Did Gustave Flaubert really say, “Madame Bovary, c’est moi”? So it’s said, though I’ve never been able to track down the source. Still, Tennessee Williams must have believed it, to some degree at least, since he took over the formulation himself: “Blanche DuBois, c’est moi.” But then that, too, is one of those untraceable quotations. Maybe this kind of identification between author and character is just a sort of urban legend. Or maybe, on the contrary, it’s so inevitable that it ought to go without saying: An artist can’t create anything without putting something of him- or herself into it.

Not so much the imagery but the title of Daniel Joseph Martinez’s recent exhibition at the Roberts & Tilton gallery (newly renamed Roberts Projects) in Culver City, California, led me to wonder about that sense of identification between a male artist and his female subject that Flaubert and Williams are supposed to exemplify—although in the case of Martinez, the subject is not fictional but a historical personage. The exhibition was called “I am Ulrike Meinhof or (someone once told me time is a flat circle).” Leaving aside for a moment the show’s more obviously riddling subtitle, what could Martinez mean by his “Ulrike Meinhof, c’est moi”? It would be wise not to answer too quickly: Martinez has a history of hanging his work on blunt first-person statements that get more ambiguous the closer you look at them. One of them has kept me pondering for almost 25 years.

Like a lot of people on the East Coast, I had my first encounter with Martinez’s work at the 1993 Whitney Biennial. His contribution included a piece that had another of what I now realize are his typically cumbersome (and partly self-contradictory) titles: Museum Tags: Second Movement (Overture); or, Overture Con Claque (Overture With Hired Audience Members). This was an example of what had been dubbed “institutional critique,” though artists had been doing things that could be plausibly categorized as such since at least the late 1960s—art that takes the operations of the art world, including aspects that are generally overlooked or taken for granted, not just as subject matter but as raw material. For example, Michael Asher, one of Martinez’s teachers at CalArts and generally counted among the pioneers of this kind of work, contributed to a later Whitney Biennial, that of 2010, by playing with the museum’s working hours, proposing that it be kept open 24 hours a day for a week. (Pleading budgetary constraints, the museum agreed to do it for three days rather than seven.)

Martinez’s intervention in 1993 was a little more confrontational, albeit easier to put into practice, than his erstwhile teacher’s 17 years later. He commandeered those little tags you’re supposed to wear in the museum to show you’ve paid your admission; but instead of bearing the museum’s name or logo, some were printed with the legend i can’t imagine ever wanting to be white, while the rest bore fragments of that sentence: i can’t; imagine; ever wanting; to be; white. It was hard not to be taken aback by the statement. Was it somehow anti-white? Or just—as one critic thought—one of those not-uncommon “exercises in self-gratification and self-promotion ostensibly designed to push social buttons”?

As a white person wearing a tag with the whole sentence, one might have reflected that it was probably just the literal truth: One had never had to imagine whiteness as an object of desire. On the other hand, I suppose that someone who isn’t white could have enjoyed Martinez’s piece as a badge—literally—of his or her happy exemption from envy or resentment, a contentment with one’s identity. And what’s wrong with that?

But those tags with the one- or two-word fragments of the text, each on a differently colored background, somehow complicated things. Each one seemed to evoke a different attitude: i can’t—refusal, evidently; imagine—optimistic idealism à la John Lennon’s anthem; ever wanting—romantic longing (my favorite); to be—Hamlet-esque doubt. Only the last of the fragments—simply white, followed by a full stop—leaves a blank: a single syllable, without any evident subjective content, into which one might read anything or nothing; here an autological word, since it exemplifies what Roland Barthes once called “white writing,” neutral and inexpressive. I remember walking among the crowd at the Whitney and thinking that we had all become a kind of recombinant megapoem, constantly combining and dispersing, composing and decomposing Martinez’s sentence.

But what about that use of the first person? Was it really just a linguistic shifter, applicable to anyone who happened to be wearing the tag? In retrospect, I wonder. I haven’t had the opportunity to see very many of Martinez’s works, but one thing I’ve come to know since 1993 is that self-portraiture has been recurrent in his art—for instance, in a group of color photographs he exhibited in 2012, in which he posed, shirtless and wearing an oversize mask, as a hunchback. Hiding his face while exposing his body—though attributing to it a disability that is not his—he personified the question of self-representation. Was Museum Tags an earlier example of this kind of shape-shifting self-portraiture?

