w. Trade, £34.95
Reviewed by Ana Peraica, PhD
Formalism and Historicity Models and Methods in Twentieth-Century Art is a reader by October Journal writer and editor Benjamin H.D. Buchloh, consisting of previously published essays. This reader follows a previous one by the same author, Neo-Avantgarde and Culture Industry: Essays on European and American Art from 1955 to 1975 (The MIT Press, 2000). While the first collection consisted of "monographic" essays, the second reader consists of 12 journal articles chronologically ordered. Essays in the latter are analyzing European and USA art of the middle XX century, still with an important essay on influences of Soviet Modern onto that period and territories.
In an introduction, Buchloh refers to the body of his work with a critical reference to contemporary status of neo-avantgarde, diagnosing unpredictable artistic destinies of American artists as ending in business of marketing and spectacularisation, but he also asks, with no less of critical peak, important questions on the engaged art: "... can works in the present maintain any claim for political opposition and subversive radicality when they deploy the same enlightenment strategies of critical oppositionality that they had formulated at a fundamentally different historical moment" (p. XX). Buchloh is judgmental regarding the process of commodification of radical avant-garde turning it to mere gadgets.
The reader carries a title and theme of the introductory essay in which two artistic methods that influence both art and interpretation are given to mark the differences of the 'engaged' and 'indifferent' art. These are the actual discursive forces of XX century of formalism and historicism. The underlining dualism between formalism, recognizing philosophical forms and paradigms, and historicism with critique of institution frames also an art historical analysis proper in which art is still found as the instance of the first order interpreting art. By using two discourses and critically referring to institutional critique, Buchloh announces discursive and political analysis. Still, he is concentrated on (aesthetic) errors and ruptures of both methods rather than cold methodology. Buchloh merges the impossible: traditional and radical, as also he does in his choice of art, always focused on avant-garde (being it the first one or the neo). First and second avant-garde are defined by their carriers, the first one being bourgeois, while the other closer to Marxist lumpenproletariat, projecting on different existing or not social relationships, forms a fruitful base for the implementation of two analysis. Historical part of analysis in Buchloh's vision thus analyses politics and institutions being closer to historical materialism than narratology. Buchloh, in this essay from 1977, also announces audience analysis, speaking of reception of Russian avant-garde in USA, specifically in American Abstract Expressionism. In the same chapter, Buchloh asks questions of semiotics; "Which kind of information is received by which group or recipients at which particular moment?" (ibid 5). Similar is with the media analysis of the photographic image, in cardinal essays "From Faktura to Factography" (1984) and "Residual Resemblence: Three Notes on the End of Portraiture" (1994). So, implementing critical methods of visual studies before its actual development, Buchloh gives suggestions on critic of art history of the discipline, but also provides answers.
Finally, regarding the style, a serial of essays speaks on art with artists themselves, present in their own speech about art, providing a reader with feeling of "being into" an art times and scene. The voice of the author, Buchloh himself, appears in lucid comparison and superimposing of one artist against the other. Occasional sorties and analytic escapades producing a feeling of moving around the topic, not being straightforward, but rather seductive, reverberate German hermeneutics, not presenting art on the level of technical manual. Precisely for that magical style, this art history classic reader is surely to be recommended not only to art historians and art collectors but also curious literary readers, still with some knowledge in elementary movements and names of the art history in XX century.