Peter Wollen

Peter Wollen teaches at UCLA.

Beyond Zero: Kazimir Malevich

Peter Wollen, 1 April 2004

Kazimir Malevich was the most enigmatic and the most provocative painter of the early Soviet period. He can be seen as a pioneer of abstraction and of the minimalist works produced many years later by such artists as Barnett Newman, Mark Rothko and Yves Klein. Or he can be regarded as a folk artist, or as a visionary who proposed to launch his Suprematist constructions and artworks into outer...

Late in August I visited Documenta 11, the most recent version of the mega-exhibition that has been held in the German city of Kassel since 1955, when Arnold Bode, a professor of art at the Kassel Academy, decided to organise an international art show. It achieved such success that it soon became a crucial element of Kassel’s character as a city, once the arms industry had gone.

Hare’s Blood: John Berger

Peter Wollen, 4 April 2002

John Berger’s selected essays run to nearly six hundred pages, yet that is just the tip of the iceberg if one looks at the totality of his published work: the essays and reviews about the visual arts – drawing, painting, photography, film – but also short stories, journals, screenplays, travel articles, letters, television scripts, translations, novels, poems, even a requiem...

Leave-Taking: Baader Meinhof Studies

Peter Wollen, 5 April 2001

In June 1995, the Museum of Modern Art in New York announced that it had acquired a series of 15 paintings by the German artist Gerhard Richter, collectively entitled October 18, 1977. At 11 p.m. on 17 October, the prison officer in charge of the four prisoners on the seventh floor of the high-security wing of Stammheim prison in Stuttgart had noted in his night duty report: ‘23.00...

Tankishness: Tank by Patrick Wright

Peter Wollen, 16 November 2000

The tank, I was surprised to learn, was a British invention. It provided a much-needed response to the recent development of barbed wire, fortified trenches and rapid-fire machine-guns. Armoured against both wire and gunfire, the tank could lurch across trenches and traverse roadless battlefields pitted with shell craters. I was even more surprised to learn that the tank was developed in the...

Scaling Up: At Tate Modern

Peter Wollen, 20 July 2000

The first breakthrough in the transformation of the South Bank of the Thames came in 1951 with the Festival of Britain, which established this stretch of riverside as a public space, and brought in its aftermath the Festival Hall, the National Film Theatre and, on the other side of Giles Gilbert Scott’s Waterloo Bridge, the new National Theatre. The next came in 1977, with the foundation of the Coin Street Action Group when, reacting against a decline in public housing and the proliferation of office blocks, the inhabitants of the area to the east of the South Bank Centre began to organise to defend their homes. In 1984, with support from Ken Livingstone and the GLC, they fought off the property developers, founded housing co-operatives and opened up the area around what are now Bernie Spain Gardens and the converted Oxo Tower Wharf, thus lengthening the Thames Path, so that eventually there would be pedestrian access all the way to Blackfriars Bridge and beyond, to the new Globe Theatre and now, of course, to the old Bankside Power Station – also the work of Giles Gilbert Scott – or Tate Modern. After my second trip to this astonishingly successful museum, I walked back across the slightly swaying Millennium Bridge towards St Paul’s and, looking back towards Bankside, I began to think about the life and work of Hagop Sandaldjian.’

Say hello to Rodney: How art becomes kitsch

Peter Wollen, 17 February 2000

The hero of Celeste Olalquiaga’s book is a hermit crab encased in a glass globe which she has chosen to christen ‘Rodney’. She first encountered Rodney, as she recounts, in a San Francisco bed and breakfast, a Victorian mansion in which every room had been named after a supposed turn-of-the-century guest – Isadora Duncan, Enrico Caruso, Luisa Tetrazzini – and decorated in an appropriate style. She climbed laboriously up to a small ‘chamber’ – it was the Jack London room – in one of the mansion’s towers where, among a plethora of nautical bric-à-brac, she found, on the bedside table, her crustacean muse. Rodney, of course, was long dead inside the mollusc shell that served as his hermitage, but encased in his glass sphere by the Iminac Company of Lake Jackson, Texas, he’d been preserved against decay. In effect, he had become – simultaneously – mummy, exhibit and bibelot, a quintessentially kitsch object which entranced its discoverer, fond admirer and future theorist. Rodney provoked in her reveries of an underwater world full of sunken treasure and forgotten shipwrecks. ‘Unwilling to let go of the reverie,’ she writes, ‘I press my face against the transparent bubble that holds him, hoping this gesture will bring him a little closer for a few more seconds. But I have returned from my musing and the spell is broken.’’‘

