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Hal Foster

Hal Foster is Townsend Martin ‘17 Professor of Art and Archaeology at Princeton University and the author of Prosthetic Gods (MIT Press) and other books.

Titles by This Author

How to imagine not only a new art or architecture but a new self or subject equal to them? In Prosthetic Gods, Hal Foster explores this question through the works and writings of such key modernists as Gauguin and Picasso, F. T. Marinetti and Wyndham Lewis, Adolf Loos and Max Ernst. These diverse figures were all fascinated by fictions of origin, either primordial and tribal or futuristic and technological. In this way, Foster argues, two forms came to dominate modernist art above all others: the primitive and the machine.

Foster begins with the primitivist fantasies of Gauguin and Picasso, which he examines through the Freudian lens of the primal scene. He then turns to the purist obsessions of the Viennese architect Loos, who abhorred all things primitive. Next Foster considers the technophilic subjects propounded by the futurist Marinetti and the vorticist Lewis. These "new egos" are further contrasted with the "bachelor machines" proposed by the dadaist Ernst. Foster also explores extrapolations from the art of the mentally ill in the aesthetic models of Ernst, Paul Klee, and Jean Dubuffet, as well as manipulations of the female body in the surrealist photography of Brassai, Man Ray, and Hans Bellmer. Finally, he examines the impulse to dissolve the conventions of art altogether in the drip paintings of Jackson Pollock, the scatter pieces of Robert Morris, and the earthworks of Robert Smithson, and traces the evocation of lost objects of desire in sculptural work from Marcel Duchamp and Alberto Giacometti to Robert Gober.

Although its title is drawn from Freud, Prosthetic Gods does not impose psychoanalytic theory on modernist art; rather, it sets the two into critical relation and scans the greater historical field that they share.

Art and Theory at the End of the Century

In The Return of the Real Hal Foster discusses the development of art and theory since 1960, and reorders the relation between prewar and postwar avant-gardes. Opposed to the assumption that contemporary art is somehow belated, he argues that the avant-garde returns to us from the future, repositioned by innovative practice in the present. And he poses this retroactive model of art and theory against the reactionary undoing of progressive culture that is pervasive today.

After the models of art-as-text in the 1970s and art-as-simulacrum in the 1980s; Foster suggests that we are now witness to a return to the real—to art and theory grounded in the materiality of actual bodies and social sites: If The Return of the Real begins with a new narrative of the historical avant-garde; it concludes with an original reading of this contemporary situation—and what it portends for future practices of art and theory, culture and politics.

Surrealism has long been seen as its founder, André Breton,wanted it to be seen: as a movement of love and liberation. In Compulsive Beauty, Foster reads surrealism from its other, darker side: as an art given over to the uncanny, to the compulsion to repeat and the drive toward death. To this end Foster first restages the difficult encounter of surrealism with Freudian psychoanalysis, then redefines the crucial categories of surrealism - the marvelous, convulsive beauty, objective chance - in terms of the Freudian uncanny,or the return of familar things made strange by repression. Next, with the art of Giorgio de Chirico, Max Ernst, and Alberto Giacometti in mind, Foster develops a theory of the surrealist image as a working over of a primal fantasy. This leads him finally to propose as a summa of surrealism a body of work often shunted to its margins: the dolls of Hans Bellmer, so many traumatic tableaux that point to difficult connections not only between sadism and masochism butal so between surrealism and fascism. At this point Compulsive Beauty turns to the social dimension of the surrealist uncanny. First Foster reads the surrealist repertoire of automatons and mannequins as a reflection on the uncanny processes of mechanization and commodification. Then he considers the surrealist use of outmoded images as an attempt to work through the historical repression effected by these same processes. In a brief conclusion he discusses the fate of surrealism today in a world become surrealistic. Compulsive Beauty not only offers a deconstructive reading of surrealism, long neglected by Anglo-American art history, it also participates in a postmodern reconsideration of modernism, the dominant accounts of which have obscured its involvements in desire and trauma, capitalist shock and technological development.

Titles by This Editor

The Writings of Thomas Hirschhorn

For the artist Thomas Hirschhorn, writing is a crucial tool at every stage of his artistic practice. From the first sketch of an idea to appeals to potential collaborators, from detailed documentation of projects to post-disassembly analysis, Hirschhorn’s writings mark the trajectories of his work. This volume collects Hirschhorn’s widely scattered texts, presenting many in English for the first time.

In these writings, Hirschhorn discusses the full range of his art, from works on paper to the massive Presence and Production projects in public spaces. “Statements and Letters” address broad themes of aesthetic philosophy, politics, and art historical commitments. “Projects” consider specific artworks or exhibitions. “Interviews” capture the artist in dialogue with Benjamin Buchloh, Jacques Rancière, and others. Throughout, certain continuities emerge: Hirschhorn’s commitment to quotidian materials; the centrality of political and economic thinking in his work; and his commitment to art in the public sphere. Taken together, the texts serve to trace the artist’s ideas and artistic strategies over the past two decades. Critical Laboratory also reproduces, in color, 33 Ausstellungen im öffentlichen Raum 1998–1989, an out-of-print catalog of Hirschhorn’s earliest works in public space.

Edited by Hal Foster

Still little-known in the United States, Richard Hamilton is a key figure in twentieth-century art. An original member of the legendary Independent Group in London in the 1950s, Hamilton organized or participated in groundbreaking exhibitions associated with the group—in particular This Is Tomorrow (1956), for which his celebrated collage Just what is it that makes today's homes so different, so appealing?, crystallizing the postwar world of consumer capitalism, was made. With his colleagues in the Independent Group, Hamilton promoted the artistic investigation of popular culture, undertaking this analysis in paintings, prints, and texts, thus setting the stage for Pop art—indeed, he is often called the intellectual father of Pop. At the same time, Hamilton was crucial to the postwar reception of Marcel Duchamp, transcribing his notes for The Large Glass and producing a reconstruction of this epochal piece for the first Duchamp retrospective in Britain, in 1966. Over the years Hamilton has continued to develop his work, in a variety of media, on subjects ranging from the Rolling Stones to the Troubles in Northern Ireland, from new commodities and technologies to the oldest genres in Western painting. True to the mission of the October Files series, this volume collects the most telling essays on Hamilton (including several hard-to-find texts by the artist), spanning the entire range of his extraordinary career.

October Files series

Edited by Hal Foster

Richard Serra is considered by many to be the most important sculptor of the postwar period. The essays in this volume cover the complete span of Serra's work to date—from his first experiments with materials and processes through his early films and site works to his current series of "torqued ellipses." There is a special emphasis on those moments when Serra extended aesthetic convention and/or challenged political authority, as in the famous struggle with the General Services Administration over the site-specific piece Tilted Arc.

October Files
October Files is a new series of inexpensive paperback books. Each book will address a body of work by an artist of the postwar period who has altered our understanding of art in significant ways and prompted a critical literature that is sophisticated and sustained. Each book will trace not only the development of an important oeuvre but also the construction of the critical discourse inspired by it. The series editors are Hal Foster, Benjamin H. D. Buchloh, Annette Michelson, Yve-Alain Bois, and Rosalind Krauss.