Martinez, a Mexican American born in the Los Angeles area, told an interviewer in 1994 that he’d never learned Spanish growing up, since his parents would speak only English to him and “Spanish was strictly forbidden by my teachers.” His identification was with the majority culture: “The orientation of my world was toward whiteness. Mexican music was not played in my household. Spanish was never spoken. For me, white meant better. It meant privilege.” With that in mind, Martinez’s ever-changing text-in-motion at the 1993 Whitney Biennial might have been a heartfelt testimony to a sort of conversion experience—actually to a kind of blessed forgetfulness, the liberating inability to imagine one’s former sense of marginalization.

As Martinez’s Museum Tags suggests, it is when the question of identity hits close to home, rather than when it takes the abstract form of an indexical symbol, that (as Rimbaud said) “I is another.” Or perhaps it is better to put Rimbaud’s declaration into the form of Samuel Beckett’s interrogative: “Who says this, saying it’s me?” The one who says “I” and the one whom the word designates are logically two different people.

At least that’s the case when Martinez says, “I am Ulrike Meinhof.” Of course, Martinez is not the German journalist turned Red Army Faction terrorist who, at least according to the official verdict, committed suicide in Stuttgart’s Stammheim Prison in 1976. But who, in fact, was that? Meinhof has been called an “empty vessel” into which anyone’s ideological presuppositions can be poured. She’s been the subject of any number of more or less fictionalized accounts, including films and novels, as well as theater pieces by two Nobel Prize–winning writers, Elfriede Jelinek and Dario Fo—the latter (written in collaboration with Fo’s wife, Franca Rame) has a first-person title similar to Martinez’s: Moi, Ulrike, Je Crie. A Berlin-based “electro-punk pop rock” duo calls itself Prada Meinhoff (two F’s), reflecting the fact that the RAF (better known as the Baader-Meinhof Gang) has, like Che Guevara and other revolutionaries, passed into the realm of radical chic.

But even better known than Meinhof’s story may be her image, at least among art lovers. That’s thanks to Gerhard Richter, whose renowned 1988 painting cycle October 18, 1977, now in the collection of the Museum of Modern Art in New York, is based on black-and-white news photographs of Meinhof and three other members of the RAF who subsequently committed suicide in prison. Three of Richter’s paintings are titled Tote (Dead) and depict Meinhof after her hanging; a fourth, Jugendbildnis (Youth Portrait), shows her, looking rather gentle and innocent, in 1970, around the time of the RAF’s formation.

Emphasizing her youthfulness, Richter implies that Meinhof’s propensity for violence—at the time of her death, she was on trial for four counts of murder and 54 counts of attempted murder—was rooted in her naïveté and idealism. The paintings express sorrow over the waste of life that her story implies, without according any real substance to her political ideas. But the cycle as a whole suggests that the RAF was symptomatic of social ills that have never been resolved, perhaps not even seriously faced, and therefore that neither mourning nor the refusal to mourn can yet come to an end. The film theorist Peter Wollen connected Richter’s technique of obscuring his imagery to a kind of “conceptual blurring”—that is, “the difficulty we have in comprehending or evaluating” the protagonists’ actions and their deaths.

Four decades on from the death of Meinhof and her comrades, 30 years after Richter’s great painting cycle, what does it mean for an American artist to go to Berlin to make a cycle of photographs using images of Meinhof, including the one Richter used three times, of her corpse? It’s not only Martinez’s imagery that recalls Richter; so does the dusky, low-contrast grisaille of his pictures, redolent as well of the leaden atmosphere that typifies memories of the era of European ultra-left terrorism. (The German title of Margarethe von Trotta’s 1981 film inspired by the RAF is Die Bleierne Zeit, literally The Time of Lead, though it was released in English as Marianne and Juliane.) And like Richter, Martinez puts the historical photos of Meinhof at a distance, though not by painting them, as Richter did; instead, he embeds them in his own photographs, juxtaposing his self-portrait with her image.

Martinez shot the photos during a 2016 residency at the American Academy in Berlin. Some viewers might recognize the setting of some of the images, but in many cases the background is a nondescript bit of parkland or fairly anonymous modern architecture that even people who know Berlin are unlikely to recognize. For most of us, it’s the press release that confirms the scene as the formerly divided city—and, even more to the point, that each photograph was taken at a spot somewhere along the former Berlin Wall. In one of the images, there is a wall behind Martinez adorned with a socialist-realist mural of happy workers on the march, mainly women—a work painted by Max Linger in 1953, just before the violently repressed workers’ uprising of that June.