J. Hoberman’s book, appropriately enough, is a cinematic montage of reflections on the long-drawn-out demise of the former Soviet Union, seen through the eyes of a New York journalist and film critic: a process that began with the death of Stalin and ended with the sale of chunks of the Berlin Wall in Bloomingdale’s. Hoberman chronicles these events from the point of view of three related personae: the thoughtful Jewish New Yorker, reading the novels of Victor Serge or reconsidering the Rosenberg case; the compulsive film aficionado, intrigued by the representation of the Communist world in Soviet films, Hollywood movies and the work of the East European New Wave directors, such as Gyula Gazdag or Dusan Makavejev; and then the cultural historian, provoked by the appearance in a New York gallery of Sots Art, an ironic appropriation of ‘socialist’ art by Vitaly Komar and Alexander Melamid, into trying to understand the deeper significance of Socialist Realism. This fascinating book swoops and lurches from topic to topic, but the reader’s feeling of disorientation is more than compensated for by the exhilaration of the ride, which ends in a nightmare dream-sequence, a crazy amalgam of Hellzapoppin’ and October (‘an imaginary documentary projected on actual locations’) with the Rosenbergs cast as ‘the Lone Ranger and Tonto of Knickerbocker village’. In other words, a provocatively chaotic and hilarious book about a rigorously controlled and tragic era.‘

I was living in Paris in 1959, the year of both Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless and Budd Boetticher’s The Rise and Fall of Legs Diamond, and I went to see both of these films the week they were released. In fact, I went back to see them a number of times. I couldn’t help noticing that Godard quoted from another Boetticher movie in the course of Breathless, in the scene where the small-time gangster Michel Poiccard, played by Jean-Paul Belmondo, dives into a cinema on the Champs Elysées in order to shake off a wearisome tail. The film which is up on the screen turns out to be Budd Boetticher’s Westbound, one of the Randolph Scott cycle, although the voice that we hear on the soundtrack is mysteriously speaking some lines of poetry by Guillaume Apollinaire. In a way, this aberrant moment summed up Godard’s appeal for me – the perverse mixture of Modernism with B-movies, as if an Apollinaire poem somehow fitted quite naturally with a low-budget picture, a minor Warner Brothers production; as if you could love them both at the same time. Samuel Fuller’s extraordinary Crimson Kimono also came out in 1959 and, sure enough, Sam Fuller shows up in Godard’s films six years later, in Pierrot le Fou, where le grand Sam appears as a party guest to define film as ‘like a battleground. Yes … Love. Hate. Action. Violence. Death. In one word … Emotion.’ Fuller, we have been told, is in Paris to make a movie of Baudelaire’s Fleurs du Mal.’‘

Writing about Goya’s Black Paintings in Art after Modernism, a collection of essays published in 1984 by the New Museum in downtown New York, Kathy Acker argued that ‘the only reaction against an unbearable society is equally unbearable nonsense.’ She once said she didn’t expect anyone to read any of her books from beginning to end: ‘even in Empire of the Senseless, which is the most narrative book, you could read pretty much anywhere.’ In other words, you could make your own montage, you could appropriate and re-order, just as Kathy Acker had appropriated and re-ordered the writing of others – Harold Robbins or Cervantes or Ian Fleming or Propertius. In a sense, her writing was an extension of her reading, so that her plagiarism was a way of reading, or rereading, appropriating and customising what she read, writing herself, so to speak, into the fabric of the original text. Acker used to read her own texts, too, each one eight times, redrafting it after each reading: once for meaning, once for beauty, once for sound, once to the mirror to see how it looked, once for rhythm, once for structure, and so on. Writing and reading became as confused and mixed up as sense and nonsense, male and female, self and other, the sexual and the political. On the nihilism, as she saw it, of Caravaggio’s David with the Head of Goliath, Acker said: ‘The sexual is the political realm. There is no engagement.’’‘

