Hal Foster

Hal Foster teaches at Princeton. Verso will publish his What Comes after Farce? in May.

Ubu Jarry

Hal Foster, 19 March 2020

‘Anew type has emerged,’ a critic wrote after the raucous premiere of Alfred Jarry’s Ubu roi in Paris in December 1896, ‘a popular legend of base instincts, rapacious and violent.’ ‘What more is possible?’ W.B. Yeats, who was in attendance, recalled in his autobiography. ‘After us the Savage God.’ Was the uproarious Ubu an early intimation...

Change at MoMA

Hal Foster, 7 November 2019

All the change is good, but not if we lose the plot altogether; there is no need for MoMA to mix and match to the extent that Tate Modern does. So, too, all the collaboration is good, but not if the voices of the various curators drown each other out. A protean display in frequent circulation might also be a prophylactic against criticism – Proteus shape-shifted in order not to answer questions, after all. There may be another, unintended consequence: if iconic works like Les Demoiselles d’Avignon are almost always on view, the flux elsewhere might render them more monumental, not less.

Richard Hamilton on Richard Hamilton

Hal Foster, 24 October 2019

Biographies​ of artists often read like legends of heroes. Vasari preferred his Renaissance masters to be precocious in talent, humble in origin and, if possible, anointed by a predecessor – so he gives us Cimabue discovering the shepherd boy Giotto sketching a pastoral scene with perfect skill. Born in 1922, Richard Hamilton was a working-class kid whose gift for drawing was...

At MoMA: Bruce Nauman

Hal Foster, 20 December 2018

When​ the American artist Bruce Nauman was in graduate school in the mid-1960s, the traditional forms of visual art were in deep trouble. The best new work, the Minimalist Donald Judd had asserted, was neither painting nor sculpture, and he was hardly alone in that judgment. So what might serve as a medium in default of the usual ones? What might count as art at all? In 1917 Marcel Duchamp...

Trevor Paglen

Hal Foster, 11 October 2018

How should​ a visual artist respond to a culture in which the vast majority of images are produced by machines for other machines, with humans left out of the loop? This technological turn complicates basic ideas about mimesis: that images represent the world, that they are meant to be beheld by us, that they mean at all (think of facial-recognition programs alone). The standard critique...

‘Duty Free Art’

Hal Foster, 5 April 2018

More than​ a hundred years ago new technologies transformed the aesthetic field, as painting and sculpture were pressured by photography and film, and modernists like Walter Benjamin and László Moholy-Nagy redefined literacy as the ability to read both. For Benjamin, the reproducibility of these media not only shattered the auratic power of the unique work (this was mostly...

Eduardo Paolozzi

Hal Foster, 16 February 2017

Born​ to Italian shopkeepers in Edinburgh in 1924, Eduardo Paolozzi was a key member of the Independent Group (IG) of artists, architects, curators and critics formed in London in the early 1950s. He was especially active in the New Brutalist wing of the IG, which also included the artists Nigel Henderson, William Turnbull and Magda Cordell, the architects Peter and Alison Smithson, and the...

At Tate Modern: Robert Rauschenberg

Hal Foster, 1 December 2016

‘He has created more than any artist after Picasso,’ Jasper Johns said of Robert Rauschenberg, his one-time partner, and the Rauschenberg retrospective now at Tate Modern fully attests to the sheer abundance of his six-decade career.

When​ a beloved building goes dark, a hole opens in the urban fabric: so it was when the Whitney Museum left its old home on New York’s Upper East Side, constructed by Marcel Breuer in blunt granite and concrete in 1966. Its new headquarters, designed by Renzo Piano in elegant steel and glass, opened in Chelsea last May. For many months a cultural beacon in uptown Manhattan was...


Hal Foster, 3 June 2015

The Surrealists​ liked to proclaim that everyone who dreams is a poet, and Joseph Beuys that everyone who creates is an artist. So much for the utopian days of aesthetic egalitarianism; maybe the best we can say today is that everyone who compiles is a curator. We curate our favourite photographs, songs and restaurants, or use numerous websites and applications to do it for us. Although...

After the White Cube

Hal Foster, 19 March 2015

Tate Modern II​, designed by Herzog and de Meuron, is now rising on the Thames. On the Hudson the new Whitney Museum, conceived by Renzo Piano, will open its doors in May. Guided by Diller Scofidio + Renfro, the Museum of Modern Art is planning another expansion (the last one was just ten years ago), and the Metropolitan Museum of Art will transform its modern wing by the end of the...

