Painting After the Subject of History’ –

In criticism as in war, the law of proportionate response enjoys only occasional observance. Gerhard Richter: Painting after the Subject of History is the fruit of what its author, art historian Benjamin H.D. Buchloh, calls the “nearly unfathomable duration” of his engagement with the most influential German painter since World War II. “Unfathomable” is an overstatement, but only just. Buchloh has been thinking about Richter for half a century. The result is a book that comes in at just over 650 pages divvied up between no fewer than 20 chapters, most of which began as independent essays published between the 1980s and the present.  

Curiously, given that Richter is by all evidence Buchloh’s favorite artist (or at any rate, the one who sustains the biggest share of his attention), their relationship has been marked from the beginning by profound differences of approach. Buchloh acknowledges that his leftist Frankfurt School orientation doesn’t jibe very well with Richter’s rather consistent conservatism. There’s also the further issue that Richter is a painter, whereas Buchloh, since the ’80s, has been one of the most acerbic detractors of painting’s post-Conceptual resurgence. All this makes for a book that feels almost as difficult to read as it surely was to write.

Gerhard Richter does not lend itself to easy summary. This is due not only to its length and the complexity of its arguments but also to its piecemeal genesis. Because much of the text was written decades ago, parts of the book have an uncannily anachronistic effect: issues from the 1970s discussed as if they were current; literature of the 1990s cited as if it were the final word. There are many repetitions, plus a few moments when Buchloh seems to contradict himself. (And some factual errors: a puzzling assertion that fashion photography, tourism, and advertising were all forbidden in East Germany is easy to disprove, for example.) Yet there is a remarkably constant if not exactly straightforward through line from front to back.

Gerhard Richter: Painting after the Subject of History by Benjamin H.D. Buchloh, Cambridge and London, MIT Press, 2022; 696 pages, 235 illustrations, $49.95 paperback.

Courtesy MIT Press

It goes something like this. Having abandoned a fledgling career as a Socialist Realist painter in East Germany, Richter arrived in Düsseldorf in 1961, by which point there was literally nothing left of the tradition of painting that could lay claim to historical legitimacy: neither the representational aims of pre-modernist art (or its zombielike revival in the official culture of the Eastern Bloc), nor the utopianism of the pre–World War II avant-garde, nor even the most recent attempts at regrounding modernism in gestural expressivity, literalist reduction, aleatory procedures, or naive technophilia. Every one of these models had been either corrupted by fascist or Stalinist totalitarianism, or recuperated by capitalist spectacle. Worse still, as Theodor Adorno famously said, and as Buchloh likes to remind us, making art or poetry at all seemed to have become irredeemably barbaric after Auschwitz. 

In the German context with which Buchloh is preoccupied, however, all these impossibilities were swept under the rug of “collective conditions of daily anomie, amnesia, and repression.” This was necessary for ordinary people (and artists) to get on with their lives after having committed, or at least having failed to prevent, the worst crimes in human history. As Buchloh tells it, most German art of the 1950s and ’60s contributed to that amnesia instead of countering it, acting as if it were possible simply to jump back into an international modernist mainstream as though nothing of importance had happened since 1933—as if abstract painting, for example, could just pick up where it had left off, when all the utopian intensity that had once been abstraction’s raison d’être had gone up in smoke. This was not an option for an artist of Richter’s intelligence.

So, what to do? For Richter, the answer was not to stop painting, but rather to paint his way through painting’s death. Richter found himself caught in a catch-22 that existing modernist strategies could not resolve. As we’ve already seen, according to Buchloh, at least, everything that had once been utopian or even just plausible in avant-garde art had lost credibility by 1945 or, in some cases, much sooner. At the same time, any return to pre-modernist representational aims—such as capturing the individuality of a bourgeois sitter in a portrait, or finding adequate means by which to represent collective experience through history painting—was even less of a possibility. Modernism had wiped the slate clean.

Buchloh is enough of a modernist to despise any “return to order.” Yet, for him, the loss of painting’s old powers was a real loss. It was a loss of experience, of memory, of the possibility of representing oneself and others as historical subjects rather than mere pawns of economic and political forces. By the end of the war, then, advanced art would seem to have been stranded in an unenviable position. But by fully acknowledging “the subject’s inevitable and eternal submission to political, social, economic, and legal and administrative control,” as Buchloh puts it a bit melodramatically, art could at least stay honest about its own extremely limited field for maneuver: it could avoid serving this miserable world as an imaginary escape from the inescapable.

