John Foster

1951 - 2008

1989-90: Plinths I

With the group of sculptures made around the turn of the eighties into the nineties – including Drum Solo, Bone China and Rhythm on Two – Foster, partly prompted by a conversation with Clement Greenberg, turned away from the verticals which he had worked with since his abandonment of the massive density of the seventies. From this point on a horizontal orientation would be central to his sculpture. The horizontal freed him from the structural decisions which by necessity restrict vertical sculpture. In Bone China or Drum Solo heavy pieces of steel flow into one another with seeming ease, an opening out of the broken arabesque lines he had explored in the train wheel sculptures, and at larger scale in sculptures such as Westward. It is likely that Foster thought of these sculptures in relation to the Elgin Marbles something much discussed with Valentin Tatransky. The curved hunks of steel are suspended above and below the top of the plinth, clearly designated as a part of the sculpture by the imitations of classical moulding which line its top and bottom edges. This moulding relates visually to the lipped edges of the pieces of steel, and gives the plinth a sense of the sepulchral. The metaphoric or symbolic potential of the upright verticals Foster had previously explored continue here in the contrast between the tomb-like plinth and the dancing steel above.

Bone China   1989   180cm x 203cm x 91cm

Bone China 1989 180cm x 203cm x 91cm

Rhythm On Two   1990   264cm x 457cm x 193cm

Rhythm On Two 1990 264cm x 457cm x 193cm

Drum Solo   1990   200cm x 285cm x 105cm

Drum Solo 1990 200cm x 285cm x 105cm

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1990: Plinths II

Following sculptures such as Drum Solo or Bone China, Foster made a series of smaller plinth-based works, whose parts were drawn from cut and mangled fragments of gas cylinders. This incorporation of a basic part of the steel-sculptor’s cutting and welding equipment is an example of the wit which underlay some of Foster’s art. The cylinders provided readymade volumes, sometimes flattened out into concave or convex planes, and ending in smooth profiles where the steel folds over itself, or jagged ones where it has been roughly sheared. There is a clear relationship with the arrangements of still-life painting - to its objects, and to the drapery which is used to frame these objects. The ambiguity between these two states, particularly in relation to scale, is important in allowing the fragments to give the sculptures a sense of dynamism beyond the literal.

Tombolo   1990   45cm x 100cm x 50cm

Tombolo 1990 45cm x 100cm x 50cm

Larry's Party   1990   47cm x 105cm x 55cm

Larry's Party 1990 47cm x 105cm x 55cm

Lucy's Larder   1990   60cm x 92cm x 45cm

Lucy's Larder 1990 60cm x 92cm x 45cm

1991-2: Plinths III

The freedom from structural constraints which the plinths allowed meant that they could be stretched to large dimensions. Between 1991 and 1992 Foster produced a group of very long sculptures, first at Hardingham, and then later at Triangle Workshop, New York State. The drama of Bone China or Drum Solo came from a strongly stated contrast between the still and stable plinths and the enlivened rising serpentine curves of steel the plinths supported. In these later sculptures the contrast is less marked. The plinths generally support only two or three discrete upper elements, which sit low on top of the plinths. Shallow curves, either cut from large steel pipes or bowls, or made by distorting sections of plate or I-beam, mimic this linearity, creating a fluid or somehow sped-up version of it. In Straight Edge on Sloping Base the visual identities of plinth and upper elements are partially reversed; whilst in one of the untitled sculptures made at Triangle the plinth itself is raised off the ground so it appears to float. The main aim of the sculptures seems to have been to accentuate the length of the plinths, to make them seem longer than they are, and to use this length to heighten the effect of a small number of very precise decisions (the particular tilt on this found piece of industrial steel, the height at which an element ‘hovers’). The profile drawing of the Cut-Outs reaches its most elegant conclusion in what are Foster’s most fully aesthetic sculptures.

Bowl and Straight Edge on 20' Base   1991   105cm x 600cm x 90cm

Bowl and Straight Edge on 20' Base 1991 105cm x 600cm x 90cm

Straight Edge on Sloping Base   1991   90cm x 412cm x 90cm

Straight Edge on Sloping Base 1991 90cm x 412cm x 90cm

Untitled   1992   47cm x 390cm x 60cm (approx)

Untitled 1992 47cm x 390cm x 60cm (approx)

1993: Sculptures at Allentown

In 1993 Foster and Jon Isherwood proposed a sculpture workshop to the collectors Muriel and Philip Berman to take place in their home city of Allentown, Pennsylvania. The Bermans, who had a number of Foster’s sculptures from the eighties in their collection, agreed to sponsor the event ‘stipulating only that the work had to be large’. As Karen Wilkin put it in a catalogue which accompanied an exhibition of the sculpture produced: ‘What was most extraordinary, and ultimately determined the ambition and dynamism of the project, was Berman’s arranging for the sculptors to work at two sites: a stone yard, run by the master stone-worker participant, Kainz, and a factory where immense steel machinery was constructed, both fully equipped with state-of-the-art tools, cranes, and all the rest of it, manned by skilled factory assistants […] the possibilities were exhilarating, but unlike typical workshop sessions, which encouraged experimentation rather than result, the terms of the Bermans’ involvement created immense pressure to achieve finished, resolved work’. Foster produced several large-scale sculptures, making use of very large cylindrical steel tanks. Brightly painted in saturated yellow, red and blue, they sit strangely within the rest of his work, and more securely within a mainstream of public outdoor sculpture stemming from Caro and Smith. Knight’s Move made when Foster returned to Britain during 1994-95 was his last large-scale sculpture.

Safety Red   1993   285cm x 330cm x 270cm

Safety Red 1993 285cm x 330cm x 270cm

Solar Yellow   1993   270cm x 360cm x 300cm

Solar Yellow 1993 270cm x 360cm x 300cm

Knight's Move   1994-5   255cm x 250cm x 180cm

Knight's Move 1994-5 255cm x 250cm x 180cm

1997-9: Bowls

The small series of Bowls are Foster’s final steel sculptures. In them the contrast between curved shape and rectilinear plinth, a theme which first entered his sculpture a decade earlier, is given its most minimal exposition. To a greater extent than the Cut-Outs, the Buffers, the Train Wheels or the Plinths the found character of the steel is preserved. There is a clear sense of each bowl as an upturned, open hemispherical volume, and its completeness as such is confirmed as much as it is disrupted by the cutting, separating and tilting Foster performs upon it. They are wholes rather than fragments. The allusions to classical moulding which had previously clearly designated the plinths as part of the sculpture are done away with; but despite this the plinths remain equivalents to the upper elements, rather than just supports for them. Where the parts in Bone China or Straight Edge on Sloping Base describe a sequential movement, the Bowls relate to their plinths singularly and all at once – an open and stilled upper volume is matched by a closed and still volume below. The potential for slightness in the idea is overcome by the solidity with which it is executed. As Valentin Tatransky put it: ‘my friend really does form for form’s sake... he feels the weight of things, that gravity itself draws the shape of things.’

Quarter Two   1997   88cm (incl.base) x 95cm x 90cm

Quarter Two 1997 88cm (incl.base) x 95cm x 90cm
Photograph by Peter Blunsden

Twenty Five Two   1997   83cm (incl. base) x 80cm x 80cm

Twenty Five Two 1997 83cm (incl. base) x 80cm x 80cm
Photograph by Peter Blunsden

Bowl II   1997   83cm (incl. base) x 80cm x 80cm

Bowl II 1997 83cm (incl. base) x 80cm x 80cm
Photograph by Peter Blunsden