Graham Bader at Artforum:
ALMOST EXACTLY MIDWAY through his new collection of essays, Formalism and Historicity, Benjamin H. D. Buchloh quotes El Lissitzky’s late-1920s description of the revolutionary “demonstration rooms” for abstract art he’d designed earlier that decade in Dresden and Hannover, Germany:
Traditionally the viewer was lulled into passivity by the paintings on the walls. Our construction/design shall make the man active. . . . With each movement of the viewer in space the perception of the wall changes; what was white becomes black, and vice versa. Thus, as a result of human bodily motion, a perceptual dynamic is achieved. This play makes the viewer active.
Not just the literal midpoint of Buchloh’s book, Lissitzky’s passage can be understood to crystallize the volume’s analytical heart as well. For if the Russian describes a desire to awaken viewers’ critical capacities through his material reformulation of artistic work—moving from the production of discrete objects to integrated environments, following a paradigm not of static presentation but dynamic activation—so Buchloh has long sought to rouse his readers by articulating a model of historical inquiry driven by the twin engines of critical negativity and utopian anticipation, and motivated by a primary concern with the radically shifting conditions of possibility by which art in the modern period has been repeatedly redefined.
If the demonstration rooms proposed a fundamentally collaborative aesthetic model in which isolated authorship was rendered obsolete, so Formalism and Historicity departs from Buchloh’s 2000 essay collection, Neo-Avantgarde and Culture Industry: Essays on European and American Art from 1955 to 1975, in focusing not on individual makers but on historical repetitions (figuration, portraiture, the monochrome) and episodes (the development of Conceptual art and the interwar Soviet avant-garde, as well as the latter’s postwar reception) that cut across the span of twentieth-century art.