Thatcher’s Artists

Peter Wollen, 30 October 1997

Art catalogues have drifted away from being simple accessories to exhibitions and become instead strange hybrid forms somewhere between cultural studies primers and coffee-table books. They provide both an intellectual commentary, written by academics, journalists and art-world figures, and a comprehensive set of colour reproductions of the works in a show, taken by specialised photographers. From a practical point of view they are freebies for the press, commodities to be sold in the museum store and in the wider world, promotion tools for the museum and the artists and, perhaps most important of all, they endow exhibitions with a durable after-life in libraries, both private and public. The catalogue for Sensation, the show of works by young British artists from the Saatchi collection, currently on view at the Royal Academy of Arts in Piccadilly, runs over two hundred pages, with more than a hundred colour plates, as well as a series of black and white portrait photographs of the artists taken by Johnnie Shand Kydd. It has five catalogue essays, several pages of artists’ biographies, a bibliography and, as the very last item in the book, a six-page checklist of the 110 works in the exhibition, with an apparatus of dates and dimensions. The cover design of the book is not drawn from the works on display in the show but was produced for the book by a design company. It is as vivid and arresting as the artworks documented inside, perhaps even more so.

The Same Old Solotaire

Peter Wollen, 4 July 1996

Yeats had no doubt how and when the fatal blow was struck. In his memoirs, he noted that ‘the condemnation of Wilde had brought ruin upon a whole movement in art and letters.’ Yeats himself was fortunate that the Celtic Revival, which ran in close tandem with Decadence, had special resources of its own. Two of the great iconic victims of the social purity movement, the repressive engine of Late Victorianism, were themselves Irish – Parnell and Wilde – and Yeats was able to incorporate their tragedies into his heroic narrative of Irish nationalism. Moreover, as Yeats himself pointed out, his own circle – the poets of the Rhymers’ Club – were too marginal to be significantly affected by the Wilde verdict. They only aimed to sell three hundred copies and wrote ‘for the smaller public that has knowledge and is undisturbed by popular feeling’.’


Peter Wollen, 19 October 1995

My first thoughts, in connection with suits, are of Lucky Lucan, Joseph Beuys and the Thin White Duke, at the head of an imaginary horde of accountants, dandies, clubland heroes, zoot-suiters and funeral directors. It has taken me some time to realise that the question of suits is indeed a crucial question, not only about fashion but about sexual identity, national culture and art history. My slow awakening may well be typical. Whatever their knowledge of the great dress designers – from Worth and Doucet through Poiret and Schiaparelli to Westwood and Miyake – I do not think that many people could name a great tailor or men’s clothes designer who flourished before the Fifties, before Brioni and Cardin and Armani succeeded in wresting the hegemony from Savile Row. Yet Savile Row dominated male fashion for more than a century, just as the rue de la Paix has dominated female fashion. Tailors have never been given the credit that has gone to couturiers. They have stayed in the shadows, sitting cross-legged or wielding their tape-measures in traditional obscurity.’

Wild Hearts

Peter Wollen, 6 April 1995

In 1978, at a seminar on John Maynard Keynes held by the University of Kent, Raymond Williams talked about ‘The Significance of Bloomsbury as a Social and Cultural Group’. He accepted Leonard Woolf’s characterisation of Bloomsbury as consisting ‘of the upper levels of the professional middle class and county families, interpenetrated to a certain extent by the aristocracy’ with ‘an intricate tangle of ancient roots and tendrils stretching far and wide’ through those classes. Williams also noted the importance of the Imperial bureaucracy in this tangle, especially the top echelons of the administration of India. Finally, he characterised Bloomsbury as an upper-class ‘fraction’, which turned against its own class without identifying itself with the subaltern classes and peoples, except insofar as it saw them as ‘victims’. This fraction played an important ‘liberalising’ and ‘modernising’ role, producing ‘adaptations’ rather than ‘basic changes’. It was against the ‘dominant ideas and values’ of the English upper class, while ‘still willingly, in all immediate ways, part of it’.

