In the Autumn of 1980 Foster showed a group of small sculptures in Narrow Street in the East End of London. In retrospect they appear transitional, the first stage of a move away from the massive sculptures of the late seventies, toward a more personal style. The interior spaces seemingly prised or carved out of the bulk of Full Face allowed density to become dynamic, varied and forceful. In the works shown in Narrow Street a different relation of interior to exterior prevails; space is no longer threatened or compressed, and instead of imposing on its environment the sculpture is opened up to it. Where the sculptures of the late seventies approached an expressionistic intensity, here the arrangements are looser, almost relaxed in comparison. They were informed in part by David Smith’s Agricola sculptures of the early fifties. The three ornate prongs of Untitled, 1980 in particular look forward to the next phase of Foster’s sculpture, in the way they are cut and bent from a single sheet of steel, and through the attention-grabbing importance given to vertical profile.
‘Sculpture from Stockwell Depot’ at the Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts in April 1982 was the final corporate manifestation of the steel sculpture that had developed around the Depot during the 1970s. In it Foster showed a group of Cut-Outs, large vertical sculptures that signalled his independence as a sculptor. In the Cut-Outs sections of thick steel pipe are shaped with cutting, a method which is an original type of drawing, with its roots in Julio Gonzalez. This creates stark, simple silhouettes, with detail integrated into wholes that have an image-like immediacy. Bunches of parallel incisions allow the pipe to be bent. This bending, together with subtlety inflected profiles, opens the sculptures up into space, but a frontal stance still dominates. Often the largest part of the sculptures is at the top, so that they seem to float, or hang downward, though the dramatic Tick asserts freedom from the ground very differently. The Cut-Outs are simple and direct – without losing a clear sense of it as an industrial by-product the steel is made expressive by the severity or wit of Foster’s drawing and by a restrained taking on of wider resonance. These traits would become characteristic features of Foster’s mature sculptures, as would the minimal working of a single source of steel into a series of variations.
In July 1982, following the ‘Sculpture From Stockwell Depot’ exhibition, Foster attended the first Triangle Artists’ Workshop, at the Mashomac Fish and Game Preserve in New York State, organised by Caro and collector Robert Loder. The intention was to break artists’ isolation by living and working in close proximity for a fortnight. The artists came from the US, Canada and England, the emphasis was modernist, and all the sculptors and most of the painters worked abstractly. Foster’s statement in the Triangle yearbook was characteristically terse: ‘I had to work with the steel I got at the Triangle Workshop. I cut up the tanks that were lying about the place and stood them into monolithic lumps. I made two sculptures. I tried them on the ground and since I got back I’ve been making them horizontal’. American Piece I, made at Triangle, is a more familiar sculpture than the startling Cut-Outs, more readily placed within the constructed or ‘assembled and welded’ steel tradition. As well as in its method of construction, it differs from the Cut-Outs in relation to the ground – it stands much more definitely anchored – and its linearity. The fluidity and spontaneity of a sculpture such as Tick is replaced with a somewhat stiff arrangement, related to the inflected verticals of Cubism, the ribbed structures of Gothic architecture, and also to the sculpture Hide was making during the early years of the eighties.
After his trip to America Foster began work on a series of ‘Wall Pieces’. These and the later Cut-Outs (nos. III and IV) suggest a compromise between the earlier Cut-Outs and the solidity and stiffness of American Piece I. A vertical, hieratic or architectural uprightness enlivened by intimations of movement would be a feature of his work through into the middle of the decade.
In the years leading up to the middle of the 80s Foster participated in workshops at Medicine Hat, Alberta, Canada, and, for the second time, Triangle, where he met artist-critic Valentin Tatransky who would later write two volumes dedicated to him and his attitude to sculpture. These experiences inspired Foster to organise the Hardingham Sculpture Workshop, first held at Gresham Farm in 1986. The Sentries of 1984-5 and the Stacked Verticals of 1984-6 develop from the Wall Pieces of the preceding years, and move further away from the directness and image-like immediacy of the Cut-Outs. They make use of a traditional constructed approach to steel sculpture, rooted in Cubism. Less dependent on the staging of a single type or piece of steel than the Cut-Outs, the sculptures of the mid-eighties are still broadly frontal, though less pictorial, more sculptural (or architectural), and tend more completely toward a complex articulation in the round.
As with most of the Wall Sculptures, or American Piece I, the verticals of the Sentries, including Gresham Sentry (1984-5) and Checkmate (1985), terminate in a flat horizontal plane; like the capital of a classical column this plane repeats the base and provides a sense of containment.
Large sheets of steel arranged in broad, bland pleats move within this containment and detail is kept to a minimum. In contrast, the Stacked Verticals, though still containing pleated verticals, involve an opposition between larger and smaller, almost fussy, parts – these latter give the sculptures a different sense of movement, animatedly processing around the whole height of Seven Steps to Heaven (1984) and Bustling Red (1985) or forming similarly lively bands across the middle sections of Fruit Bowl (1985) and After Balzac (1986); though in the latter this liveliness is played off against a particularly severe, restrained whole.
The small and domestic sized sculptures, Train-Wheels and Buffers, that Foster made in 1987 return to the approach of the Cut-Outs. Again drawing is used to minimally intervene in a single source or single piece of steel, creating a coherent set of variations on a theme. Both the Train-Wheels and Buffers drew on steel sourced in bulk from scrapped British Rail rolling stock. The Buffers come in two types: those with a round shape were cast with molten steel poured into moulds, as were the Train-Wheels, and most of the steel Foster worked with; whilst the oval Buffers, from an older type of train, were drop-forged, meaning that heated, malleable but not molten steel was hammered into shape. Casting created steel components with crisp lines and even surfaces, whereas drop-forging left more varied, pitted and in a sense ‘organic’ surfaces.
The abutting serpentine-lines of Loosely Put Together, one of the Train-Wheels, create surprising complexity from simple means. It is compact, though a turned-inside-out elusiveness helps avoid the overwhelming density of the late-seventies sculptures or the restrictive linearity and at times over-explained Cubism of the Stacked Verticals. As it is circled profiles appear and disappear, in harmony or disjunction. The freedom of the Cut-Outs meets the greater attention to three-dimensional articulation of the Stacked Verticals in a way which presages the work Foster made at the turn of the eighties into the nineties.
Foster’s large sculptures of the end of the eighties – Westward of 1988, Lazy E of 1988-9, Statement of Standard of 1989 – match the scale, drama and some of the ease of the Cut-Outs within a more three-dimensional constructed language. The control and linearity of the Stacked Verticals are opened out, relaxed, in part extending the (quite different) examples of After Balzac and Checkmate, and in part working from the turned-inside-out structure of a sculpture such as Loosely Put Together. As in the Stacked Verticals, Westward, Lazy E and Statement of Standard interrupt a vertical orientation with a set of horizontal levels, or resting points, and articulate movement around and between these through overlapping profiles, inflected and twisted against each other. But the large curved parts give these movements much greater breadth than seen in the earlier sculptures, whilst the intervals at which the horizontals interrupt the verticals, and the manner in which they meet seems more natural, less restrained. Where the Stacked Verticals had been somewhat restricted by Cubism, as if facing inward, Westward, Lazy E and Statement of Standard face outward, open to their surroundings. When shown in the grounds of Norwich Cathedral one reviewer noted how their ‘searing verticals [remind] one of the architectural power of the cathedral construction itself, spires, buttresses, roofs and all’. (Peter Davies, Arts Review, January, 1991)