At the Whitney: Jeff Koons

Hal Foster, 30 July 2014

Modern art​ was born into a market economy, and by the early 20th century it could no longer ignore its commodity status. While some artists sought to escape this condition through abstraction, say, others worked to underscore it with the readymade, an everyday product they simply nominated as an artwork. In its first incarnation, with Dada, this device was taken to be critical of the...

At MoMA: Sigmar Polke

Hal Foster, 18 June 2014

For some​, Sigmar Polke is his own greatest work, which is to believe that this influential German artist, who died in 2010, counts above all because of the protean force of his personality. Polke learned the importance of persona from his charismatic teacher Joseph Beuys, and he passed it on to subsequent artists who were also wayward performers, such as the German Martin Kippenberger and...

At the Guggenheim: Italian Futurism

Hal Foster, 20 March 2014

The Italian futurists​ were hell-bent on modernity, largely because Italy was late to industrialise. Led by the strident Marinetti, these artists, architects, photographers, writers and composers were the self-appointed shock troops of the new. They were ready, rhetorically at least, to ditch traditional culture, calling for museums to be set ablaze and Venice to be paved over, and...

Rancière’s Aesthetics

Hal Foster, 9 October 2013

In the fierce critiques that the charismatic thinkers of postwar France directed at each other – Lévi-Strauss v. Sartre, Foucault v. Derrida, Deleuze and Guattari v. Lacan, to pick out just a few – the theoretical stakes were high, and the political implications seemed momentous. One could talk, seriously, of the ‘politics of theory’, and many of us distant...

At MoMA: ‘Inventing Abstraction’

Hal Foster, 7 February 2013

When Alfred H. Barr Jr launched the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 1929, it was a paradoxical enterprise: a museum for an avant-garde art that was very much a work in progress. Nevertheless, for his landmark show Cubism and Abstract Art in 1936, Barr drew up a flow chart that funnelled the various streams of modernist practice to date into two great rivers that he named...

Medieval Modern Art

Hal Foster, 8 November 2012

Typically, the first job of the art historian is to slot a work of art into its proper place in time, in the corpus of the artist who made it and in the context of the world that informed its making. Usually, we rely on the notion of ‘style’ to help with this task, to connect the work to the individual manner of its creator as well as to the collective Kunstwollen (or...

At MoMA: Cindy Sherman

Hal Foster, 10 May 2012

A master of impersonation, Cindy Sherman has served as her own model in her photographs since 1975, playing with familiar roles of female identity in series after series of inventive work. From the beginning she appeared almost too good to be true. Sherman was popular, first with other artists, gradually with the art world at large, eventually with a broad public; at the same time she could be...

At MoMA: Diego Rivera

Hal Foster, 26 January 2012

It comes as a surprise to learn that the second artist given a major show at the Museum of Modern Art was Diego Rivera, for when the exhibition opened in December 1931, the 45-year-old Mexican was already a celebrated Communist. Just as surprising, given that the museum was founded by Abby Aldrich Rockefeller and friends, is what Rivera chose to display: five fresco panels devoted to Mexican...

On Richard Hamilton

Hal Foster, 6 October 2011

Richard Hamilton, who died on 13 September at the age of 89, invented the idea of Pop art, along with his colleagues in the Independent Group, more than 50 years ago. In ‘Persuading Image’, a lecture he gave in 1959, Hamilton argued, well before it was a commonplace, that consumer society depends on the manufacturing of desire through design, forever updated by the forced...

Remnants of 9/11

Hal Foster, 8 September 2011

There is a hangar at JFK Airport – Hangar 17 – where, until recently, about 1200 pieces of steel and other objects from the World Trade Center site were warehoused. In the frenetic days after the attacks, these remains were selected as tokens of 9/11, so that they might be dispersed to memorials around the US, foremost among them the National September 11 Memorial and Museum at Ground Zero, which opens on the tenth anniversary of the event.

Agamben, Derrida and Santner

Hal Foster, 17 March 2011

Over the last decade or so critical theory has seen a marked turn to questions of ‘bare’ and ‘creaturely’ life. Why this interest in such threshold states? What’s at stake here? This kind of discourse, in which the ideas of Giorgio Agamben, Jacques Derrida and Eric Santner are central, has little to do with animal rights, and whatever bestiality is at issue is...

At the Hayward: Ed Ruscha

Hal Foster, 19 November 2009

‘Whatever my work was made up of in the beginning,’ Ed Ruscha said in 1989, ‘is exactly what it is like today.’* Well, not ‘exactly’, but his art is consistent, and this is still true 20 years later, as is made clear by the excellent survey of his paintings of the last 50 years curated by Ralph Rugoff, now at the Hayward until 10 January. Ruscha is ever...

