April 29, 2024

Exit Interview

Canada Choate

Benjamin H. D. Buchloh

Until recently, I had never heard Clement Greenberg’s voice. This man, who loomed larger than any other figure over my undergraduate education in art history, existed in my mind only as disembodied words. It had never occurred to me to look him up on YouTube, and when I found a clip of him speaking, I couldn’t bear to see his face and hear his voice. It felt sacrilegious.

I was prompted to search for Greenberg by a particularly evocative passage in Exit Interview, a newly published book-length conversation between eminent art historians Benjamin H. D. Buchloh and Hal Foster. In Buchloh’s essay that concludes the volume, “Words of Mouth, Ends of Critics,” he describes the arch-modernist’s “notoriously fleshy lips” as possibly captured by Jasper Johns’s 1959 sculpture The Critic Smiles. In Exit Interview, we learn that Buchloh only met Greenberg once, in 1983. Commenting on their rendezvous, Buchloh writes: “He was very unpleasant, haughty, dismissive of everybody. His time was up, I suppose.”

Exit Interview captures art history at a pivotal moment of transition, as the generation of modernist art historians influenced by and responding to Greenberg begin to feel their time running out. Conducted in 2021, the same year that Buchloh retired from his professorship at Harvard, Foster’s interview with Buchloh spans the breadth of his career, from graduate student to gallerist to critic to formal entry into the highest levels of the academy at Columbia and Harvard.

That same year, 2021, was also when that I participated in three seminars taught by Buchloh at the Whitney Independent Study Program, where he once directed the curatorial and critical studies sections. Everyone expected a series of lectures on the Soviet avant-garde or Marcel Broodthaers, two of his areas of expertise. We were shocked to learn that his subject would instead be, according to my notes, “the topic of obsolescence” in early twentieth-century printmaking, with a focus on the intertwined histories of Käthe Kollwitz, Elizabeth Catlett, and José Guadalupe Posada of the Taller de Gráfica Popular. Introducing his seminars on these three representational, in many ways derrière-garde, artists, Buchloh questioned why modernist art historians fail to see the importance of their practices, implicating himself in the omission. It was clear to me then that something had shifted such that even the guardians of a narrow tradition of critical canon-building could not ignore its motion.1


Exit Interview intervenes at this moment in three sections of interview and the aforementioned closing essay. The first section, “Biographemes,” covers Buchloh’s fascinating personal history and its intersections with major historical figures, moments, and texts. Born in Cologne in 1941 to a supportive mother and a Nazi father who died when he was only twelve, Buchloh was drawn to radical art from an early age, attending an exhibition on Dada in Dusseldorf in 1958 and, a year later, Documenta 2. By 1963, he had moved to Berlin to study literature at the Frei Universität, and in 1968, he dropped out of academia and became fully embedded in the New Left, living on a commune in Charlottenburg, protesting, and making the anarchist magazine Charlie Kaputt. Buchloh describes 1971 as the “turning point,” when “group pressure to go along with criminal activity” in the name of political liberation became “too intense.”2 He moved to London with his partner at the time, settled down on another commune, and started writing fiction and dropping acid. A year later, he moved back to Cologne, where he edited the controversial final issue of the art magazine Interfunktionen and worked for the gallerist Rudolf Zwirner (father of the now much more well-known David Zwirner of mega-gallery fame), with whom he organized an important exhibition of Sigmar Polke accompanied by a catalog that contains his first major essay.

By the mid-seventies, with the potential of 1968 snuffed out by the growing forces of neoliberalism, Buchloh had “become sufficiently depoliticized, and … had cathected on artistic practice as the only credible alternative to political action,” an experience I imagine he shares with many of his generation. It is at this moment that Buchloh reenters academia, lecturing on modern art at the Dusseldorf Academy, spurred by developments in formalist and semiological criticism and art history in America, notably Krauss and Greenberg. Krauss’s epochal 1977 book Passages in Modern Sculpture convinced him that New York was the place to be (“There was nothing like it in Germany, and almost nobody was teaching twentieth-century art”), and in order to get geographically closer to the center of the North American art world, Buchloh got a job at the progressive Nova Scotia College of Art and Design. After a brief stop in Los Angeles, his marriage to artist Louise Lawler brought him to New York, where he would eventually get a PhD at the CUNY Graduate Center while writing criticism for Ingrid Sischy’s Artforum and scholarship for October, the journal edited by Krauss and Annette Michelson, both Graduate Center professors.

