John Foster first began to make constructions in steel while at secondary school in the mid-sixties, at the same time taking Saturday morning art classes with the sculptor Bruce McLean. After leaving school he worked for a year in a steel company, learning about steel engineering and fabrication, before deciding to study as a sculptor at art colleges in Guildford and then Epsom. The early introduction to steel on both aesthetic and practical levels was important. Foster can perhaps be seen as a steel-sculptor more than simply a sculptor: steel was his exclusive material until the last few years of his life, abandoned only because of ill-health; it was a way of realising his ideas and a place from which they grew. The account in this commentary suggests ways in which these ideas developed over the course of some three decades. But while an over-arching framework can reasonably be imagined, the reactive and contingent side of Foster’s progress should also be reckoned with. He worked with the material available, and coming across a particular source of steel would be prompted by the possibilities he saw in it, until these were exhausted or other circumstances intervened.
At Epsom Foster became aware of the American sculptor David Smith, and visited the Hayward Gallery’s retrospective of the work of Anthony Caro, then the dominant figure in British sculpture. Smith was the more important early influence, one which would remain as an undercurrent to Foster’s work, becoming particularly apparent in the sculpture he produced from the eighties onward. He has something of Smith’s mixture of lyricism and pragmatism, albeit filtered through the heavy, often near brutal steel which marked the work of Foster and his immediate contemporaries in the seventies; as well as through a set of artistic proclivities in which line tended to be something imposed on a material as profile, rather than the ‘drawing in space’ Smith teased out through hammering. Foster also shared Smith’s attachment to the upright figure, and the frequent use of it to create a feeling of Romantic yearning – heroic, joyful and melancholy – to go beyond the physical.
In 1971 a meeting with sculptor Peter Hide led to Foster taking a studio at the Stockwell Depot, which during the seventies would become the most important site for making and showing steel sculpture in Britain. In 1973 he held his first public exhibition, showing alongside Hide in the grounds of Marble Hill House. Foster later wrote that ‘my work at this time fell into two main areas – very simple, frame constructions defining volumes, and more expressive sculpture influenced by Tony Caro. I was also experimenting with concrete in the sculptures to try and introduce weight and mass’. One reviewer of the Marble Hill show saw an ‘aggressive energy’ in Foster’s sculpture, the suggestion of a ‘menacing assembly of war-machines; Renaissance ingenuities pared into streamlined efficiency, generating a quality of dynamic anticipation. Spring, Frame I, II, and III all seem capable of eliminating any object which has trespassed on the space defined by their components.’ (Fenella Crighton, Art International, October 1973)
Following the exhibition Foster visited the US for the first time. He met critic Clement Greenberg and saw sculpture by David Smith, Michael Steiner and Jules Olitski. The visit had a profound effect on Foster and he would regularly return. An openness to American art would, especially from the eighties onward, differentiate Foster’s (and Hide’s) sculpture from that of their Stockwell contemporaries. In the mid-seventies the impact of both Steiner and Olitski can perhaps be seen in Foster’s Drum series, though an interaction with the work of Hide and Anthony Smart, with whom he shared a studio space, was likely as important. The first public expression of the group Hide had gathered at Stockwell was the 1974 exhibition, in which he showed alongside Foster, Gili and Smart.
Toward the end of 1975 Foster gave up his studio at Stockwell. He bought Gresham Farm, near Hardingham in rural Norfolk, and began converting it into studio and living spaces. The large sculptures Foster showed in the 1975 Depot exhibition share some of the open, provisional feel of the Drum sculptures of the previous year – they also seem to hark back to Caro’s sculptures of the early sixties, though within more centrifugal, upright arrangements. The sculptures Foster began to make in Norfolk moved in a very different direction. Michael Steiner becomes a much more apparent influence, as he did in Peter Hide’s sculpture at this time. The formal device which runs through Foster’s sculpture for the next two years is the plane, cut into a dynamic wedge and tilted so it appears to have been prised upward or compressed downward. The excitements of the sculptures are the complex movements generated through the interactions of these planes, as they open and close and press into each other. The steel sculpture of the sixties had been primarily concerned with weightlessness, freedom and release – Foster’s work in the mid seventies, in common with many of the sculptures made within the orbit of Stockwell, replaced this with density, literal volume, compression and a sense of weight, at times animated with an animal energy. In Step Flashing Foster pushed this energy onto a monumental scale.
While living and working at Hardingham, Foster continued to show in the Stockwell annual exhibitions, until the last of these in 1979. The 1979 exhibition marked the culmination of the Stockwell sculptors’ efforts to imbue constructed steel sculpture with weight, volume, density and compression. It precipitated a moment of collective crisis, and as the eighties began most of the sculptors, Foster among them, changed their work dramatically. The sculptures Foster made in 1978 and 1979 – such as Full Face, Back Break, Elephant Corner, Outside In – are some of the most massive made by the group. His sculptures of the preceding couple of years used planes in close configuration, but with each plane maintaining its own identity as a separate ‘thing’ within the whole arrangement. In the 1978-79 sculptures this quality – which had been almost axiomatic within constructed steel sculpture – was at least partially lost as the individual pieces of steel were increasingly mashed and melded together, through very thick welds. At times parts seem buried within the sculptures, which can seem more carved or modeled than constructed. Full Face holds itself together like fist, with a fist’s potential energy and its aggression. But crucially its power comes from the fact that its density is articulated, so it is not just a solid lump of steel, but is made dynamic by the lines of force which fan across and through it. Mark Skilton, who worked at the Depot in the late seventies and into the eighties, acknowledged that much of the sculpture made or shown there was brutal in feel, but suggested that the success of individual sculptures depended upon the ‘sensitivity’ with which the material was handled. This mixture of brutality with sensitivity well characterises Full Face.