Jene Highstein was an American post-minimalist sculptor who rose to prominence in New York in the 1960s and 1970s at the time of Gordon Matta-Clark and after Richard Serra. Like his contemporaries, his practice involved using industrial materials to make organic forms that, once placed inside the confines of a white walled gallery have an awe-inspiring impact as well as offer interesting investigations about space and the way we navigate it.
One of his most well-known works Black Mound for Suzi - two domed shaped structures made from concrete, chicken wire, black pigment, and wood - was originally constructed for New York’s PS1 Contemporary Art Center’s 1976 inaugural exhibition, Rooms (and then recreated 40 years later in 2016 for their anniversary show). That work played with volume, mass, weight and perception, themes that are integral to delving into Highstein’s conceptual outlook.
Opening this month in the Jean-Paul Najar Foundation is an exhibition comprising a collection of seminal sculptures as well as works on paper from the 1970s to the 1990s. A common thread running through the exhibition is the artist’s desire to confound expectations from the audience about each artwork. He used muted tones: usually black, grey or browns and made his pieces at an accessible scale for human interaction. According to an essay by Lilly Wei, a New-York based art critic, Highstein wanted to “make forms that could elicit a direct response, that were immediately sensed, intuited. He wanted his work to create a presence in the mind, an experience that was not curtailed to a specific form and not necessarily permanent.”
One notable highlight of the exhibition at Alserkal Avenue is Four Forged Steel Sculptures (1978) and the equally important black bone pigment works on paper, which he made between 1975 and 1977. The sculptures are relatively diminutive in size (only 60cm tall at most) but their dimensions belie their density as each one weighs over 1000 kilograms. This dichotomy between image or what something appears to be and physical reality was something that fascinated Highstein and one that Jean-Paul Najar himself, a close friend and admirer, was intrigued by. In 1978, Najar and Bernard Ceysson, the director of a museum in St Etienne in northern France co-ordinated their efforts to take over an iron foundry for Highstein to develop and extend his sculptural investigation. The results, these four incredibly heavy structures of whose form defies precise definition, are still an integral part of this artist’s important career.
According to a written statement by the foundation, “Highstein’s quasi-manufactured sculptures create a dialogue between raw materials and nature, while also stressing the importance of the object’s presence and surrounding space. Throughout his artistic career, Highstein investigated the relationship of sculpture to its surroundings and its impact on the viewer’s perception of space.”
This dialogue was an important part of Artists Run New York: The Seventies, a previous exhibition at JPNF within which one of Highstein’s drawings was included and for regular visitors to the space, this extended contemplation offers further perspective upon what is an interesting but challenging discussion.
“Not all our exhibitions are easy to see or easy to understand,” says Deborah Najar, founder of JPNF, “that is why we like to offer our visitors tours and programming as well as of course, putting a heavy emphasis on archival information.”
For this exhibition, a timeline of Highstein’s career will be displayed along the walls and up the staircase as well as several clouds of information including photographs, catalogues and written text, pinpointing key moments in his career.
There will also be equal emphasis on the drawings as well as the sculptures. For the artist too, drawings were crucial as he used them to reach to the final appearance of his sculptures. “[The drawings] clearly map the evolution of [Highstein’s] sculptural abstraction,” continues the foundation’s statement. “The solidity of Highstein’s sculptures complement the delicacy of his works on paper. His drawings of intense bone black pigment and Chinese ink function independently from the sculptural mounds, spheres and totems.”
 Wei, Lilly. “Anecdotes of Form”. Catalogue essay for Jene Highstein: 1942-2013; a tribute exhibition hosted by the Jean-Paul Najar Foudnation at the Peggy Guggenheim Collection in Venice, 2013.
Jene Highstein: Space and Place, Opens on Galleries Night (19 March) during Art Week at Alserkal Avenue. The exhibition runs until 31 June 2018.