One gets the sinking feeling that, for Buchloh, refuting the illusion of freedom is more important or at least more adult than trying to achieve freedom. Maybe the latter just isn’t on the menu. Yet, if done just right, art’s “mimesis of the hardened and alienated,” as Adorno put it, can flicker up as a minimal kind of resistance in its own right, to the extent that artistic mimesis of domination—refusing oneself the consolations of beautiful color, fine draftsmanship, and everything else that we typically enjoy in art—can function as a critical allegoryof the historical forces that made such ascesis unavoidable. That is, reduced, disillusioned art such as Richter’s might provide an impetus to reflect on domination from a zone of irony or withdrawal that, all the same, doesn’t mistake itself for real freedom. 

For Buchloh, determining exactly what keeps you from being an autonomous subject might be the first step toward becoming one again. The following (which is only the second half of a sentence that does an excellent job of conveying the flavor of his prose) is how Buchloh ends a chapter on Richter’s dreary digitized “strip” pictures from the 2010s: “the fact that they enunciate the very aesthetic options resulting from the advanced conditions of a total desublimation of the subject within a new technocratic universe is paradoxically their singularly radical assault and their sole gesture of resistance.” To paraphrase, the fact that these paintings look like hotel-lobby art is exactly what makes them radical, inasmuch as they don’t pretend to be better than they are.

There is an exquisitely fine line in most of Buchloh’s chapters between surrender and allegorical/mimetic critique. Sometimes he appears genuinely not to know which side Richter comes down on. Although the book is often positively didactic, Richter’s “simultaneity of conflicting impulses”—his seeming inability to decide, or at any rate to let the viewer know, whether he really believes in beauty, mimetic representation, and so forth—regularly leaves the author with few options but to note an aporia. A surprising number of chapters end with unanswered questions. But Richter throws a curveball into the melancholy dialectic of enlightenment that Buchloh has been explaining up to this point. The curveball is tradition.

Richter: The Candle, 1982, oil on canvas, 39 1⁄2 inches square.

Photo Uli Deck/picture alliance via Getty Images

Famously (or infamously), Richter’s work all but systematically revives the classical genres that dominated painting before the 20th century: landscape, still life, memento mori, history painting, portraiture. Buchloh asks himself several times if this isn’t just conservative. Does Richter really believe these genres still work as they’re supposed to? 

The answer, of course, is no: Richter approaches each of them as already and inevitably ruined. But that’s just the point. If portraiture, say, is obsolete, a residue of a type of well-rounded subjectivity that capitalist spectacle has done its best to eliminate, then continuing to make portraits after that subjectivity’s disappearance perhaps serves as a reminder that another world is possible—or at least was possible at some point in the past. As with portraiture, so with everything else: all of Richter’s work oscillates between a brutally secularizing destruction of aesthetic ideology and a Walter Benjamin-ish redemption of the obsolescent.

This endlessly repeated maneuver is indeed reminiscent of the Mechanical Turk in Benjamin’s “On the Concept of History”: “an automaton constructed in such a way that it could play a winning move of chess, answering each move of an opponent with a countermove.” As is often the case in dialectical thinking, the danger here is that of having your cake and eating it too. It feels as if Buchloh’s Richter can do no wrong. Either his art mimetically repeats and exacerbates (and thus “allegorically” criticizes) the total reification of the world, or it takes the Benjaminian tack of reviving obsolete forms as resistance against those same conditions. Buchloh has an ability to redeem even Richter’s most lugubrious projects as Germany’s quasi-official state artist (his giant German flag in the Reichstag; his window for Cologne Cathedral) as, precisely, redemptive—but not of the things they seem to be redeeming, namely German national identity and the Christian religion. This is thin gruel for a leftist art history.

The trouble is distinguishing between a good (dialectical) anachronism and a bad one (a “return to order”). The key idea is credibility. Buchloh often says that by 1912, or 1928, or 1945 (etc., etc.), a given kind of art had ceased to be credible or had lost its legitimacy. The task of responsible art, then, is to figure out exactly what has not become illegitimate and then pursue that as rigorously as possible. Richter does this in the medium of painting, according to Buchloh. If both modernist abstraction and premodern pictorial genres had become illegitimate after reaching their respective ends, the only way to keep doing versions of them would be under the cover of a deflating suspension of their former values (Jacques Derrida called this writing things sous rature): that is, an evacuation of old mythical content that nonetheless does not entirely let the redemptive flame go out from the heart of each canceled form. 

Richter’s famous paintings of his daughters are a good example of this (one of them is on the book’s cover). Buchloh obviously finds them grating in their surface-level sentimentality and vaguely Freudian hints of incestuous desire. At the same time, he argues that in the context of advanced capitalism, at least, the family itself—the most traditional of traditional institutions—might function as the “sole site of reconciliation and happiness” after any larger utopia has ceased to be imaginable. Accordingly, the family pictures might even function as a site of “critical resistance and countermemory.” All of this is hedged with question marks and scare quotes, to be sure—but the fact that Buchloh countenances the idea at all is extraordinary.

