Gerhard Richter: Painting After the Subject of History, by Benjamin H. D. Buchloh. Cambridge, MA, MIT Press, 2022. 696 pages.
AT TIMES, Benjamin H. D. Buchloh seems to loathe the subject of his latest tome, Gerhard Richter: Painting After the Subject of History. Artist and critic disagree vehemently, their dialogue “confrontational enough to have made enemies under other circumstances.” Moments of outright antagonism punctuate their periodic interviews. Richter mourns the loss of painting’s artisanal quality; Buchloh responds, “You can’t be serious.”1 Richter states that exploitation is basic to human nature; Buchloh demands, “Do you really believe in what you’re saying just now?”2 In these moments, the critic’s deeply held convictions crash like waves against the obdurate rock of the artist’s self-conception. Given this dissension, how, asks the critic, can he justify his “passion for a painter . . . lasting over half a century of my life and work, when my critical and scholarly engagements were otherwise motivated, if not by disdain, then at least by indifference toward painting’s increasingly manifest obsolescence as a medium”?
Buchloh has long struggled with the apparent decrepitude of his profession. The more completely the art world becomes synonymous with the art market, the less it needs thoughtful interpretation: “You don’t have criticism of blue chip stocks either.”3 Today, the very forms of artistic subversiveness that once seemed to promise “the utopian transformation of bourgeois society” have become just another source of wealth and status. In the absence of “criteria, of judgment, of a commitment to history or anything whatsoever,” criticism cedes to the market its evaluative function.4 Buchloh accordingly asks, What role can a critic like him play in this world? Is he merely obsolete? Or does his struggle to understand challenging new work constitute a last vestige of genuine reflectiveness?
These questions point to what makes Buchloh’s new book so vital. For if the author is to manifest the continuing necessity of criticism, how better than through a fifty-year debate with so formidable an artist as Richter? Whatever hope we have of understanding what criticism can mean today, we should find it there. And, indeed, it is when the author states the reasons for the artist’s muddled self-conception that he most explicitly demonstrates the crux of his method: his insistence that critical evaluation hinges on precise historical analysis.
Buchloh explains why Richter misunderstands his own project by tracing the artist’s views to his historical circumstances: raised under National Socialism, trained in postfascist East Germany, and reborn in the capitalist West. The critic interprets the painter’s apparent conservatism as a symptom of this biographical trajectory. First, Richter rejected the East’s “grandiloquent delusions” and its compulsory aesthetic mode, socialist realism. Second, he challenged the West’s “repression and disavowal” of Germany’s recent barbarity and its art world’s (effectively) compulsory misappropriation of the international avant-garde, which he recognized as a strategy to avoid facing the nation’s recent past. In both places, artistic culture denied that aesthetic work could or should reckon with its complicity in fascist crimes. Instead, the East resuscitated the outmoded utopianism of a destroyed Left while the West embraced the international (mostly American) turn to abstraction, one that, in its prohibition of figuration, all too conveniently renounced the mode of painting most capable of confronting the German public with what they desperately sought to repress.
Richter thus faced a dilemma unique to his historical situation: How to join a recognizably avant-garde tradition using forms of figuration that, across the Atlantic, already seemed unthinkably conservative? Most troublesome to Buchloh were the artist’s artisanally crafted paintings after family photographs. Was Richter’s portrait of his wife Ema (Nude on a Staircase), 1966, an attempt to recuperate the kinds of painterly skills and eroticized nudes that Buchloh detests? Or was this very ickiness a means of resistance against an internationalist avant-garde dogmatically committed to artistic positions (the renunciation of painting’s representational function) inadequate to the specific contradictions of postwar German culture?
Buchloh asks versions of these questions again and again throughout the book, their power suggested even before one cracks its spine. The subtitle, Painting After the Subject of History, plausibly captures two possibilities—its ambiguous vocabulary holding them in irresolvable opposition. To start, the “subject” of a painting can mean the thing that it depicts, what it is about, its subject matter. For instance, Buchloh describes Uncle Rudi, 1965—a painted copy of a photograph portraying the artist’s uncle wearing his Nazi uniform and smiling at the camera—as depicting a “heretofore unrepresentable subject of history.” That is, because postwar German society refused to remember its recent crimes, only Richter’s apparently conservative, meticulous technique and the “obsolete” genre of portraiture could force the beholder to confront its subject face to grinning face.
Whatever hope we have of understanding what criticism can mean today, we should find it there.
