Jene Highstein is not a Minimalist, though the simplicity of his work suggests that movement. Since his early pipe installations in the alternative space 112 Greene Street, he has worked in various materials including plaster, concrete, wood, stone, and cast metals. Unlike Minimalist work, Highstein’s sculptures rely heavily upon the artist’s touch and the physical production of his singular forms. Equally important are the associative properties and powerful affinities which inform his material vision.
His work carries the marks of its making, in much the same way that a Shaker chair or cabinet is celebrated for its simplicity, originality, and handcrafted design. And that aesthetic is perhaps the trademark which has become fundamental to his process. Highstein’s works evolve slowly, so it is not unusual for five years to elapse between one idea or form and another. ln between sculptures comes a process of drawing and related studies for the drawings themselves through which Highstein develops the formal individuality he seeks.
This exhibition presents two works, Kugel (1991) and Closed Roman Arch (1991-92), produced in Austria in the early ’90s at Werkstatt Kollerschlag, The gallery’s spartan architecture, oversized proportions, and clerestory window create a perfect setting for these two dark, rust-skinned, weathered, cast iron pieces. Many of Highstein’s most interesting sculptures involve this intriguing dynamic, a visual and physical face-off between two otherwise unconnected elements. The two appear like silent, brooding actors.
For most of his career Highstein’s attitude as a sculptor has been a philosophical one. He questions his creations. While we appraise the physical characteristics of their shape and weight and scale and mass, Highstein is looking deeper, seeking a final form.
More cerebral than most artists of his generation, he relies less on novelty or variety and more on a seemingly endless exploration of specific and familiar forms akin to, say, the methodology and preoccupations of artists like Myron Stout or John McLaughlin. Those painters sought to employ balance and imbalance in their respective works, through simple geometric shapes they attempted to distill an Eastern theory of knowledge through Western pragmatism. Similarly, Highstein employs repeated shapes, some freestanding and monolithic and others room-size, three-dimensional installations of a solid mass or wood or painted concrete set within the parameters of and responding to a given space.
ln the recent past Highstein’s works tended to be more imitative of natural forms: a mound, a boulder or the contour of turtle’s back. Today the suggestion of some architectural structure has evolved into solid shapes like that of Closed Boman Arch. For Highstein the ancient and the modern, which are represented by the lines of the old arch, refer again to a model more than to a minimal resolution. For the artist, the very character of a work must contain an essence, a sense of being, while simultaneously evoking a recognition of its own development or unfolding through its materials, its proportions, or its relationship to the earth.
Highstein is not focused on just making a “thing.” His introduction of a relatively new subject matter in these recent works results from totem-like structures he carved in the early ’90s. His fascination with the tall, exterior forms led him to explore and reveal their interior space. Further along, Highstein’s thinking turned to formalizing the abstract space of a structure’s interior. His works depict the inside of the arch, the space which we would occupy or “stand in” if we were under the archway. Highstein sought to cast the negative space of the arch, as if this space, like the space within a Cubist composition, could exist as a physical phenomenon. Their configuration is best described as a vertical sarcophagus: mute, austere, and immovable. The secondary form contradicts its more stationary partner as it looks for alignment. This adjacent, smaller, awkward sphere differs in both size and density. Yet a dialogue with its larger partner remains fixed. Such is Highstein’s mission: to balance the improbable.