“Biographemes” concludes with a discussion of the so-called “October crisis” of 1990, when scholar, critic, and AIDS activist Douglas Crimp resigned from the journal over Krauss and Michelson’s refusal to publish a Richard Fung essay from a conference on queer film and video over its presumed lewdness. In Crimp’s absence, Buchloh, Foster, and Yve-Alain Bois were invited to join the editorial board; Crimp, feeling betrayed, never spoke to Buchloh again. The history of these interpersonal relations between a rarefied group of art historians is the history of art history, and it is always worth revisiting.

Fittingly, the October crisis leads us to a section titled “Schisms,” which outlines Buchloh’s critical project and explains his allegiances to particular artists and distaste for and oversights of others. Unlike his mentor Krauss, Buchloh is not a post-structuralist, nor is he a formalist. Rather, he is interested in the “dialectic in which the mutually exclusive forces of artistic production and of the culture industry as its utmost opposite can still be tracked in their perpetual interactions,” as he writes in his introduction to 2000’s Neo-Avantgarde and Culture Industry; that is, he is a Hegelian Marxist in the lineage of the Frankfurt School.3 Buchloh’s personal canon includes Dan Graham, Andy Warhol, Carl Andre, Lawrence Weiner, Marcel Duchamp, Broodthaers, Hans Haacke, Michael Asher, Gerhard Richter, the early work of Daniel Buren, and John Heartfield, with the belated inclusion of female postmodernists like Lawler, Martha Rosler, Sherrie Levine, and Andrea Fraser. For Buchloh, the successful artwork is “critical of the socioeconomic frameworks within which culture is produced” and, crucially, resists the “legitimation of spectacle and the status of the artwork as a commodity for speculative investment”; Foster describes this as “complete critical self-consciousness”, noting that “this lofty criterion sets [him] up for inevitable disappointment”, as in the case of Buren, whose 2013 collaboration with fashion designer Marc Jacobs Buchloh describes as “betrayal” and “treason”, maintaining the “stringency” that the art historian Thomas Crow argues “goes to the heart of his sense of vocation.”4

Buchloh is more than self-aware enough to admit that “the charge of betrayal regarding artistic practice and cultural reception is both presumptuous and pathetic,” and yet insists that “the question remains: Why are some artists, such as Haacke, Rosler, and Lawler, able to sustain structures of resistance within their practices while others … yield, at some point, to a more or less blatant affirmation of the underlying ideological and economic principles of the culture industry—that is, the legitimation of spectacle and the status of the artwork as a commodity for speculative investment?” I am a great admirer of Buchloh and believe in his project: his “stringency” is in many ways admirable, and I agree wholeheartedly with his skepticism of contemporary trends toward portraiture (“opportunistic, without any interest”) and craft (a “counter-formation which isn’t at all adequate”).

At the same time, in his model, how are artists to keep themselves financially afloat, given the neoliberal destruction of almost all social support networks in America, while also having the time to confront “the immense impact of socioeconomic realities and ideological regimes on artistic production,” as Buchloh insists they do? Foster introduces the book’s third section, “Dissensus,” as a discussion of Buchloh’s favored critical approaches, but their conversation quickly turns to the potential validity of criticism and critical art under current economic and political regimes. Buchloh is torn, commenting that he is “sure” critical practices that “define new positions” are out there, though he can’t locate them. A moment later, he changes tack, saying “then again, perhaps criticism doesn’t have any real place anymore … It just might not be part of the cultural apparatus that’s now so fully defined by industrial standards.” “Moreover,” he adds, “the art market has acquired the features of a universal investment system like the stock market. Under such conditions there’s no longer any role for the critic. What critic is qualified to criticize stocks?” This oscillation—a momentary optimism of the will overshadowed by a definitive, all-encompassing pessimism of the intellect—still holds out a sliver of hope for the future, even as the space of potentiality narrows by the minute.