Hitting the buffers

Peter Wollen, 8 September 1994

In the summer of 1913, Jacques Copeau, the French stage pioneer, who had just founded his Théâtre du Vieux Colombier in Paris, wrote to Duncan Grant asking him to prepare the costumes and design for an innovative production of Twelfth Night. Grant completed the commission, using fabrics from the Omega Workshop for the costumes, and went over to Paris the following February to attend rehearsals and install his work. While there he was taken to Picasso’s studio by Gertrude Stein, a visit which led to him bringing Picasso some rolls of old wallpaper which he had found abandoned in his hotel room, so that Picasso could use them for his collages. Thus Blooms-bury played its part.

Diary: In the Tunnel

Peter Wollen, 28 April 1994

Our cosmopolitan party converged on Arras from east, north, south and west, to be gathered together and loaded onto a tourist bus and driven to the Channel Tunnel reception centre at Sangatte, near Calais. There things took an unexpected turn. We were issued with special boots, hard hats, goggle-like glasses and – most alarmingly – yellow oilskins. The last time I had worn these was on a visit to Niagara Falls, where The Maid of the Mist takes tourists into the drenching spray at the very foot of the falls. Marilyn Monroe wears them in the movie, Niagara, and you can see them on Gene Kelly and the gang in the pre-credit sequence of Singin’ in the Rain.’

In his angry letter, Robert Storr (Letters, 21 June) takes issue with being described as editor rather than author of Gerhard Richter: ‘October 18, 1977’. This error was introduced by the LRB. Storr points out that roughly half his book is given over to the rise and fall of the Baader-Meinhof Group and the other half to Richter’s paintings and the aesthetic problems they raise. The...

Say hello to Rodney

17 February 2000

I'm sorry – I didn't mean to imply, in my piece on kitsch, that Dave Hickey was Clement Greenberg's heir, as his letter presumes (Letters, 30 March). In fact, it was Michael Fried whom I thought of as the heir and consequently I was struck by the paradox of Hickey subsequently making use of Fried's work to inflate the reputation of Greenberg's particular bête noire, Norman Rockwell. On...

Stalin at the Movies

25 November 1999

Mike Eaude (Letters, 6 January) takes me to task for my remarks on the relationships between Andres Nin, Victor Serge and Trotsky. Eaude writes that ‘Trotsky was totally on Nin’s side’: in fact, Trotsky repeatedly criticised Nin, then leader of the POUM, throughout the months prior to his murder by Stalin’s agents in 1937. For example, in January of that year, Serge wrote to...

Gentle Questions

6 April 1995

Peter Wollen writes: My review covered themes and areas James King scarcely touches on. There is no mention of Raymond Williams in his book or his bibliography, no mention of Diaghilev or Poiret or Carpenter or The Making of Americans. Harriet Weaver is characterised simply as a ‘devoted admirer’ of Joyce, and Rupert Brooke flits through a few breathless pages alongside a host of other...

Vehicles of Dissatisfaction: Men and Motors

Jonathan Dollimore, 24 July 2003

Gridlock is a great leveller. It immobilises the fastest roadster as surely as the slowest truck. It reminds us that the car is an indispensable part of what we are, but also a threat to us....

Read More

Mad Monk: not going to the movies

Jenny Diski, 6 February 2003

I think it is two years since I’ve been to the cinema. This is something of a mystery to me, like love gone wrong: in fact, it is love gone wrong. Was the love misguided in the first place,...

Read More

The names of the actors appear briefly on a dark screen. We hear the sound of a car on a road. A title reads: ‘This film is based on a true story.’ Then we see a large American car...

Read More

Many Andies

Andrew O’Hagan, 16 October 1997

All his life Andy Warhol looked like death. He came into the world that way: blank, rheumy-eyed, sick as the day was long. An unmerry child with St Vitus’ Dance, the young Warhol lay...

Read More

From Plato to Nato

Christopher Norris, 7 July 1983

Eagleton’s book is both a primer and a postmortem. It surveys the varieties of recent and present-day literary theory, only to suggest – in its closing chapter – that they had...

Read More

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences