PRINT November 1979

Jene Highstein: A Full Roundness

WITH SO MUCH BUSTLE in the field of painting lately, there is a tendency to overlook the less populated field of sculpture. The situation of ten years ago, when painting was somewhat under the cloud of sculpture and conceptual art, has reversed. New sculpture, however, is being made in a multiplicity of materials and styles. There is a new generation of sculptors, owing something to the pioneers of Minimal art, but striking out on their own, unhampered by the dictates of reductio ad absurdum. Without assuming any sort of completeness, I might mention Brenda Miller, whose typewriter works achieve objecthood despite their flatness; Jackie Winsor, who uses all kinds of forms and materials to make compact objects; Joel Shapiro, known for small castings; Suzanne Harris, who works with pyramidal forms; David Rabinowitch,who uses drilled and cut heavy steel plates; Lynda Benglis, who makes free shapes painted gold; Richard Nonas, known for small pieces in metal and large pieces in wood set on the floor; Joel Fisher, who makes paper presented in the form of scrolls, stacks and hangings; and Jene Highstein, whose heavy, rounded forms seem to me a good example of this new generation for the subject of this article.

In one of the more poetical sections of The Phenomenology of Mind, discussing the ancient Egyptian religions as revealed by the sculpture, Hegel says this:

Contrasted with this outer self of the form and shape stands the other form, which indicates that it has in it an inner being. Nature, turning back into its essential being, degrades its multiplicity of life, ever individualizing itself and confounding itself in its own process, to the level of an unessential encasing shell, which is the covering for the inner being. And as yet this inner being is still simple darkness, the unmoved, the black formless stone.1

Since 1974, Highstein has been making things that objectify the inner being of which Hegel speaks: the objects are dark, round, solid; their power is condensed and contained, not displayed. Such terms as “inner being” are disturbing today when, in a word, nobody knows from nothin’. We are apt to think of the tormented, mistake-ridden soul of the analysand, the exact geometry of dymaxion simplicity or the itty-bitty reality of physics, so small it can only be inferred and imagined, never seen. But if there is something scientific that slightly resembles Highstein’s efforts, it is the concept of the “black hole,” which is heavier than anything and completely dark.

The inner being objectified in Highstein’s sculpture, if it shares anything with these modern formulations, is enlarged or reduced or condensed to exactly the right size for us to deal with on our own terms. They are hardly organic, and hardly geological, but both at once. All the pieces are “life-sized” but not “ lifelike.” Nothing moves, vibrates or grows. Highstein never does something wishing it could be larger. The question of scale, which is so crucial in all sculpture, is here settled with aplomb. Scale is unphotographable; it has to be experienced. I think that, no matter where these sculptures were encountered, their scale would be the same, and it is strange how something so elementary is so rare in modern art and architecture. Highstein has the ability to make abstract objects that remind us of ourselves.

On the eve of his recent solo show in New York, I talked with Jene Highstein about his career and his work. Speaking of his three years (1967–70) in the Royal Academy Schools, in London, he said, “What I learned in England is that eccentricity works. You can follow your nose as long as it goes and it will still be relevant.” Appropriately, Highstein’s work resembles nobody else’s. Although Martin Puryear has shown rounded objects, and although Kenneth Price had exhibited a moundlike piece of painted clay (3 by 9 in.) before 1966, which Highstein saw, nobody else makes anything really like his rounded, heavy shapes in which the weight is transmitted to the sightseer and the power is interiorized. Highstein’s work is eccentric too in that none of it is completely regular: it is shaped—the original meaning of the Greek “plastic”—by hand.

All this is about Highstein’s mature work, the black cement and steel pieces and the solid iron castings. In London, Highstein stopped painting when he realized that he was trying to get the effect of sculpture on canvas. His father, a doctor in Baltimore, was also an abstract painter. “The house was full of modern painting,” he said, “and every Wednesday we went to Washington to go to galleries or artists’ studios.” Among their friends was Morris Louis. “When I finally began painting, when I was in college, I progressed backwards from Louis to Matisse.”

One of his first sculptures, influenced no doubt by Arte Povera (in which only impoverished materials are permitted), was exhibited in London in 1969.2 He cut a triangular hole in the earth about four feet on a side and perhaps a foot deep. Using the hole as a mould, he poured a particular reddish plaster he loved. When it was dry, he lifted out the cast, to which a considerable amount of earth and grass adhered, and placed it at the head of the hole. Although a student work, it is the work of a good student.

When he resettled in New York, Highstein became close friends with Robert Grosvenor and with Richard Nonas. “At a certain point, we were all working intensely in the same area, things that were close to the ground. Although they looked different, they were all about contained power in some sense.” His works then were long, rather geometric pieces of welded steel. Soon he began to work with pipe. Some were big pipes cut in half and anchored in the ground outside. Others were thinner pipes attached to the walls of a room.

In my opinion, the most effective of these early pieces was also the last. In 1974, Highstein installed two pipes across the 34 feet between the side walls of 112 Greene Street. The pipes were seamless crude-oil conduits 16 inches in diameter which came from the factory painted black. The one nearest the front was mounted at the height of 8 feet, 8 inches from the floor, and the back one at the level of 6 feet, 4 inches. In this installation, and in a similar one-pipe piece done in Milan, Highstein revealed much about the room itself. Carter Ratcliff described his experience this way:

Highstein has avoided symmetry or any other easily deciphered pattern in placing the two pipes; the division of space into upper and lower sections is a highly charged, overlapping one that changes constantly as one moves about. Finally the division is overcome however; while the observer must necessarily remain, physically at least, in the realm of the lower pipe, the eye learns to inhabit and ultimately to unify the entire cavernous space.3

At the time of the 112 Greene Street show, Highstein was already drawing images of what was to become his first mature work, The Black Sphere.

