New York

Jene Highstein

Like many post-Minimalist sculptors who emerged in the ’70s, Jene Highstein takes abstract forms as a point of departure, creating sculptures rich with metaphoric associations and symbolic content. His works do not adhere to laws or formulas that dictate formal perfection, but rather to the exquisite imperfection of nature. At the same time, they are not abstracted from nature, but renatured abstractions. The power of Highstein’s sculpture comes from its participation in the world, and its relatedness to the environment in which it is seen.

The artist’s gallery installations of the early ’70s consisted of steel beams and pipes that transformed architectural space. In the late ’70s and early ’80s, Highstein began to make smaller ovoid, ellipsoid, and oblong pieces in cast iron, which were densely powerful despite their size. In the last few years he has expanded his vocabulary to include wood, plaster, stone, and even fabric. As a result, color and surface texture have become more important in his recent sculptures, making them more subtly compelling and accessible.

The current show presents Highstein’s sculptures from the past five years, in both indoor and outdoor settings. It ably demonstrates a refinement of his ability to make sculptures that interact with both site and viewer. Shown inside the gallery are works in wood, plaster, and fabric, all complex and enigmatic. Scaled to the human figure, each one commands an uncanny presence. Physically engaging, the works change radically when seen from different angles. Some suggest natural forms, such as the ghostlike Untitled and Three Legs, both 1988. Others seem to offer elusive symbolic meaning, such as the plaster totems Eolith I and Eolith II, both 1986. Neither representations of objects nor pure abstractions, Highstein’s sculptures hover somewhere in between. The most impressive of the indoor works are the wood pieces, in which the natural color and surface of the wood—elm, cherry, walnut, or pitch-pine—become as important as the shape it has taken. Highstein has allowed both surface and shape to evolve naturally, thus irregularly. In contrast are three comparatively slick geometric works made of stretched silk on steel stands. Despite their apparent formalism, these ovoid and saucer-shaped objects exude a quirky animism.

The eight larger site-specific sculptures (all 1989) that occupy Wave Hill’s sprawling grounds are the high point of the show. Each one is engaged in a relationship with its surroundings, whether as echo or disruption. The landscape does not function to frame these sculptures, but has itself been revealed and redefined by them. Big Pink relates to a nearby brick building in its placement and overworked marble surface. Together with Roman Column, it suggests architectural ruins that contrast with the well-cared-for grounds. Other pieces become integral parts of the landscape, echoing trees or the slope of a hill. A massive, low, concrete mound (Untitled) recalls some of the artist’s past installations by appearing to rise directly out of the ground.

While Highstein’s earlier large-scale concrete works relied on shape and mass for effect, here the color and texture of natural materials such as stone and wood allow for a more effective interplay with the environment and more specific allusions to elements within it. Despite their increased specificity, these works remain abstract, ambiguous enough so that we are invited to complete them. Highstein’s project can be understood as part of an ongoing revitalization of abstraction by the reintegration of it into the phenomenal world.

Jenifer P. Borum