New York

Jene Highstein

Ace Gallery

Jene Highstein exhibited eight large sculptures in this show, most made on site in the gallery and destined to be destroyed after the exhibition, as they were too large to be moved in or out of even this commodious space. While not a retrospective per se, the exhibition did include 1996 versions of pieces originally executed in 1972, 1974, and 1975 along with more recent work (as well as drawings based loosely on both the older and newer sculpture).

Halves—two half-cylinders of Cor-Ten steel, 85 inches tall by 42 inches wide, facing each other—was first built in 1972 and initially exhibited, at 112 Greene Street, in 1973. The piece reminds us of Highstein’s place in the history of ’70s sculpture. While his early work has often been considered in relation to Minimal sculpture, his style, as in Halves, with its implication of two people standing within the two half-cylinders, facing and communicating with one another, was more performative than other Minimalist work.

At the other end of the chronology are the remarkable recent works. The Clam, 1996—a huge blob that, while roughly circular in plan, still manages to give the impression of being formless—was installed in the gallery’s central space. Roughly thirty-five feet in diameter, it is made of 85 tons of hand-troweled cement. The top is a platform that slopes from a height of six and one-half feet at the point where one enters the room to about five feet on the other side. As one walks around it, more and more of its initially secret upper surface is revealed by the slope, then, as one continues, the top is gradually occulted again. Solid concrete, the rough gray surface echoed the gallery’s cracked gray floors and steely gray walls. Some other 1996 works—especially Double Vase, Flame, and Inverted Cone—share The Clam’s combination of mute simplicity and massive, unrelenting presence, which seems less threatening than friendly. With their simultaneous evocations of the organic curvilinear and the geometric rectilinear, these simple, bulky forms interact harmoniously with the overpowering spaces of the gallery. Designed precisely for these rooms, they manage to “hold” the huge difficult spaces in somewhat the same way successful painters were once said to hold the surface.

The title “The Clam” raises the question of representation in Highstein’s work. The artist’s intention here seems to be ironic in part. The huge blob does seem to hint at organic life, and the obvious natural metaphor would be the formless abyss of the sea. But at the same time, the work doesn’t seem referential at all. Unremittingly itself, it forces the viewer to confront a condition of nonreferentiality, somewhat in the way that formalist artists once attempted to do, but without their pretensions to transcendence.

For all their muteness, these works approach the somewhat ideal condition that Wallace Stevens described as “the object/At the exactest point at which it is itself/Transfixing by being purely what it is. . . .” Or, as he said elsewhere, “not ideas about the thing but the thing itself.”

Thomas McEvilley