But “subject” also refers to a specific way of conceiving personhood as free, rational, and unique—the “subject” in subjectivity. Writing in the tradition of critical theory, Buchloh takes it as axiomatic that the twentieth century invalidated this understanding. The subject was crushed between two pincers. First, the uniformed bureaucrats of German fascism wreaked industrial-scale slaughter, attempting to strip their victims of personal subjectivity and themselves becoming impersonal instruments of mass murder. Second, the postwar culture industry converted all citizens to replaceable human capital and fungible consumers. In the process, the last traces of private experience (dreams, sex, etc.) were replaced by mass-produced simulations, delivered as entertainment and consumed as commodities. Given this condition, how could Richter credibly take the subject as his subject?
But the ambiguity does not end there, for these two meanings of subject jostle against two meanings of after. On the one hand, it can be the after in “chasing after,” Richter hunting the subject as evasive prey. Evasive because doubly prohibited: proscribed by an official reconstruction culture intent on repressing historical memory and by the avant-garde inheritance of “publicly contesting, and eventually denying, painting’s ability to represent historical experience altogether.” That is, skillfully rendered, immediately legible figuration was deemed so inherently regressive that no subject, no matter how apparently critical or subversive, could escape its reactionary gravity.
Painting After the Subject of History might then indicate Richter’s refusal to let go, his enduring belief in history’s representability. His 1988 series “October 18, 1977,” for instance, consists of paintings “after photographs” depicting dead leftist revolutionaries. The artfulness of his technique undermines the alleged veracity of photographic documentation, foregrounding the selective conventions of police evidence—asserting in the negative the continued validity, if not the necessity, of painting’s commemorative function.
Yet after can also mean “afterward,” not in pursuit but in the aftermath—as in Theodor Adorno’s declaration, a touchstone for Buchloh, that “to write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric.” Thus the author interprets Richter’s Atlas (an ongoing accumulation of apparently random photographs) as allegorizing “the politically enforced elimination of subjectivity” and its discredited concepts of personal freedom and public solidarity. Likewise with Richter’s 1971 plaster portraits of himself and Blinky Palermo, cast like death masks and positioned on facing plinths—the room entombing any belief in the artist as “exemplary subject, as the one who enacts the process of commemoration in lieu of the social collective at large, [which] was for Richter a profoundly dubious assignment.”
In rehearsing Buchloh’s arguments, I have given some examples of his underlying method, one that derives critical evaluation from historical analysis. Crudely speaking, he proceeds in three steps: First, uncover an artistic contradiction (Richter’s simultaneous resuscitation of the subject as subject matter and his apparent acknowledgment of the subject’s irretrievable loss). Second, locate it in a wider historical matrix (Germany’s repression of and haunting by its past). Third, judge the artist’s success or failure to align these aesthetic and social contradictions. This approach allows him to sidestep Richter’s avowed explanations of his project, treating them as no less complexly historical than his works.
On its own, this tactic would be compelling but incomplete. What makes Buchloh’s approach so challenging, however, is that he subjects himself—his own statements and beliefs—to the same historical scrutiny. Even as he forcefully advocates his strongly held positions, he relates them to his own biographical circumstances. Here is what I take to be the book’s most revealing paragraph:
One productive opposition which undoubtedly contributed to the longevity of my dialogues with Gerhard Richter was the duality of our shared and yet also utterly different sociohistorical formations. While we are separated by a decade of generational difference, we were both fundamentally defined by one of the most formative conditions, namely having been born in fascist Germany, and having grown up in the two mutually exclusive yet also deeply intertwined postfascist successor states of a communist East and a capitalist West.
Thus, while Buchloh “venerated Bertolt Brecht and John Heartfield as the heroes of a radical progressive Weimar culture and as the rare exemplary figures of German antifascism, Richter could only consider them as the historically corrupted members of a ruling cultural elite, the bêtes noirs of an opportunistic assimilation of a former left radical culture to post–World War II Stalinist state socialism.” This opposition has outlasted national reunification, resurfacing every time Buchloh and Richter lock horns.
We cannot comprehend the meaning of our present except retrospectively. Not because we cannot understand what the present means, but because it does not mean anything—not yet.
