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Our Literal Speed reviews Formalism and Historicity

Benjamin H. D. Buchloh. Formalism and Historicity: Models and Methods in Twentieth-Century Art. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2015. 592 pp.

Review by Our Literal Speed

A volume of twelve remarkable essays produced between the end of the Vietnam War and the rise of the internet, these critical writings on the art of the last hundred years have already guided the ambitions of art history as a discipline. These arguments have mattered because they describe twentieth-century art not in terms of modernist good or bad, or avant-garde new or old, but fundamentally as a dialectical back and forth between same and different: either the form of an artwork recognizes its innate historicity, its ineluctable tango with modes of formal repetition and ahistorical mythmaking, or it does not; the artworks that Buchloh most values always manage to discover difference in sameness, or, better said, they reveal a different sameness, a repetition that does not repeat, a myth that becomes unmythical. As such, the interpretive punch of this book is not up for debate, though it is well worth reflecting on the “models and methods” proposed here. In reading through two decades of Buchloh’s labors, two things grab you: language and opinion. The built environment of opinion in these pages—its method—is manifestly monastic and angular, a critical idiom constructed out of harsh narrative slabs, bracingly liturgical in tone, crafted from texts that make not the slightest effort to entice or cajole. The feel is calm, discursively brutalist, and deliciously remote from the artworld souq. Of Sherrie Levine and the 1980s, Buchloh writes, “At the very historical moment when a reactionary middle class struggles to expand its privileges, buttressing an oligarchic hegemony searching for cultural legitimation, and when hundreds of minor talents in painting obediently provide gestures of free expression, Levine’s work subverts this spectacle of a mythical individuality.” A single sentence, yes, but there is a world inside it, a model for a space and time in which art matters and writing about art matters, a place where there is joy to be had when form meets history, that is, when the way a thing looks tells us exactly the way things are.