On the off chance that criticism is able to continue, Buchloh wants no part of it. Referring to himself unkindly as a “fossil,” he argues, contra Foster’s adulation of his critical model, that his approach to art history “is now surpassed in every way,” as “conditions have changed so dramatically in the last ten years” that Buchloh feels his “time as a critic is done.” Though the elder art historian rightly sees that “key theoretical and artistic challenges of the present—postcolonial thought, critical race theory, radical feminism, and the deconstruction of bourgeois Oedipality as the sole model of subject formation—were all lacking in [his] work,” I don’t agree that we should throw the baby out with the bathwater. It will take a new generation of academics and critics to work out exactly what happened between 2011 and 2021 to change the episteme such that Buchloh finds himself incapable of continuing to pursue the calling that brought him to America. While the terms and issues are different, the basic element of Buchloh’s methodology—a critical awareness of history to, in the words of his former student Graham Bader, “seize hold of the changing economy of myth itself”—is more relevant than ever.5


Between the conclusion of his 2021 conversation with Foster and the writing of “Words of Mouth, Ends of Critics,” the essay at the end of Exit Interview exquisitely and expertly organized around an analysis of artworks by Jasper Johns and Richard Hamilton and Duchamp’s 1957 lecture “The Creative Act,” Buchloh’s dialectical vision seems to have stalled out. Invalidating his entire career even further than he does earlier in the volume, he makes a shocking claim: “Since the 1970s we have been living in a time without critics … It does not matter how politically ambitious the aims of artistic practices might be if the sphere of public, social, and political culture is increasingly subject to oppressive and censorious control.” This argument is a revision of his own recent criticism; writing in Artforum in 2012, Buchloh claimed that “three decades ago,” in the 1980s, “artistic practices still could define themselves as originating in a sphere of oppositionality and critique,” charging critics and historians to “define those criteria that are not intrinsically bound to the reconstitution of privileged forms of experience.”6

Buchloh attributes criticism’s failure to the art market, to museums, to the globalization of discourse and its attendant leveling of hierarchies, and, most interestingly to this author’s mind, to the “desire to find meaningful structures of formal, material, and social organization of subjective and objective experience in just about any formally defined aesthetic object of any time” in order to “dissimulate the actually governing conditions of an extreme totalization of digitally administered technocratic regimes.” To this list of relatively abstract causes, I would add the concrete failure of the academic system to support students and faculty in the manner Buchloh and Foster have so benefited from—a topic they do not discuss—as well as the collapse of the actual institutions that publish criticism and pay those who produce it. Reminiscing on his time at the CUNY Graduate Center in the nineties, Buchloh recalls Krauss’s description of a PhD as a “union card,” and thus a bulwark against financial instability. While that may technically still be the case, as graduate unions are increasingly organizing strikes around the country, the real figures are grim.7 While I could not find statistics about the average pay of art history PhDs, a 2022 study of stipends for American PhD candidates studying English concluded that their pay averaged $25,006 a year; adjusted for cost of living, the average rose to $33,060.8 According to the United States Social Security Administration, the average wage of an American worker in that same year was $61,220.9 These numbers speak for themselves; no wonder enrollment in humanities programs dropped seventeen percent between 2013 and 2023.10

And then there is Artforum, where Buchloh published his first major essay in English in 1980, critiquing art star Joseph Beuys. Writer Domenick Ammirati recently described the magazine in its heyday as standing “in opposition to poptimism, a seemingly light-hearted and vaguely democratic concept whose ultimate servitude to the corporate marketplace makes it as hideous as its name,” an assessment I’m sure Buchloh could stand behind.11 On October 28, 2023, the magazine’s owners—it was bought by the Penske Media Corporation in December 2022—fired editor in chief David Velasco due to his refusal to remove an open letter calling for a ceasefire in the fighting between Israel and Hamas.12 As a result, numerous members of the editorial staff resigned, and more than seven hundred writers and artists, myself among them, signed a pledge to withdraw future participation in any magazine owned by Penske (they also own Art in America and ARTNews), effectively silencing themselves and forgoing future earnings—not that Artforum paid well, even by the dismal current freelance standards—to support justice for Palestinians and boycott corporate silencing of political dissent.13 Though it was recently announced that scholar and curator Tina Rivers Ryan will be the magazine’s next editor in chief, the magazine is, as Louis Cheslaw recently wrote in Airmail, “a shell of its former self.” The future of art publishing looks abysmal.14

