Saturday, May 4th, 2013

A Rebellious Sensuality: Jene Highstein, 1942 – 2013

An exhibition of early works is scheduled to open at the Clocktower in Lower Manhattan this June. 

Jene Highstein, Grey Clam, 1990/2001. Site specific sculpture. The Wanås Foundation, Sweden Photo: Anders Norrsell

Jene Highstein, Grey Clam, 1990/2001. Site specific sculpture. The Wanås Foundation, Sweden Photo: Anders Norrsell

In what proved to be his last public event, Jene Highstein, who died on April 27 at his upstate farm of lung cancer, described his childhood summers swimming and fishing off the white sand beaches of North Carolina.  This dialogue took place in late February at ArtHelix, Bushwick, where a selection of his recent Cape Breton drawings formed an exhibition curated by Bonnie Rychlak.  Cape Breton was a place where many of his friends had bought land in the 1960s although he visited it for the first time only in 2002—and instantly fell in love.  It reminded him of the idyllic holidays of his youth although the landscape was northern and very different.  But he loved the “wildness” and “remoteness” of Nova Scotia, the restless, constantly changing weather that re-drew sky, sea, and earth.  And above all, he loved the light.  So he, too, bought land, spending parts of summers and sometimes other seasons in this private arcadia. The light-flickered, delicately colored Cape Breton drawings are a Postminimalist sculptor’s musings on phenomena, on what disappears, what changes and what remains, one whose work over an almost 50-year career was more typically characterized by refined, although enormously scaled, weighty, often distinctly architectural forms in monochrome, in shades of blacks, whites, grays and the natural coloration of the material. Yet a rebellious sensuality could almost always be detected in these austere, potent sculptures of metal, stone, wood, concrete, plaster, glass, their geometry softened by the artist into something more idiosyncratic, humanized by a curve, a swell, an irregularity, as it was in his playground-sized sculpture for the Wanås Foundation in Sweden, a sloping, irregular ovoid that he dryly called Grey Clam (1990/2001).

Like any good artist, Highstein liked to challenge and be challenged, and like any good artist, he was compelled to experiment.  He was at ease within a range of media and disciplines, collaborating at times with other artists, dancers, musicians, and architects such as Steven Holl with whom he constructed a resplendently luminous nine-meter tall ice edifice in Finland in 2003.  Called Oblong Voidspace, this piece was, as Highstein explained, “about the absence of sculpture: the outside being more architectural and the inside more experiential.  Like a ceremonial space, the interior focuses attention on the convergence of body and mind.”  Highstein also designed sets for theatre productions, working with the ELD Dance Company in Stockholm for many years. The evolution of his work, he had often stated, depended upon finding new forms.  These forms were abstract, not taken directly from nature but from experiences of nature, associations with nature, steeped in nature but conceived in the studio.  These memorable configurations were distinctively his own in the particular integration of the abstract and the biomorphic, an empathetic, substantive “convergence of body and mind” that is present in all of his works, seen most recently in New York at Danese in a well-received show of his towers and elliptical sculptures.

Jene Highstein on a visit to Nova Scotia.  Courtesy of Kitty Highstein

Jene Highstein on a visit to Nova Scotia. Courtesy of Kitty Highstein

Jene Highstein was born in Baltimore, Maryland in 1942 and attended the University of Maryland, then the University of Chicago in the mid-1960s, where his major was philosophy.  He later studied at the New York Studio School and the Royal Academy Schools in London, earning a degree in art in 1970.  His first exhibition was at Lisson Gallery, London, in 1968.  Returning to New York, he showed at 112 Greene Street for a time, part of the utopian-minded, fiercely independent, artist-run alternative space that included much of the downtown avant-garde such as Jeffrey Lew, Gordon Matta-Clark, Richard Nonas, Alan Saret, Mary Heilmann and Vito Acconci.  By 1976, Highstein was showing with Holly Solomon among other galleries in New York and soon after with Ace Gallery in Los Angeles and in New York. More recently, he had solo exhibitions at Texas Gallery, Houston and Danese, New York, as well as in Europe and Asia. His many one-person museum shows include those at the University Art Museum, Berkeley, California (1980); the Philips Collection, Washington, D.C. (1991); MoMA PS1, New York (2003); and a solo throughout Madison Square Park, New York (2005).  An exhibition of early works is scheduled to open at the Clocktower in Lower Manhattan this June.  Highstein received four National Endowment of the Arts awards over the years and a Guggenheim Fellowship among other honors and his work is included in numerous private and public collections, including every major museum in New York.

Extremely well-spoken, well-read, and well-traveled, a student of Buddhism, deeply committed to art, a keen observer of the world and the art world with an elegant, highly original turn of mind—he was trained as a philosopher, after all and reveled in argument and paradox—Highstein also had a bracing streak of irreverence and a dislike of pretension. When an audience member approached him after the ArtHelix talk and asked if a statement he had just made was contradictory, he replied, laughing, “don’t believe anything I say, I’m making it up as I go along.”  Which of course meant, don’t believe that—or do.

Jene Highstein, Flora, 2011. Hand hammered stainless steel, ed. 3, 156 x 15 x 14 inches.  Photo: Ross Willows. Courtesy of Art Omi

click to enlarge

  • Alain Kirili

    I knew Jene for almost forty years. We have been in countless group shows together in New York as well as in Europe. In particular we were in the 1976 inaugural show of PS1 entitled “Rooms PS1.” It was a great moment where artists were creating on site and we could share the progress of the work in a raw space. There was a feeling of being part of a circuit independent of commercial and institutional forces. We kept our friendship based also on our common love for interactions in the arts. Jene loved to work for theatre, dance, and music. Ariane and I as well have been supporting for many years Free Jazz and contemporary music in dialogue with visual arts.

    I was so pleased that Jene accepted to be part of our performance series and installed a sculpture in our loft on April 10, 2011 with the great musician Jon Gibson on winds. It was a success.

    Recently I saw his last show “The Cape Breton Drawings” at the ArtHelix gallery in Bushwick curated by Bonnie Rychlak. Peter Hopkins, the Director of the gallery, told me how happy Jene was to show in Bushwick and be supportive of this new neighborhood art scene: this gives so much fresh energy to New York.
    I saw the show with my friend Francis Greenburger who acquired two drawings. We spoke about a project Jene had in mind for an installation at Art-OMI. I sincerely wish that this project could be realized.

    Later in February he came with his wife Kitty and Lily Wei to have dinner at our home. He told us immediately that he had cancer but he was sure that the chemotherapy would help considerably. He was expecting to go back to Cape Breton, which was so inspiring for him, for the summer and to spend time there with his cousin, Philip Glass. In my studio he loved my recent drawings and we decided to do an exchange. Ariane took a memorable photo, which I will of course always cherish.

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  • Mac Adams

    I met Jene back in 1978 in Milan Italy, I believe he was doing a show with salvatore Ala I was showing with Francoise Lambert. We were at some party I suddenly discovered I had no Italian money and no idea how to get back to my hotel. I had only spoken to him a few words ,discovering my plight he gave me the money for a cab. I was very touched by this generosity. Since then whenever we saw each other I always felt a close bond. I was a huge fan of his work. I say this very rarely, sometimes you come across an artist you feel this is the real deal, Jene was most certainly the real deal in every way. He will be terribly missed.

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