Hal Foster


One of the most influential and dynamic thinkers on contemporary art in the past few decades is writer, critic, and Princeton professor Hal Foster. Often his critiques are founded in psychoanalytic theory, but time and again, Foster takes a more expansive approach, unwilling to limit his assessments or interests to those that fit comfortably into accepted models. Unlike so many academics, Foster’s eyes seem open and fresh, and his focus extends beyond the safe, ossified codes of modernism. He has written on technology, feminism, the cyclical nature of art history, desire, the art of the mentally ill, and he has ventured far into the vortex of postmodernism. For this interview, ten artists and writers have each proposed a question for the brilliant Professor Foster to answer.

JEREMY DELLER: What was your first art epiphany?

HAL FOSTER: My first art epiphany is more like a primal scene because it has a traumatic touch and because it’s a memory that mixes real and fictional bits. I was 12, and in the living room of an inseparable friend. Vast and uninhabited, it was composed like a picture in a magazine, appointed with furniture unlike any I had ever seen: elegant structures of aluminum tubes, glass tables so sheer they seemed to disappear. There were also objects that were not furnishings, which I understood to be sculptures, though they were not statues or busts. My friend called them abstract, which made the paintings on the walls, no less difficult to make out, abstract too. One painting in particular struck me; it was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen. A stack of hazy color in irregular blocks of paint, it was a bright apparition. At the top is a rectangle of white tinged with blue, a projection of pure light, and at the bottom, a bigger block of the same colors but in a different mix, like a midday sky shrouded with thin cloud. Below the white box on top is a yellow band almost covered by a red stripe, and below it is a final rectangle of cream, here underlined by streaks of all the colors that appear elsewhere on the canvas-blue, white, yellow, red. The painting is fire and ice at once, both calm and intense, and this is how it made me feel, too. About the size of a mirror or a window, it does not reflect anything or reveal any outside. It is its own appearance and perfect as such. “Yes, it’s the most beautiful thing,” I thought, and a second later, “Why do they have it and we don’t?” The first flush of delight made me a devotee of art; the second rush of resentment made me a critic. Every critic needs a touch of ressentiment—it’s his very salt—but too much produces embitterment.

DEVIN FORE: How do you write criticism that is critical? Even negative reviews seem to contribute to the market value of an artwork as long as they appear in the right journal. Is it possible to write about art without simultaneously valorizing it?

FOSTER: If it’s not critical, it’s not criticism; it’s just commentary or opinion. That doesn’t mean criticism has to be negative in the sense of pejorative; in fact, it can be affirmative if its negativity is clarifying—explosions clear the air! I don’t write to be pejorative or positive in any case; that never motivates me. What gets me going is to grasp the new thing—an idea, an affect, some mix of the two—that a work expresses but doesn’t articulate. That’s the service I want to render: to limn that thing in words. I don’t worry much about market valorization. Richard Serra and Cindy Sherman don’t need me on that score. It was more dicey when I was a young critic writing about friends in the “Pictures” crew, but even then, dealers and collectors had far more power than critics. The days of agents like Clement Greenberg calling all the shots were long gone, and I was never much of a talent scout anyway. Besides, there’s other valorization than the commercial, and critical value doesn’t often convert to the economic. If it did, artists like Hans Haacke or Sharon Hayes or Hito Steyerl would be multimillionaires.

JEFFREY EUGENIDES: What makes each generation of artists different from those who came before? What percentage of the difference is conscious and what percentage unconscious? Finally, is a consciously achieved difference better than an unconscious one, or doesn’t that matter?

FOSTER: If I had the answer to this one, I’d have the algorithm for all of art history; what I have to say isn’t very satisfactory. First up is initiation into history, which can’t help but form generations differently, obviously enough. Next is entry into art, which is more voluntary. For American artists and critics of the generation before my own, Pollock was the great figure; he sent them off in certain directions. The art that most marked people like me was minimalism or pop (especially Warhol) or both, and that drove us in ways other than the Pollock pathways. Implicit here is a familiar take on influence à la Harold Bloom, and the ratio of conscious to unconscious in his tale of artistic anxiety is tough to measure. That story is also very Oedipal, and one contribution of feminist artists was to challenge all such boyish genealogies. That said, every artist has to deal with predecessors. It only becomes a problem when that vying becomes too conscious, that is, too strategic. Duchamp was so generative, but the many people who took his chess metaphor literally, and thought that if they worked out the next move before anyone else did, they’d win—well, they didn’t and they don’t (or if they do, it’s only for a season or two). The difference that makes a difference in generations is always unexpected, it’s a working through that mixes the conscious and the unconscious, and the one is not better than the other. (Like I said: not very satisfactory.)

WADE GUYTON: Is there anything you’ve written or said that you’d like to take the opportunity now to recant? (Don’t worry, we probably won’t hold it against you.)

FOSTER: I’d suggest trial by fire. If I don’t burn, then I’m innocent. Art criticism is small beer; it’s not like it offers the chance for much in the way of heresy. So not much to recant, but some to regret. Along with many others, I ate up theory like it was hash brownies, and I still do, but I’m more careful about what I write when I’m theoretically high. Also, when I was a young critic, I printed some hurtful things. I once wrote of a painter that he was “Lichtenstein without the pop.” I thought it was clever; he thought it was cruel, and later told me it had devastated him. Even if it is true, a line that cuts someone seems gratuitous to me, and I’m certain there are many others who were victims of my mistaking the rhetorical for the critical. I’m still too much a sucker for a facile formulation. (I almost wish I had written stuff I could recant now. I’ll try to do worse in the future.)

THOMAS HIRSCHHORN: Explain why questions-and-answers is the most important part of a lecture.

FOSTER: I bet I know why it is for you: You like to get close to the attacking parties and have at them. Me, not so much. I almost always come up with the right response too late, by a day or two anyway. Yet the back-and-forth doesn’t have to be agonistic, and it can produce new thought precisely because it is dialogical—not yours, not theirs, but made together in the moment. That can be exciting. The problem is I rarely remember what was said afterwards. I suppose that’s part of why it’s good, though: that it’s effervescent, that it’s about a brief connection even (or especially) if that connection crackles with opposition, a momentary community libidinized by thinking.

TACITA DEAN: A swinish question: How do you perceive your relationship to established power?

FOSTER: I don’t feel subversive, but then I don’t feel corrupt either. As a young critic, I was phobic about the market until Barbara Kruger said to me one day, “There is nothing, not even the lint on your sweater, that’s not touched by the market. Get over it.” By which she meant: find a realistic relation to it; fantasies of a pure outside aren’t helpful. Still, I have more than a trace of Romantic anti-capitalism in me. I think most leftish people do. It comes with being a kid in the 1960s, and then emerging as a critic in the 1980s, with Reagan, deregulation, the sheer awfulness of what we now call neoliberalism. Wall Street money suddenly washed over the art world, which was changed utterly, and independent space for critical work shrunk dramatically. I was an editor at Art in America at the time, and the market reformatted everything before our eyes. I ran to the academy as if it were a sanctuary, which it was—there was a short period when the humanities were taken by critical theory. But I soon discovered you’re as much a commodity there as anywhere else. The university does screen you from power, however; my own is bound up with governments and corporations in ways both good and bad, but it affects me little either way. The art world is far more naked in its involvement with power. At dinners after openings I sometimes feel like I’m watching bank accounts have sex. But as I mentioned in response to Devin, I’m a very small chip in the casino that is the art world.

SETH PRICE: I mostly make visual art, but at the same time I feel that music is the best art form, and sometimes I think you can accomplish the most within the field of literature. Do you ever feel the limits of your own work, in terms of either visual art as a focus or of history and criticism more generally?

FOSTER: I agree about music. Gerhard Richter says somewhere that painting is fine, but it’s music that brings you to your knees. (I wonder if that’s always a good thing.) And I read more literature than I do criticism, history, or theory. I review it sometimes, too. I always wanted to write fiction; I’m just not good at it, and I respect it too much to make a mess of it. Besides, criticism, it should be remembered, was the cutting edge of the culture when I was formed in the 1970s: Who was more vanguard than Susan Sontag and Rosalind Krauss, and more ass-kicking to boot? As for the limits of my own work, I feel them all the time. My prose has little range (Caesar the ape has a bigger vocabulary than I do), and it’s about as supple as that of my Puritan ancestors, but then, like them, I think limits are good. Creative people require the recalcitrance of the medium they work in; its pushing back is what pushes them on. What keeps me going is the interplay between art, criticism, theory, and history; they’re never opposed for me. Art is theoretical in its own way, and theory is artful. Criticism that’s not historically minded sucks, and history that’s not critically spirited is beside the point.

RIVKA GALCHEN: You’ve thought and written extensively about the avant-garde’s relation to and resistance to capitalism, about the real, the replica, the readymade, and about the relation of criticism to the instinct to possess. Given all that, I wanted to ask what is your favorite heist film, and why?

FOSTER: To Catch a Thief [1955]. It has all of the above (resistance to capital, instinct to possess, etc.), plus Cary Grant and Grace Kelly. How not to identify with that guy—his black pullover, his silvery hair, his fake-classy accent? And to have Grace all over you, the Ice Queen melting in your arms, as you get in and out of jams with total aplomb, outfoxing everyone, screwing French bureaucracy along the way. It’s also an allegory of criticism, at least of the deconstructive sort. The best criticism is an inside job. You can’t rely on the authorities; you have to know the enemy better than he knows himself. It takes a thief to apprehend one. Immanent critique is all about going in through a rooftop or a side window, and not nabbing the jewels (who cares about meaning?) but catching the thief (anyone who believes he knows the one true significance).