Appropriately, then, Exit Interview leaves the aspiring critic-historian with absolutely no ground to stand on. I am heartened a bit by Buchloh’s 1997 claim, again in Artforum, that “when art critics reach the end of their historical line, they tend to mistake the failure of their prognostic identifications or lack of comprehension of present practices for the end of art.”15 This leaves me wondering if his negativity is not a strategy in itself for prompting the next generation to do something new. Like his hero Broodthaers, whose work La Salle Blanche (1975), writes Buchloh, “conveys such an extraordinary negativity that you can’t image what would come out of it,” the radical negation of Exit Interview is a “utopian dimension.” In Buchloh’s words—perhaps some of the last we will have the privilege of hearing from him—“it forces you to start all over, and to start without knowing what to do or where to go.”


While I was writing this essay, Richard Serra died at age eighty-five. In ArtReview, Matthew Bowman correctly wrote that his death “signals the end of a stellar generation of North American artists,” a generation that came up in tandem with Buchloh and his colleagues .


Benjamin H. D. Buchloh and Hal Foster, Exit Interview (no place press, 2024).


Buchloh, Neo-Avantgarde and Culture Industry: Essays on European and American Art from 1955 to 1975 (MIT Press, 2001), xxiii.


Crow, “Committed to Memory: Thomas Crow on Benjamin H. D. Buchloh,” Artforum, January 2001 .


Bader, “Benjamin H.D. Buchloh’s Formalism and Historicity,” Artforum, March 2016 .


Buchloh, “Farewell to an Identity,” Artforum, December 2012 .


I would be remiss to not note the major win by Harvard’s graduate student union at the end of 2023, which guarantees PhD students at least $50,000 a year in program stipends. I hope this trend continues. See Cam E. Kettles, “GSAS Raises Ph.D. Stipends to $50,000, Answering Grad Union Call for Living Wage,” The Harvard Crimson, December 20, 2023 .


Eric Weiskott, “English PhD Stipends in the United States: Statistical Report,” Profession, September 1, 2022 .


“National Average Wage Index,” Social Security Administration .


Nathan Heller, “The End of the English Major,” New Yorker, February 27, 2023 .


Domenick Ammirati, “Does Anybody Want to Start an Art Magazine?” Spigot (newsletter), November 7, 2023 .


Louis Cheslaw, “State of the Artforum,” Air Mail, March 23, 2024 .


See the pledge here .


Cheslaw, “State of the Artforum.”


Buchloh, “Critical Reflections,” Artforum, January 1997 .

Contemporary Art
Art Criticism

Canada Choate is a writer who lives in New York. Her work considers the intersection of critical theory, art history, and popular culture. Choate was a 2021–22 Helena Rubenstein Fellow in the Whitney Museum of American Art’s Independent Study Program and is currently enrolled in Hunter College’s Art History MA program.


e-flux announcements are emailed press releases for art exhibitions from all over the world.

Agenda delivers news from galleries, art spaces, and publications, while Criticism publishes reviews of exhibitions and books.

Architecture announcements cover current architecture and design projects, symposia, exhibitions, and publications from all over the world.

Film announcements are newsletters about screenings, film festivals, and exhibitions of moving image.

Education announces academic employment opportunities, calls for applications, symposia, publications, exhibitions, and educational programs.

Sign up to receive information about events organized by e-flux at e-flux Screening Room, Bar Laika, or elsewhere.

I have read e-flux’s privacy policy and agree that e-flux may send me announcements to the email address entered above and that my data will be processed for this purpose in accordance with e-flux’s privacy policy*

Thank you for your interest in e-flux. Check your inbox to confirm your subscription.