And yet, given Buchloh’s view that artistic criteria must remain responsive to changing sociopolitical regimes, the story cannot end with this tale of origins. Rather, Richter’s polymorphous output over the past fifty years forces the critic to continually revise his earlier appraisals: “On each occasion of a new phase in Richter’s work, new questions had to be asked, or the existing ones had to be reformulated and reapplied even to former responses now appearing all too easily phrased.” The artist twists back upon himself, revisiting enduring preoccupations (painting photographic sources, the material of glass, monochrome abstraction) in new forms. Buchloh’s ongoing struggle to understand these works inverts the artist’s helical trajectory. At each rotation, the two paths briefly intersect before separating once more, the two men facing each other across the divide of their evolving convictions. The critic writes of S. mit Kind, 1995, for instance, that it “provoked, if not disproved, all of my dogmatic assumptions” about what subjects could credibly be painted. Accordingly, Buchloh must endeavor not only to formulate the initial divide between himself and his subject, but also to contextualize his own ongoing responses to the artist’s successive provocations. The core of Buchloh’s analytical method is thus auto-historicization. As he shifts from critic to historian, he not only notes that his earlier beliefs were proven wrong but also assigns himself the much more difficult task of asking why he believed them in the first place.
Some of Richter’s recent revisitations of old themes seem almost calculated to contradict completely the critic’s arguments, as though daring Buchloh to assimilate them. I, at least, find it impossible to imagine the Buchloh of 1998 even countenancing the idea that Richter would make an enameled-glass rendering of the German flag for the reconstructed Reichstag in Berlin (1999). I can almost hear his incredulous voice: “You can’t be serious.” Yet he takes such provocations seriously, surfacing their proper contradictions and motivating circumstances. For example, he introduces Richter’s 2007 stained-glass window for the Cologne Cathedral with a hilarious tirade against the present-day “locust swarms of international mediocrities claiming the status of ‘artist.’” This unnerving state of affairs has revealed the terminus of the “historical dialectic of secularization,” not the promised liberation from arbitrary authority in which Buchloh once believed but its displacement onto self-promotion, everyone becoming his own savior. The critic wonders whether Richter’s turn to the cathedral thus enabled him to face this contradiction in its most monumental sanctum. And yet this ascribed rationale seems torturously implausible compared with the surface reading: co-optation by the Catholic Church in service of a mythic Germanic spirituality. Buchloh notes that the work was unveiled in a “primitive ritual,” as he disdainfully labels the religious ceremony, involving clouds of incense, such that the window’s light was “physically materialized by wafting clouds of smoke, forming chromatic beams traversing the nave in a spectacle that could have been designed by an expert in son et lumière technology.” But he follows these damning words with a countertheory: that the work visualized in negative the failed promise of modernist abstraction, which sought to detach itself from its cultic origins in stained glass but led to “secular cul-de-sacs” of industrial design and terminated in the pixelated color of electronic entertainment. Torn between these alternative interpretations, Buchloh ends the chapter by asking whether the project was merely a remunerative employment opportunity, a reactionary return to the spiritual as an immutable condition of human experience, or a critical engagement with the ultimate failure of enlightened rationality. He does not answer. He is not sure.
These moments of ambivalence may seem to indicate some reluctance on Buchloh’s part. In fact, they attest his uncompromising commitment to historical analysis. Given his view that history proceeds by the formulation, contestation, and resolution of successive contradictions, we cannot comprehend the meaning of our present except retrospectively, once this process has unfolded. Not because we cannot understand what the present means, but because it does not mean anything—not yet. The artworks that Buchloh cares about matter because they help us formulate the contradictions of our time in advance of their resolution, “to make visible and readable what has been withheld from comprehension.”
Yet what makes this author’s work uniquely instructive, not an application of critical theory but an advancement of it, is his acknowledgment that he himself can no more stand outside the system than can Richter, cannot pretend to judge the work from nowhere. Whereas he can return to his own prior responses, deem them insufficient or “naïve,” and, more important, explain in historical terms why he missed what now seems clear, he cannot do so for his present views. Not for lack of insight but because the meaning of his work, as much as the artist’s, remains essentially indeterminate.
In his self-reflexive pivoting from critic to historian and back, from a rare and emphatic commitment to normative judgments and a simultaneous awareness of those judgments’ contingency, Buchloh invites us to see our own work as unresolved, ourselves as part of a present we can neither comprehend nor escape. Is Benjamin Buchloh history? Yes. But so is Richter. So am I. So are we all.
Harmon Siegel is a junior fellow at the Harvard Society of Fellows.
1. Benjamin Buchloh, ed., Gerhard Richter (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2009), 18.
2. Ibid., 179.
3. “Round Table: The Present Conditions of Art Criticism,” October 100 (Spring 2002), 200–228, at 202.
4. Benjamin Buchloh, “Our Own Private Modernism,” Artforum, February 2005, artforum.com/print/200502/benjamin-h-d-buchloh-45485.