RACHEL KUSHNER: You and I were having an e-mail exchange a while back about the German Romantic notion of integrated civilizations and Lukács. I referenced that famous line about philosophy being really homesickness, “The urge to be at home everywhere.” And you said, compellingly, enigmatically, “Homelessness is such a beautiful idea. It’s in art too: that’s what abstraction is, in a way.” Can you say more about homelessness in art, in abstraction?

FOSTER: I love it: Lukács in Interview! I wonder how he’d do at the Factory. Is there a more beautiful overture to a book than the one in his Theory of the Novel? “Happy are those ages when the starry sky is the map of all possible paths—ages whose paths are illuminated by the light of the stars. Everything in such ages is new and yet familiar, full of adventure and yet their own. The world is wide and yet it is like a home, for the fire that burns in the soul is of the same essential nature as the stars …” It is this consanguinity of star and soul that is broken by modernity, in which “artistic creation has become homeless.” But then, to spin it around, who wants the old home of an “integrated civilization” anyway? My sense of the homelessness of modernist art is almost positive. Free to go where it wants, but under the compulsion to motivate what it does, for otherwise it would be arbitrary. That is its beauty, especially when it comes to abstract painting. No referent to anchor it, so where will it sail? To the depth of the psyche? To a transcendental world? To the medium itself? Lukács was more dire. And if you can grasp this koan of his, you’ll have one key to modernist art (and he wrote this in 1914!): “A totality that can be simply accepted is no longer given to the forms of art: therefore they must either narrow down and volatilize whatever has to be given form to the point where they can encompass it, or else they must show polemically the impossibility of achieving their necessary object and the inner nullity of their own means. And in this case they carry the fragmentary nature of the world’s structure into the world of forms.”

THOMAS DEMAND: Biggest misconception? Regrets? Worst Halloween costume? What’s on your refrigerator? When at the top of the hill, is it better to be alone or with others?

FOSTER: My biggest misconception was that critical theory would be the continuation of the avant-garde by other means. As for regrets, I mentioned some in my response to Wade, but I also regret every single Halloween costume. Usually I go as myself, which is the worst. As for the refrigerator, my prize items are a postcard of a blond girl in the Swiss Alps captioned “Heidiland” and the Black Square of Malevich. Lesson 1: Climb every mountain, sing every song. Lesson 2: Believe.

Thomas Hirschhorn is a Paris-based artist represented by Gladstone Gallery in New York. His site-specific installation Höhere Gewalt was presented at the Schinkel Pavillon this past summer.

Devin Fore teaches at Princeton University. His first book, Realism After Modernism, won the Modern Language Association’s prize for best book in German studies. In 2014, he was awarded fellowships from the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation and the American Council of Learned Societies to complete a study of Soviet documentary.

Wade Guyton is a New York-based artist represented by Petzel Gallery in New York. His work Zeichnungen für ein kleines Zimmer is on view in the Cube of Punta della Dogana/François Pinault Foundation in Venice through December. He has a solo exhibition at the Josef Albers Museum in Germany open through February 2015.

Jeffrey Eugenides was born in Detroit and lives in Princeton, New Jersey, where he teaches at Princeton University. He is the author of Middlesex, which won the 2003 Pulitzer Prize and was shortlisted for the National Book Critics Circle Award; The Virgin Suicides; and most recently, The Marriage Plot.

Jeremy Deller is a London-based, Turner Prize-winning artist represented by Gavin Brown’s enterprise in New York. He recently curated the show “Love Is Enough,” which brings together rarely seen works by William Morris and Andy Warhol. It opens at Modern Art Oxford in December 2014.

Tacita Dean is a Berlin-based artist represented by Marian Goodman Gallery in New York. She is currently an artist-in-residence at the Getty Research Institute in Los Angeles and has a work in “The Dying of the Light: Film as Medium and Metaphor” at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art on view through February 2015.

Seth Price is a New York-based artist who works with a wide range of media. His recent monograph, Folklore U.S., explores a series of works made between 2012 and 2014. Price’s exhibition “Animation Studio” is on view at Galerie Chantal Crousel in Paris through December 2014. He is represented by Petzel Gallery in New York.

Rivka Galchen is a Canadian-American writer based in New York. She is the author of the novel Atmospheric Disturbances and, more recently, the short-story collection American Innovations.

Rachel Kushner is the author of The Flamethrowers and Telex From Cuba. The Strange Case of Rachel K, a book of early writing, is out from New Directions in February 2015. Her fiction and essays have appeared in The New Yorker, Harper’s, The Paris Review, and elsewhere. She lives in Los Angeles.

Thomas Demand is a German artist based in Berlin and Los Angeles. He has had a number of solo exhibitions, including at the Museum of Modern Art, New York. His film Pacific Sun is on view at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art through April 2015 and will run concurrently with a solo exhibition of new work opening in January at Matthew Marks Gallery, Los Angeles.