In each of these “geographically specific yet seemingly ambiguous locations,” as the press release puts it, Martinez, bundled up against the Berlin winter and wearing a heavy wool cap, poses holding a pole bearing a sort of banner imprinted with Meinhof’s image. We see her in close-up, in one picture, looking burdened, almost mournful; in another, wearing a turtleneck, she cocks her head to the side—it reminds me of a yearbook photo. A third shot shows her reclining, a cigarette in her mouth, with a necklace over her closed collar; this one could almost have been in a fashion magazine. Seeing her behind big, dark glasses, one can imagine her as the fugitive on the run; and then there she is, dead, with the dark line around her neck where the rope had been.

As for Martinez, his appearance in the photographs is more consistent—naturally enough, since, unlike those of Meinhof, they were taken around the same time and using the same clothes. But it’s also his expression that’s consistent: grave, self-contained, pensive. He stands, usually, at a distance from the camera, and in no case does his figure dominate the composition. Hardly ever does he look at the camera, as though preferring to avoid the gaze of others, the better to follow his own thoughts. In each photograph, the scene is empty of people other than Martinez; I suspect they were taken in the early hours just after dawn, when few are about.

The emptiness of the scenes is striking, all the more so because, at least to me, Martinez seems to be presenting himself as something like one of those secondary figures in Renaissance paintings, “staffage” as they’re called—for instance, those men in a background procession while some momentous event, a miracle or a crucifixion, is happening front and center. To what history is Martinez a bystander? His photographs refer us to a past whose traces are mostly hard to make out, yet somehow inexpungible. Meinhof, too, was part of history’s staffage, but in a different way: She wanted to take charge of the course of historical change, but achieved nothing. All the theorizing, the plotting, the robberies, the killings—none of the RAF’s activities, as Wollen said, had as much impact as their suicides.

Nor, I might add, could the wall’s fearsome and glowering presence erect a permanent division in the heart of the city. Taking its ghostly footprint as his pathway through Berlin, Martinez also touches on some key passages in contemporary German art. Along with their overt allusion to Richter, his photographs quietly seem to echo, whether consciously or not, works as different as Thomas Struth’s unpeopled photographic cityscapes (he called them “Unconscious Places” and, after the fall of the wall, extended his study to sites in the former East Germany, including Berlin) and Anselm Kiefer’s predominantly gray landscapes, divided by roads pulling the eye deep into the distance. I can imagine Martinez brooding as he made these pictures: What would it feel like not to be Meinhof herself, but rather to be a German, not an American, artist—to have to contend with this particular burden of history (no heavier, in fact, than our own, which is equally soaked in blood)? And in that way, he might almost be making a sort of confession: No matter how much I want to, I can’t imagine being German. Or maybe: I can’t imagine ever wanting to be German.

In other words, these photographs ask how we are made by history, and what it means, in turn, to hope that we can make history. Martinez’s subtitle puts the notion that “time is a flat circle”—in other words, that we are destined merely to repeat the past, and that it is impossible to rise to a higher level—into the mouth of someone else unnamed; he acknowledges the idea but does not declare it as his own. Instead, by identifying himself with the tragically deluded figure of Ulrike Meinhof—though each and every one of his images testifies that they can’t be the same—he stands by the claim that individuals can change history, even if they usually fail to do so.

In a separate room, Martinez showed an older work, previously included in the 2008 Whitney Biennial, that is much less resonant than the Meinhof photographs but that serves as an apt footnote to them. Divine Violence is a set of more than 100 wooden panels—hand-painted signs, essentially, with black lettering on gold automotive paint—bearing the names of organizations that used violence to achieve political ends. These names tell us something about the organizations’ motivations, but nothing of their justification or efficacy. The phrase “divine violence” comes from Walter Benjamin’s early essay “Critique of Violence” (1921), and we can perhaps give him the last word, or the next to last: Such violence is “unalloyed,” or ethical, because it is revolutionary—quite unlike the state’s violence in service of enforcing the status quo. Benjamin concludes, however, that it is often unclear when such divine violence has actually occurred. In retrospect, it seems easy to understand that Meinhof’s violence was not of this sort, whatever her intentions. To say, more than 40 years after her death, “I am Ulrike Meinhof” is to say that I know what she could not know or could not admit: that divine violence is possible, but not for us.