In the First Person
Hal Foster: The History of the Present
Afonso Dias Ramos

Critic and historian Hal Foster, one of the most influential and prolific authors on modern and contemporary art, design, architecture, and postmodernism, talks to Electra about the status and function of critical theory in the current political juncture. He revisits the journey which has taken him from the radicalism of the New York intellectual milieu during the 1970s, to the preparation of an upcoming book around the popular idea of a ‘banal aesthetics’.

Hal Foster has been pushing the boundaries of cultural criticism for over forty years, following the modernist tradition of the public intellectual who analyses contemporary culture with a deep commitment to history writing. Foster’s reputation as a formidable critic and innovative historian extends well beyond the disciplinary confines of modern and contemporary art into architecture, design, literature, and theory. Intellectually formed as an art critic in the radical context of late 1970s New York, heavily invested in revisionist readings of Marx, Freud, Nietzsche and Lacan, and coming into prominence during the culture wars of the 1980s against the backdrop of an exploding art market and cultural industry, Hal Foster has devoted most of his life to probing the potentials and pitfalls of critique. This year marks the fortieth anniversary of his first edited book, The Anti-Aesthetic: Essays on Postmodern Culture (1983), a ground-breaking anthology that assembled heavyweight critics such as Rosalind E. Krauss, Jürgen Habermas, Frederic Jameson, and Edward Said to map out the contested terrains of postmodern art and thought. As Foster staked out in another book that is required reading for art students, The Return of the Real (1996), ‘I have some distance on modernist art, but I have little on critical theory […] I developed as a critic […] when theoretical production became as important as artistic production’. And yet he added, ‘when it comes to critical theory, I have the interest of a second-generation initiate, not the zeal of a first generation convert’.

Hal Foster is Townsend Martin Professor of Art and Archaeology at Princeton University, where he teaches modernist and contemporary art and theory. He was an editor at Art in America until 1987, when he became Director of Critical and Curatorial Studies at the Whitney Museum until 1991. In addition to his renowned art historical books including Compulsive Beauty (1993), Design and Crime (2002), Prosthetic Gods (2004), The Art-Architecture Complex (2011), Bad New Days (2015), Foster was one of the founders of Zone magazine and books, and continues to contribute regularly to Artforum, London Review of Books, New Left Review, and October, where he has served as an editor since 1991. Among his most recent books are What Comes after Farce? Art and Criticism at a Time of Debacle (2020), which explores how a variety of artists respond to the current political moment, as well as Brutal Aesthetics: Dubuffet, Bataille, Jorn, Paolozzi (2020), a new historical take on Euro-American artists and thinkers after the Second World Art, derived from the prestigious A. W. Mellon Lectures in the Fine Arts that he delivered at the National Gallery of Art in Washington D.C. in 2018. Hal Foster speaks to Electra about what it means to be critical in the current conjuncture.

AFONSO DIAS RAMOS  When did you first realize that you wanted to write about art? What were your first entry points into that world?

HAL FOSTER  I was born in Seattle, which is far away from the big cultural institutions in the U.S. In that sense, then, culture was somewhere else. So it was really more about a longing than anything else. I knew I wanted to write, but what about? First, I wanted to write fiction. But then, through figures like Susan Sontag and Joan Didion, I saw that criticism was more suited to me and maybe more pertinent to the culture, more present somehow. So my desire to write was redirected towards criticism.

I have an origin story about why art became my primary subject. In Seattle I had a great friend whose family collected art. When I was 12 or so, I was alone in their living room, and I saw these pictures on the wall and these objects on the floor. I had the sense that they might be art, but I really didn’t know what painting and sculpture were at that point. Then I looked at one painting in particular. It had these sublime rectangles of luminous color, hot and cold, fire and ice, completely abstract. And I thought, in a rush: ‘This is the most beautiful thing I have ever seen.’ That was my first aesthetic experience. Then, very quickly, I asked: ‘Why do they have it and we don’t?’ So my aesthetic experience was cut with a critical reaction. A feeling of resentment clouded my feeling of pleasure. Again, this is a story, but I think I became a critic that day.

That was only a first scene, a primal one, so to speak. In the mid-1970s, I went to college in the East, to Princeton University, where I now teach. Princeton is only 80 kilometers from New York, so I would come into the city and roam the museums and the galleries. It was an extraordinary education; I think it was a main reason why I came East to school – to be able to hang out in that way. This led me, immediately after college, to come to New York to live. It was a time when the city was bankrupt, and it was a very different art world then too. It was cheap to live and the art world was small, more like the 1950s than now. One could meet artists, critics, architects, musicians… I hung out at a place called The Institute for Architecture and Urban Study, and I met architects like Peter Eisenman and critics like Kenneth Frampton there. It was a very discursive place; in fact, it was where the journal October was founded. At the same time, I began to write criticism for Artforum. Then, when I was 26, I became an editor at Art in America. I wrote for the magazine too, and this brought me into contact with more and more artists and critics. At this point, in the early 1980s, I fell in with a group now known as the Pictures generation, artists like Cindy Sherman, Barbara Kruger, and Louise Lawler, as well as critics like Craig Owens, Douglas Crimp, and Benjamin Buchloh. It was a heady milieu and I learned a lot. That’s why I stuck with it. I had the sense, even then, that I was part of a moment. I had a cause, a reason to write, to be a critic.


"From the beginning, I wanted to think criticism in historical terms and to think history in critical terms, and to use theory in both projects whenever appropriate."

barbara kruger

Barbara Kruger, Untitled (Think Twice), 1992 © Photo: Scala, Florence / Christie’s Images, London


ADR  From very early on, your work has revolved around the interpenetration of art, criticism, history and theory.

HF  I would add politics too. This was the period when neoliberalism emerged – Thatcher was elected in 1978, Reagan in 1980 – so the moment was charged politically. As for the interpenetration of criticism, history and theory, I had powerful models. I went to Columbia University in 1978 to work with Edward Said. He had just published his landmark book Orientalism, and he was already very involved in Palestinian politics. With Said, I had a charismatic figure in whom criticism, history, theory and politics came together. At Columbia, I also met the people with whom I founded Zone magazine and books, such as Jonathan Crary, and a professor who was more like a peer, Sylvère Lotringer, who edited Semiotext(e) and brought to New York the very French theorists we were most concerned with, like Foucault and Deleuze and Guattari. Rosalind Krauss, whom I met early on, was also very important for me. She was steeped in contemporary art; her commitment to the minimalists in particular allowed her to rewrite the history of modern sculpture in Passages in Modern Sculpture (1977). I was also very interested in other figures who were more political, like T. J. Clark, whose commitment to the present came primarily through his involvement with situationism, which eventually led him to rethink the history of French modern painting from Manet through the Impressionists. Clark was another example of how a deep engagement with the present can open up a new view of the past. This was also true of Benjamin Buchloh, a close friend to this day, who was very involved with contemporary artists like Gerhard Richter. For him that engagement opened up new readings of such key forms as abstraction and the readymade.

The interpenetration of art, criticism, history, theory and politics was also the primary project of October, which I became involved with in the early 1980s. We wanted to theorize postmodernist art in relation to post-structuralist theory and the Frankfurt School. (We received French and German theory together, that is to say, late, mostly in translation.) Another project of October in its early days was to rethink modernism through the new theoretical tools that we had acquired. The great Foucaultian mandate – to write the prehistory of the present – was very resonant for us too. From the beginning, I wanted to think criticism in historical terms and to think history in critical terms, and to use theory in both projects whenever appropriate.