Buchloh Joins Art History Faculty

Modern art expert focuses on postwar artistic break

Harvard’s Department of History of Art and Architecture recently bolstered its modern-art scholarship by naming art historian, editor, critic, and curator Benjamin Buchloh the Franklin D. and Florence Rosenblatt Professor of Modern Art, effective September 1.

Buchloh’s work focuses on twentieth-century art, and he specializes in American and European modernism and the relationship between the historical avant-garde movements of the pre-World War II era with the neo-avant-garde movements after the war. The artistic break created by World War II has remained the focal point of Buchloh’s academic career.

“Of the scholars working on post-1945 art today, Buchloh is perhaps the only one for whom the question, raised by Theodor Adorno in the field of literature, about the possibility of art (and criticism) after the catastrophic trauma of World War II has remained absolutely central,” Yve-Alain Bois, the former chair of the history of art and architecture department, wrote in a note to Franklin D. Rosenblatt.

Bois, who was Pulitzer professor of modern art and one of the department’s star scholars in that field, left Harvard this summer for an appointment at Princeton’s Institute for Advanced Study.

Buchloh’s appointment comes at a time when the department is expanding its modernist expertise—despite losing Bois. It has doubled its faculty ranks within the last five years, Bois says.

“We were successful in convincing the administration that we needed more faculty in this area, given the huge demand on the part of students (and also if we wanted to remain competitive with other graduate programs),” Bois wrote in an e-mail to the Crimson.

“The appointment of Buchloh was kind of a miracle—no one had expected he would be interested in the position,” added Bois, who assumed his new post at Princeton last week. “But it comes at the right time.”

Buchloh’s move to Harvard marks another stage in a career that has spanned several fields, from academia to journalism, and continents, from Europe to America. His past posts have included an editorship at the German art journal Interfunktionen; teaching positions at art schools like the Staatliche Kunstakademie in Düsseldorf, the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design, and Cal Arts; and appointments in art history at SUNY Westbury, the University of Chicago, MIT, and, most recently, Barnard College and Columbia.

In these positions, Buchloh established himself as one of the most important names in postwar art scholarship. His scholarly writings seek to reconcile the differences between formalism and historicism, two disciplinary approaches that are often seen as being at odds with each other.

“I do not believe that it is possible at this point to write art history outside of a specifically defined theoretical framework, least of all an art history of the twentieth century,” Buchloh wrote in an e-mail.

Buchloh is both historian and critic, and his seminal 1981 essay, “Figures of Authority, Ciphers of Regression,” offers both incisive historical analysis and rejects the neo-conservative art trends of the late 1970s, according to Bois.

Buchloh plans to teach graduate seminars in postwar art, alternating between an American and a European focus. He will offer introductory lecture courses for undergraduates on visual modernity and modernism, with a special focus on the changing relationship between modernism and mass culture.

Buchloh is now finishing a monograph on the German painter Gerhard Richter, whom he has studied for two decades and whose reputation he has greatly advanced.

Bois praised Buchloh’s exploration of the artist. “No book is more eagerly awaited in the art world,” he said in an e-mail.

Richter’s work, Buchloh wrote, “embodies some of the central questions that have defined my work in the past ten years”—including the relationship between historical and neo-avant-garde artists, the extent of interaction between American and European artists after the war, and the shifting roles of photography in pre- and postwar art.

Buchloh is also finishing Volume II of his collected essays, “Formalism and Historicity: Models and Methods in Twentieth Century Art,” which traces the trajectory of the prewar avant-garde art movement into the postwar era, the Conceptual Art movement, and more recent montage techniques.

“I am extremely happy to join one of the best departments of art history in the U.S., and I am looking forward to contribute to the art department’s expansion into the field of twentieth century art history,” Buchloh wrote in an e-mail. “In particular, it was of course the offer of the Franklin and Florence Rosenblatt Chair in Post War American Art that made me decide to join the department, since it stated a first and programmatic commitment to the field of my research and writing in Post War Art History.”

Buchloh will be joined by new appointee Carrie Lambert-Beatty, an assistant professor in the art history and VES departments with special interests in post-1960 art.

Bois said that the department still seeks to fill endowed chairs in Spanish and South and Southeast Asian art, and to hire for positions in seventeenth-century European and pre-Columbian art and modern architecture.

—Staff writer Samuel C. Scott can be reached at sscott@fas.harvard.edu.