The Situationist Moment

Hal Foster, 12 March 2009

Inspired provocateurs during May 1968 in Paris, the Situationists are now the stuff of legend: one of those rare avant-gardes whose art and politics were not only radical but also forged together in radical fashion. Yet, as these early letters of the young Guy Debord, the leader of the group, make clear, they were the stuff of legend from the start.

Business Art

Hal Foster, 9 October 2008

In 1975, Andy Warhol peered into the future and saw … Damien Hirst? ‘Business Art is the step that comes after Art,’ Warhol wrote in The Philosophy of Andy Warhol. Not only was it OK for artists to make as much money as possible, but ‘making money is art’ and ‘good business is the best art.’ At the time Warhol was the master of Business Art –...

At Inverleith House: Richard Hamilton

Hal Foster, 14 August 2008

Richard Hamilton’s ‘Protest Pictures’ have turned the galleries of Inverleith House in Edinburgh into a time-machine.* News events from the last fifty years flash up in every room, from a drug bust and a student murder in the 1960s, through the Troubles in the 1970s and 1980s, to the Gulf debacles of the last two decades. In each instance Hamilton is concerned to capture the...

There is a general recognition of a ‘late style’ in music and literature – a turn to a vital asperity towards the end of a life of composition à la Beethoven or Yeats – but less so in visual art, at least among prominent Modernists. One exception is Matisse, who, in his late cutouts, returned with gusto to ‘the purity of means’ that marked his early...

The Painting of Modern Life, the first show at the Hayward Gallery curated by its American director, Ralph Rugoff, is an ambitious attempt to see how this artistic project stands nearly 150 years after Charles Baudelaire proposed it in his essay ‘The Painter of Modern Life’ (1863). There the poet called for a shift in subject matter – already begun in the practice of Manet...

Renzo Piano

Hal Foster, 20 September 2007

A tension runs through the work of Renzo Piano. Born in 1937 into a prominent family of Genoese builders, he has long stressed his commitment to craft, to the particularities of material and making, and, though his firm has multiple offices with international projects, it is still called Building Workshop. Yet Piano burst into public view with the Centre Pompidou (1971-77), which, designed with Richard Rogers, is the most celebrated of the high-tech megastructures of the period, and today he is also associated with large urban schemes, including the redevelopment of the old harbour in Genoa (1985-92) and Potsdamer Platz in Berlin (1992-2000), as well as massive infrastructural projects such as Kansai International Airport (1988-94), for which an entire island was engineered into being in the Bay of Osaka.

Richard Rogers

Hal Foster, 19 October 2006

It sounds like a modern fairytale: in 1971 two architects, neither of them French, win the most important commission in Paris since the war, the design for the Centre Pompidou, and become famous overnight. The two – a 38-year-old Englishman called Richard Rogers and a 35-year-old Italian called Renzo Piano – design an exuberant building that delights some and outrages others: a...

Norman Foster

Hal Foster, 22 June 2006

Has any other contemporary designer ‘signed’ as many cityscapes as Norman Foster? Perhaps no architect since Christopher Wren has affected the London skyline so dramatically, from the Swiss Re ‘gherkin’ to the new Wembley Stadium arch. Foster has a right to be immodest, and the Catalogue of his work is punctuated with adjectives like ‘first’ and...

At the Guggenheim: David Smith

Hal Foster, 9 March 2006

David Smith is often seen as the Jackson Pollock of modern sculpture, the artist who transformed European innovations (in welded steel above all) into an American idiom of expanded scale and expressive power. Like most legends in art history, this isn’t false, despite the immediate catch that his greatest follower, Anthony Caro, is English. Yet it does play too neatly into the usual...

At the Guggenheim: Russian Art

Hal Foster, 3 November 2005

With every blockbuster, the Guggenheim prompts suspicion: ‘How did it get the loot, and to what end?’ The current mega-show, Russia! Nine Hundred Years of Masterworks and Master Collections, on until 11 January, is drawn mostly from the Tretyakov Gallery and the Hermitage, and it doesn’t seem too paranoid to wonder about the geopolitics in play. ‘Realised under the...

In Venice: at the Biennale

Hal Foster, 4 August 2005

Why go to the Venice Biennale and further burden a city already sinking under the pressure of its own attractiveness? It’s simple: the Biennale remains the best crash-course in contemporary art, with two major surveys, a score of national pavilions, and sundry projects scattered around town, sometimes in exquisite churches or palazzi. Documenta, the other prestigious international...

