How can we understand the phrase “Painting After the Subject of History,” which forms the subtitle of Benjamin Buchloh's opus on Gerhard Richter? This essay proposes that that post-subject might be addressed by shapes, rather than figures, closely examining paintings from Philip Guston's celebrated “return to figuration” in the 1970s, when, it is argued, figuration's referentiality is exceeded by the force of Guston's painted shapes. Indeed that force registers as the public dimension of the artist's paintings, addressing an American hellscape, or its unconscious register, populated by images from Kent State, Civil Rights massacres, Vietnam, and more. As Gestalt theorists (Max Wertheimer) and philosophers (Ludwig Wittgenstein) have determined, shapes are respectively “imprinted as wholes” and participate in sign systems––becoming, thereby, not-whole. It is with this ambivalent relation to the sign that Guston's painting explores how shapes can make unconscious forces public. Rather than understanding shapes along a continuum between figuration and abstraction, however, this essay argues that it is Guston's collaborations with poets such as Frank O'Hara that serve as the origin point of his “shape painting.”

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