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New Left Review I/207, September-October 1994

Julian Stallabrass

Success and Failure of Peter Fuller

The British have not been well served by their most popular critics of modern art. Their specious prose and philosophical posturing often masked confused, contradictory thought, producing a writing that was both patronizing and mystifying. They tended to be isolated by an atmosphere of philistine hostility which rarely allowed them to proceed beyond an endless rehearsal of fundamentals—supposing that their thought would have allowed it. The most celebrated critic of the Thatcher years was not one to accept this condition lightly: Peter Fuller was an irascible and uncompromising writer, who, while never forgetting to court a public, journeyed from Marxist to conservative, from materialist to quasi-religious views, barely touching the middle ground. Of his early affiliations Fuller wrote, ‘. . .in the early 1970s, I certainly came close to believing that the editorial board of the nlr had access to “The Truth”, to which I could be a party if only I understood their texts correctly.’ [1] Peter Fuller, Marches Past, London 1986, p. 7. This attitude was abandoned in the later seventies in favour first of essentialism (founded on psychoanalysis and biology) and then conservatism. Two recent books, assembled from fragments of Fuller’s work, provide an opportunity to assess his later writing and to suggest its relation to the state of contemporary art and criticism: Peter Fuller’s Modern Painters is a collection of essays and lectures, and Henry Moore is collated from published essays and unpublished notes according to a plan which Fuller had made before his death in 1990. [2] Peter Fuller’s Modern Painters. Reflections on British Art, edited by John McDonald, Methuen, London 1993, £25 (henceforth mp). Despite the title, the essays are from a variety of sources, not just Modern Painters, and they include some not previously published; Henry Moore. An Interpretation, edited by Anthony O’Hear, Methuen, London 1993, £16 (henceforth hm). Fuller’s books and Modern Painters, the magazine which he founded, reached a public well beyond the normally closed circle of the art world, and so they are interesting not only for their content but also as cultural phenomena. Although, following his death, his reputation has gone into decline, an analysis of Fuller’s work and political trajectory may yield insights into the condition of culture under Thatcherism.

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