Hal Foster, who is the Townsend Martin, Class of 1917, Professor of Art and Archaeology at Princeton University, is an internationally renowned author of books on post-modernism in art. Born 1955 in Seattle, the son of a partner in the distinguished law firm of Foster Pepper and Shefelman, Foster was educated at a private academy, Lakeside School, where one of his classmates was Microsoft founder Bill Gates.
Hal Foster’s intellectual formation was constituted, initially as a critic, then as a critical art historian, in the fraught cultural context of late-1970s New York. Following his undergraduate education at Princeton, he first began to write art criticism for Artforum in 1978. This criticism was marked by a precocious ability to theorize postmodernism through critical theory. The strength of his early writing quickly propelled Foster into a major presence in the New York art scene: from 1981-1987 he was an associate, then senior editor at Art in America; in 1983 he edited a seminal collection of essays on postmodernism, The Anti-Aesthetic: Essays on Postmodern Culture; and in 1985 he published his first collection of essays, Recodings: Art Spectacle, Cultural Politics.
Shortly after the appearance of Recodings, Foster’s semi-independent position as an art critic began to shift towards a more academically affiliated position as an art historian. Leaving Art in America in 1987, he became the director of critical and curatorial studies at the Whitney Independent Study Program until 1991 (though his involvement continues into the present). Foster received his Ph. D. from the Graduate Center at the City University of New York in 1990, writing a dissertation on Surrealism under the direction of Rosalind Krauss (later revised to become his first book, Compulsive Beauty). In 1991 he assumed a position in the Department of Art History at Cornell University, the same year that joined the editorial board of the journal October, a position he continues to hold. Foster left Cornell in 1997 to assume his current chaired professorship in the Department of Art and Archaeology at Princeton University. In addition to Recodings and several edited collections, Foster’s books include Compulsive Beauty (1993), The Return of the Real (1996), Design and Crime (and Other Diatribes) (2002), and Prosthetic Gods (2004). He is also the author, with Rosalind Krauss, Yve-Alain Bois, and Benjamin H. D. Buchloh, of the recent textbook Art since 1900: Modernism, Antimodernism, Postmodernism (2004).
Along with other members of the October editorial board, and an older generation of critic-historians whom he cites as intellectual models (most notably Michael Fried, Rosalind Krauss, and T. J. Clark) Foster has consistently worked to straddle the double role of critic and historian. In large part the double imperative of history and criticism (an imperative central to all his writing) is a direct result of being intellectually constituted at the juncture of late modernism and emergent postmodernism. For Foster, as with other like-minded critics of his generation, postmodernism offered the productive potential of a historical rupture, while maintaining a ground in the antecedent practices of the historical- and neo-avant-garde. As he argues in The Return of the Real, this often vexed relation between historical discontinuity and continuity was a central problem of the avant-garde. The continued avant-garde negotiation between social-political critique and historical engagement is, for Foster, the core challenge of art history and production in the wake of modernism. Foster argues for a variety of ways in which avant-garde postmodernism extends the critical advances of late-modernism. First, postmodernism moves beyond a tendency to level critique within and at the institutions of art (the gallery/museum), opening instead onto more extended public sphere (bus shelters, baseball stadiums, taxi cabs, etc.). Second, in moving beyond the institutional framework of art, there is a concurrent shift away from a modernist “deconstructive” engagement with conventional art forms such as painting (Daniel Buren’s banners, for example) and sculpture (Michael Asher’s displacements). Third, while Minimalism and post-Minimalism activated the body of the viewer, postmodernism no longer assumes this body to be gender, race, or class neutral. And finally, critical postmodernism, attempts to circumvent the danger that late-modernist institutional critique will fold back into the mainstream of institutional practice, becoming it own professionally sanctioned form of expertise.
By the mid-1990s, the future viability of a postmodern avant-garde—conceived as a dialectical negotiation of the “temporal, diachronic, or vertical axis” of history with the “spatial, synchronic, or horizontal axis” of the social—had, for Foster, entered a state of crisis. This breakdown in the historical-critical axes of the avant-grade was born, he claims, not of the failure of the avant-garde, but of its very success. Indeed, for Foster, the imbalance and eventual nullification of the dialectical terms “history” and “criticism” can be traced to the very efforts of the avant-garde to shift a historically grounded criterion of quality, to a socially or politically determined criterion of interest. This is a crucial move for Foster, as it allows for an acknowledgment of avant-garde crisis, while resisting the despondency of various positions that proclaim the initial failure of historical avant-garde, and worse, the farcical reputation of this failure within the neo-avant-garde (as argued Peter Bürger’s influential Theory of the Avant-Garde).
If Foster advocates a recuperative dialectic for the neo-avant-garde through to the first generation of avant-garde postmodernism, by the mid-1990s the dialectical engine of history and critique, as he sees it, is no longer working. Foster thus advances an alternate historical-critical model conceived on the Freudian notion of deferred action (nachträglichkeit). According to Foster’s model of deferred action, the historical and epistemological significance of the avant-garde is never fully apprehended in the first instance. Nor can it ever be, as, for Foster, the avant-garde is registered as a form of trauma—as a hole in the symbolic order of history. Thus, while the historical avant-garde grappled to work through the traumas of modernity, the neo-avant-garde responds to, and attempts to work through, the deferred trauma of this initial working through. No longer an evolutionary avant-garde of historical progress, Foster replaces dialectical sublation with nachträglichkeit, and the past and future tenses of continuity and rupture with the future-anterior of the will-have-been.
As a recent recipient of Guggenheim and CASVA fellowships, he continues to write regularly for the London Review of Books, the Los Angeles Times Book Review, October (where he is also a co-editor), and the New Left Review.
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