“What interested me about the pipes was the curve of them, the fact that you couldn’t see the other side. I wanted to make something that was curved and I thought of making a sphere. I worked on it for a long time and found the dimension of the sphere and from then on it was just a practical problem to make it.” After some difficulties, Highstein made an armature of interior support beams of steel, covered it with wire mesh and coated the whole with concrete dyed black. This simple object, 6 feet, 4 inches in diameter, quite black, but with many smooth, irregular facets where the concrete was patted into place (no fingerprints though) was first displayed in New York’s SoHo in 1975. By chance, the day it was being moved into the gallery, a television crew roving around for a feature story devoted its entire minute that night to what most people who know it call “The Ball.” It is the best known of Highstein’s works. Despite its weight, the University Art Museum in Berkeley transported it to the West Coast for a show this year. To me there is something friendly and familiar about the sphere. It is important that people cannot see over the top of it, but also that they can almost see over the top of it. It is smooth, like a brick, and uniformly colored black, and one is easily attracted to it. The ball may not sound very lovable, and it would take four or five people to hug it, but there is something homey about it; it is a version of Earth that we can comprehend.

Much of Highstein’s work until this year has been done in Europe, where, he feels, it is possible to be taken seriously as an artist even when one is young. Possibly his most impressive piece—certainly the largest and perhaps the most fragile—was Human Scale Black, 1975, done for the 9th Paris Biennale. It was a big mound 55 feet in diameter and 7 feet high, built in the center of the small piazza between the two wings of the former Musée de l’Art Moderne, on the Avenue President Wilson. Walking around on this hill would change the scale of everything one saw. In fact, it was destroyed by people cavorting on it. When one realizes that it is possible for us to detect the fact that as insignificant a thing as a paper match has adhered to our heel and is altering our point of view, it is easy to imagine how drastic the gradual ascent of a few feet in a little piazza would be. The work has been commissioned to be reconstructed in a similar space in Italy by Giuseppe Panza di Biumo.

“My work will always be in a human kind of scale, it will never compete with architecture. It doesn’t have to be 18 feet high to work, whereas other people’s does. The scale is the focus of the work. None of my pieces is much more than 7 feet high, which is about relating it to a person, some kind of a classic definition of scale.” In this country, the only other concrete and steel work besides the Sphere is Flying Saucer, 1977, constructed in the courtyard of P.S. 1, in Long Island City. Saucer is 17 feet in diameter and 7 1/2 feet high, and weighs 6 1/2 tons. With much overwhelming vital statistics, it is surprising that the thing doesn’t frighten people, but in fact it is pleasant to be close to. That is probably because the “lip” of the saucer is about at the eye level of a slightly above-average-sized person: this is a level to which we are extremely accustomed, there being so many tall people hereabouts.

Highstein’s current work is three solid cast-iron Totems over six feet high. Rounded, of course, and undecorated, they are undeniably phallic in form, as is, for instance, Brancusi’s Mademoiselle Pogany, 1931—not that they resemble the Brancusi. Like all of Highstein’s work, they are the result of general intentions and are not abstractions from forms. For Highstein, titles are tacked-on labels, not signals of intentions. The Oxford Dictionary says that a totem is “the hereditary mark, emblem or badge of a tribe, clan or group of Indians, consisting of a figure or representation of some animal, less commonly a plant or other natural object, after which the group is named.” Negotiations are underway to show the Totems together on the concourse of Grand Central Station. During the last few years, Highstein has also been looking for stone to use in his work, and for a patron to commission stone sculpture. He feels that he may have found the right material and the right place, so it looks as if his next works may be in the classic material of sculpture, to which he has never before set his hand.

In The Poetics of Space, Gaston Bachelard has an essay called “The Phenomenology of Roundness.” Especially because Jene Highstein studied philosophy at the University of Maryland and the University of Chicago before becoming an artist, this passage from Bachelard is appropriate:

Images of full roundness help us to collect ourselves, permit us to confer on ourselves an initial constitution and to conform our being intimately, inside. For when it is experienced from the inside, devoid of all exterior features, being cannot be otherwise than round.4

Empty spheres cannot do that because being is full of itself. On this Bachelard, like most philosophers, quotes other people a lot. Karl Jaspers: “Every being seems in itself round.” La Fontaine: “A walnut makes me quite round.” Michelet: “A bird is almost completely spherical.” And one of my all-time favorite quotes, Van Gogh: “Life is probably round.”

In his September exhibition in New York, Highstein showed several smallish solid iron castings, ranging from two to five feet in length and less than two feet high, except for one called Boulder, 1979. Three of them look like rocks partially buried in the earth or, more likely, half-submerged in a lake, since the bottoms are flat against the floor. After a while, I sat down on the floor near the pieces. These small works, like the rocks you sit on near the shore of a lake, have a friendly feeling, but, perhaps because they are relatively small, this is not as strong as I feel it in Highstein’s larger works.l thought they looked uncomfortable on the polished walnut floor. Because of their extreme weight, it would be ridiculous to put them up higher, but they should be in a place where people can sit down with them and enjoy themselves, as the rocks—excuse me, I mean sculptures—placidly carry on.

Ted Castle


1. G.W.F. Hegel, The Phenomenology of Mind, translated by J.B. Baillie, London, 1931 p. 706–07.

2. Jene Highstein, Untitled, 1968, shown in “Pavilions in the Parks,” Blackheath Park, Camden Square, London. In this exhibition, each work was shown in a separate tent.

3. Carter Ratcliff. “Form in the Active Mode,” Art in America, July–August 1974. p. 62.

4. Gaston Bachelard, The Poetics of Space, trans. Maria Jolas, Boston, 1969. p 234.