Kitsch in Bush’s America

Hal Foster, 7 July 2005

In this age of heightened spectacle and surveillance, kitsch seems an innocuous form of cultural persuasion and political manipulation. Yet since 9/11 it has returned with a vengeance in the US, with an effective brand that might as well be called ‘Bush kitsch’.

The word ‘kitsch’ comes from the German verkitschen, ‘to make cheap’, and an elitist concern...

In Central Park: The Gates

Hal Foster, 3 March 2005

‘The Gates’, the orange portals and banners that punctuated many of the paths in Central Park from 12 to 27 February, were greeted with great delight. People were first softened up by the numbers – 7532 portals, 5290 tons of steel, 60 miles of vinyl tubing, 116,389 miles of pleated nylon, 23 miles of trails, $21 million in costs – and then worked over by all the wacky...

It’s Modern but is it contemporary?

Hal Foster, 16 December 2004

“Such is the predicament of MoMA vis-à-vis the expanded field of contemporary art: how to contain, let alone to present, work that is immense, site-specific, and/or project-based? Here as elsewhere the response is better big than sorry – big as in 15,000 square feet with walls 21 feet high. But not all contemporary artists require the room that Serra needs (he will have a retrospective here in 2007); his scale shouldn’t be the norm. Huge is not necessarily flexible; in fact it can be quite rigid. Flexible can mean a mix of large and small spaces, and no doubt that is what we will see in the future. Yet the high walls will remain difficult: not much else can hold such a white field except extreme Minimalism or painterly bombast”

In the early 1950s I was awakened by the photographs of Walker Evans and the movies of John Ford, especially Grapes of Wrath where the poor ‘Okies’ go to California with mattresses on their cars rather than stay in Oklahoma and starve. I faced a sort of black-and-white cinematic identity crisis myself in this respect … a little like trading dust for oranges. On the way to...

At the Guggenheim: Pop Surrealism

Hal Foster, 18 December 2003

The first painting you see at the James Rosenquist retrospective at the Guggenheim in New York until 25 January is President Elect: a broad headshot of a beaming JFK, manicured fingers with a piece of cake, and the sleek side of a pale green sedan. A collage study reveals the sources to be a campaign poster and two magazine ads; cropped and gridded, then painted on canvas, the images promise...

In an art gallery over the last decade you might have happened on one of the following. A room empty except for a stack of identical sheets of paper – white, sky-blue, or printed with a simple image of an unmade bed or birds in flight – or a mound of identical sweets wrapped in brilliant coloured foil, the sweets, like the paper, free for the taking. Or a space where office...

William Gaddis

Hal Foster, 24 July 2003

Off and on, for over half a century, William Gaddis worked on a manuscript about the short life of the player piano in the United States. Over fifty years on an outmoded entertainment? There is more here than meets the eye: ‘Agapē Agape is a satirical celebration of the conquest of technology and of the place of art and the artist in a technological democracy,’ Gaddis wrote in a...

The Dia Art Foundation has supported a select group of innovative artists with lavish patronage since its founding in 1974. At first, it favoured Minimalist sculptors such as Donald Judd and Dan Flavin and installation artists such as Walter de Maria and James Turrell, and certainly the early projects underwritten by Dia, from permanent exhibitions in New York City to massive earthworks in...

‘Lingua Franca’

Hal Foster, 8 May 2003

The cultural strategy of the Reaganite Right was prepared as early as 1976 by Daniel Bell in Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism. Blame the counterculture of the 1960s and 1970s – rebellious students, civil rights agitators, wild-eyed feminists – for the grievous decline in public morality, cultural literacy, educational standards and everything else that has gone to hell: blame...

Plans for Ground Zero

Hal Foster, 20 March 2003

In November 2001 the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation was set up to guide the reconstruction of the World Trade Center site. It hired the architectural firm Beyer Blinder Belle to draw up various schemes, which were presented last July at a large town meeting, where they were trashed as bland by focus groups. This was a triumphant moment for a quasi-democratic New York urbanism:...

Handmade Readymades

Hal Foster, 22 August 2002

In the early 1960s a spectre was haunting New York, the spectre of banality. Hannah Arendt was publishing her articles on ‘Eichmann in Jerusalem’ in the New Yorker, and the mostly Jewish intellectual community associated with Partisan Review, Dissent and Commentary was appalled by her notion of the ‘banality of evil’ . The very phrase (many readers got no further)...