For Buchloh, the critical effect of such works is tied to the work of mourning that they perform. What they mourn is painting itself. But painting is on some level just a technology of a certain subject. And over the course of the book the subject that Buchloh has in mind is unmistakable: it’s the bourgeoisie. Although this is a disconcerting conclusion to find in a big, quasi-Marxist book, it follows logically from Buchloh’s macro-level perspective. The forms of experience that painting once mediated to its makers and viewers and that it lost in the 20th century are those of the 19th-century bourgeoisie. They’re the ones who kept portrait painting, still life, and all the rest alive. 

In a sense this is a tautology. Subjectivity for Buchloh is always bourgeois subjectivity,  because only the bourgeois were ever subjects; our very idea of what constitutes a subject is an ideology of this class. Richter looks back on painting’s bourgeois patrimony after “the destruction of bourgeois subjectivity (caused by World War II and the Holocaust as much as by the emerging powers of a universally controlling culture industry),” which is why his resurrection of bourgeois genres and representational ambitions retains some credibility, against all odds. If the bourgeois subject is dead, there can’t be much danger in recovering its cultural forms, the obsolescence of which might now provide some friction against the universal eradication of the “politically self-determining subject.”

For younger readers, especially, this may be the point where Buchloh becomes hard to take. The problem is right there in the book’s subtitle: “Painting after the Subject of History.” The subject? Might there be more than one? Even if 19th-century bourgeois consciousness, along with, say, the classical socialist movement, had been ground into dust over the 1930s and ’40s, does that mean there were no “politically self-determining subjects” in the decolonization struggles of the postwar era? What of the feminist movement a little later?  

Richter: War, 1981, oil on canvas, 79 3⁄4 by 126 inches.

Getty Images

Even bracketing these predictable objections, one might still ask why it’s so persistently the bourgeoisie for which Richter and Buchloh mourn, given that the “Subject of History” would also seem to be code for the Marxist collective revolutionary subject, the proletariat. For Buchloh, if ever there was a moment in which the proletariat was on the cusp of attaining world-historical subjectivity, it was over by 1921, with the advent of Lenin’s New Economic Policy (a partial restoration of the capitalist economy in the USSR). So, Buchloh’s subject of history is not only a ghost, but a ghost with a split identity: Richter’s mourning for that subject has to encompass both a destroyed bourgeois subjectivity as well as a never-realized proletarian one.

Hence the almost unimaginable weight that Buchloh puts on Richter’s head. Richter’s job is nothing less than to pick up the pieces of the “common ruin of the contending classes” that Marx saw as one of the possible outcomes of any social struggle and which Buchloh seems to take for the real outcome of the 20th century’s murderous first half. (Though it’s reasonable to ask if rumors of the bourgeoisie’s death might be exaggerated.) Aside from being incredibly depressing, this begs the question whether it’s possible to conceive other projects of mourning, even within Buchloh’s Eurocentric perspective. For example: The Aesthetics of Resistance (1971–81), Peter Weiss’s extraordinary three-volume novel about the exiles of young German leftists on the cusp of World War II, is also a monumental work of mourning, but for a proletarian subjectivity that was in fact much more the victim of Europe’s disaster than was the bourgeoisie. Ridiculous as it would be to ask Richter to be Peter Weiss, it’s worth speculating whether such a thing would even be possible in Richter’s medium, or whether painting is locked in a Totentanz with bourgeois culture in a way that novels aren’t. In which case maybe Gerhard Richter is as good as it gets. And if so, 650 pages is not disproportionate at all.

But there are further reasons for the intensity of the author’s investment. It’s worth remembering that Buchloh is a disappointed member of West Germany’s 1968 generation. This factor is unmistakable both in his admirably frank introduction to the book as well as in crucial chapters such as the beautiful, concise essay on Richter’s October 18, 1977 painting cycle, which reflects on the deaths in prison (officially by suicide) of the leaders of West Germany’s militant Red Army Faction. Buchloh’s work is so deeply entwined with his own personal and political trajectory, with postwar Germany’s larger political history—indeed with what I am a bit frightened to call his Weltanschauung—that it makes little sense to evaluate his claims as if they were being made in a contextless eternal now. Every page of this book wrestles with the long process of postwar German memory-work, and for that reason every page is partisan. But it’s a partisanship on behalf of a missing collectivity: if the subject of history is dead, maybe all that’s left is to remember it, in hopes that it might one day be resurrected. 

Buchloh’s war is an old one, then. It’s unclear what this book might offer to younger scholars or artists for whom historical prohibitions rarely look very binding. No matter. Some loyalties transcend instrumental reason. We can be glad that Buchloh continues his work, delivering briefs to a court of historical reckoning that just isn’t there anymore. 

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