Reyner Banham

Hal Foster, 9 May 2002

Reyner Banham was as smart and sassy as any critic in the postwar period. What made him distinctive was his passion for the edgiest expressions of his technological age, not only in avant-garde architecture but in anything designed – Cadillacs and transistor radios, custom hot-rods and painted surfboards, gadgets and gizmos; all of which he discussed with great verve in 12 books and...

Andy Warhol

Hal Foster, 21 March 2002

In his account of late capitalism Fredric Jameson describes its cultural logic as if it were a schizophrenic – broken in language, amnesiac about history, in thrall to glossy images, subject to mood-swings from speedy euphoria to catatonic withdrawal. No wonder that his exemplar is Andy Warhol. ‘Warhol distrusted language,’ Wayne Koestenbaum writes on the first page of his...

Rem Koolhaas

Hal Foster, 29 November 2001

In Delirious New York (1978), his ‘retroactive manifesto’ for Manhattan, Rem Koolhaas published an old tinted postcard of the city skyline in the early 1930s. It presents the Empire State, Chrysler, and other landmark buildings of the time with a visionary twist – a dirigible is set to dock at the spire of the Empire State. It is an image of the 20th-century city as a...

Frank Gehry

Hal Foster, 23 August 2001

For many people, Frank Gehry is not only our master architect but our master artist as well. In the current retrospective which is about to transfer from the Guggenheim in New York to the one in Bilbao, he is often called a genius without a blush of embarrassment (Thomas Krens, Guggenheim director and Gehry ‘collaborator’, can’t get enough of the word). Why all the hoopla?...

Bruce Mau

Hal Foster, 5 April 2001

The turn of one century calls up others, and 2000 was no exception. Museum shows devoted to Style 1900 or Art Nouveau were on view in London, Paris, New York and other cities. It all looked long ago and far away, this pan-European movement pledged to a Gesamtkunstwerk of arts and crafts, in which everything from architecture to ashtrays was subject to florid design, in which the designer...

The Great US Election Disaster

Hal Foster, 30 November 2000

Who would have thought it? George W. Bush as President. I almost forgot what nauseated disbelief was like: I had not felt it so intensely since Reagan won in 1980. You look around, dazed and confused, and wonder: how did this happen? What is this country that elected this man as its President? (That is, if it did elect him: we still don’t know what happened in Florida, and we may never...

What does a Princeton graduate whose old dream it was to write for the New Yorker do when that dream comes true, only to discover that his cherished magazine is no longer the middlebrow arbiter of high culture of his imagining, but just another media outlet frantic for its market share of mass culture? On one level Nobrow is the story of this rude awakening, the Bildungsroman of a smart ex-preppie caught between the old ‘Townhouse’ of good taste, as vetted by the New Yorker of lore, and the new ‘Megastore’ where culture and marketing are one, as exemplified by the Star Wars industry. Born to the old world (‘taste was my cultural capital, boiled down to a syrup’), John Seabrook, a critic at large for the New Yorker, wanders in the new, but this desert of ‘Nobrow’ – where the old ‘brow’ distinctions no longer seem to apply – is not so arid to him. In fact he drinks more deeply at the oases of Nobrow culture (a Chemical Brothers concert, for example, which he experiences as ‘an intense moment of ecstatic communion with youth’) than he does in the gardens of highbrow culture – ‘interesting plays, the Rothko show, the opera and, sometimes, downtown happenings’.’‘

Following on the debate about the worldwide protests on 15 February (Letters, 3 April), I note that the anti-war demonstration in New York on 22 March was badly underreported in the media and wildly underestimated in its numbers: for more than four hours marchers flowed down a packed Broadway from Times Square to Washington Square, some forty blocks to the south. Lest your readers missed it altogether,...

The Phoneless Masses

21 September 2000

When, in my review of Nobrow by John Seabrook, I invoked the ‘phoneless masses’, it was not to suggest, as Laura Mandell has it (Letters, 2 November), that I am deeply in touch with them: it was only to question Seabrook’s breezy assumption that everybody’s now on line and in line with the world of the media-entertainment conglomerates. it’s his totalisation that was at...

The First Pop Age

Anne Wagner, 11 October 2012

When Hal Foster uses the word ‘first’ in the title of his confidently focused study, he means to start us thinking about Pop now and then. It is a reference to Reyner Banham’s

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20th-Century Art

Frances Richard, 6 April 2006

Helen Gardner’s benevolently dictatorial Art through the Ages was published in 1926, and remained the pre-eminent survey for American undergraduates until 1962, when H.W. Janson’s

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