I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee
Discover MFA Programs in Art and Writing
From the offing the waves began and came sliding over the surface of the sea in the form of restless green swells. Groups of low rocks extended out into the sea, where their resistance to the waves sent splashes high into the air, like white hands begging for help. The rocks were dipping themselves in the sea’s sensation of deep abundance and seemed to be dreaming of buoys broken loose from their moorings … .
—Yukio Mishima, Confessions of a Mask
Highstein allows his forms to divine themselves, as the Greeks believed they were only releasing the gods from marble. Handmade work in the sense of craft … one is reminded of religious caves in India, of the Omphalos in Delphi, the Totem poles of the American Indian, of something so powerful and majestic yet as intimate and dazzling as a cabochon ruby. Depth made personal. Contained power in the tradition of Arp, Noguchi, Barbara Hepworth, the continuation of a dialogue with nature. The quiet wisdom of the sea-washed stone that has witnessed the unfolding of the ages, oblivious to the superficial trauma that has formed the insignificance of man: Stoic, wise, the unmoved mover. Reductivist thought humanized. Approachable. A short, full cycle in the scheme of history. Awesome yet inviting somehow: shapes that beckon to caress, that speak of intimacy, be they the size of a fist, or a ten ton piece of polished black granite.
David Seidner I have been thinking about your early work, that seemed to depend on negative space, almost anti-volume. And it struck me that it has gone from installations which dealt with a dependency on negative space; the piece you did in London, for example, the triangle of earth, positive and negative, and has evolved into the antithesis of that, a fullness. Can you explain the evolution?
Jene Highstein I don’t know. It was the main change in my work, I think. When the actual object that got me turned out to be more interesting than the installation.
It was a learning process where you had a given which was the space. And then you intruded into it and altered the space by making simple kinds of manipulations, even though it might take a week to build the thing. By making things which are more independent of a specific space you’re dealing much more with the object, and the sculpture that’s made is very different.
DS So that happened basically with the first black ball you showed in New York in 1976?
JH Yes. The black ball was a transition, because it was all about its dimension.
DS And was any work that you did before that spherical, excepting those tubes? Was it the idea of doing something that was completely round?
JH What I always liked about the pipe pieces is that there was a side you couldn’t see, and even though you could predict there was a horizon that went the corner and you couldn’t really say what was on the other side. Physically they became something that had a secret, an anonymity. And that’s what attracted me. The first concrete piece which was a sphere was about that disappearing edge.
The main thing to determine in that sculpture was going to be how big it was going to be; Where it’s limit in space was going to be.
DS You did the piece, for the Biennale, at the Musee D’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris in 1975. There was no disappearing edge. It became a completely visible round surface. How does that fit into the ideology?
JH It was a need. I was trying to work with where the sculpture ended and the ground began. In a way, I was working three dimensionally because I took the dimensions of the flat area in which the sculpture was going to sit, and then drew an ellipse on that flat area, and decided arbitrarily that I didn’t want the sculpture to be more than 7, 7 1/2 feet high.
So having the outer edge of the sculpture and the height of it, I could just generate the work from that. A lot of the mounds were generated by deciding where the perimeter of the piece was going to be and what the height was going to be.
DS The piece at the Biennale, was that the first piece that had that flat relationship to the ground?
JH Yes…in ’75.
DS Do you consider the thinking process that goes into your work, or that went into it at that time, reductivist in a minimal sense?
JH Well I don’t think the thinking process was, but, I think the practicalities of making the works were reductivist, that is, once the dimensions were decided, the thinking was about the same thing I’m thinking about now, which is a sense of presence and a sense of, well totem isn’t the right word, but a sense of existence of a thing in the world which would bring along some of the mystery of our history, our human history, not just American or whatever, but our common history.
I think if the works are successful then that’s their reference. And the earlier works, that is the installations before about 1975, were more arbitrary in that they were more a reaction, in sense, to the art that was going on around me.
DS Were you influenced by the site work of Heizer and Smithson?
JH I think so, sure. Smithson has sites and non-sites and meditations…and perhaps intellectually had a stronger hold on it than Heizer, but the works that were done in the desert were incredible, by Walter de Maria too. But few people ever saw those works. We wanted people to see ours.
DS Your work seems to have evolved along the lines of people like Noguchi, Arp and Barbara Hepworth…. It seems to have gone in almost the opposite direction of many of your contemporaries, being much more human and inviting, as opposed to being intimidating and cold. Would you credit that to humanistic concern?
JH Yes, because it seems that what I’m interested in, is the less, shall we say, intellectual attitude; I’m more emotional.
DS So, you do the work first and then justify it intellectually after.
JH Intellectually it’s a very weak decision.
DS It’s not weak, it’s just different. It’s another way of approaching it.
JH If the work is not generated by ideas then it has to be generated by another set of circumstances.
DS What other set of circumstances?
JH Well, at the moment it’s a slow kind of evolution which has taken place from doing works that were constructed on an armature, to doing works which are carved out of a preexisting material. So I think that it’s becoming subtler. It has more to do with everything being touched, about every edge of everything being touched and being molded.
DS When the works are finished do you stop to think about each one individually and germinate new ideas, or do you finish an entire group of work, castings or carvings, etc., before…
JH They seem to work out in sets now. Working more in twos, threes and fours.
DS Can you articulate any of the ideas and thoughts that you have when you stop and look at a series of finished works?
JH No it’s maybe three or four different edges of the same notion. And as a result, if they’re shown closely together they all seem to relate to the same idea. But it doesn’t mean that they’re meant as one work; just four different ways of dealing with something.
DS What about flying saucers in your work?
JH Well, I think the works in the ‘70s were more ambiguous in a way that calls up these things. That is, their forms had indirect references. That’s also a result of having to stylize them more because of the nature of the way they were made.
The first iron castings were executed in Italy and were made out of plaster first, and were more along the lines of what I’m doing now than those intermediate pieces of flying saucers and spheres.
But if there’s an element in the work that has that reference I think it must be made obvious, so that’s why that work is called Flying Saucers. Because to me there’s that edge to it. So I thought let’s make that the name of the work and the rest of the information will get out anyway.
DS Turtle, etc.
JH That’s more obvious.
DS Well again I think that’s a touch of an idea of trying to encompass the history of civilization.
JH Well those are the references. I mean if I look at…
DS Or the opening of the religious caves in India.
JH A Stone Age tool is just as important in our culture, I think, as any other piece of art. Because it was an expression of that culture. We have a lot more options now but I think those are as powerful as any objects from another culture.
DS Which comes first, the influence, or the idea to execute something differently?
JH It’s hard to say, except that I knew I wanted to move that way and I knew the way for me to do that was to carve stone. So I started to try and do that from the beginning of when that work shifted. In other words, in ‘75 I was trying to do stone carvings even though I didn’t get to do one until 1980. Because I knew that would be the clearest way of shifting the work.
DS And for you that shift was contingent on carving a ten-ton piece of stone? Would it not have been as effective, for example, to work with something 2 feet high?
JH No because the works really get generated in the right scale, and the scale that I work out ideas on is a larger scale. It’s something human size, something 6 1/2 feet high let’s say…
DS 6 1/2 feet high and 8 tons heavy.
JH Yes, 8 tons heavy.
DS Human. But they are human.
JH Well size-wise I think they are. Even though they might be quite heavy they’re not beyond what one feels comfortable with.
DS Also about inviting quality of forms, color… How many “Armatures” did you construct before moving to carving?
JH I did one in Art Park and I also did one with Salvatore Ala and then one with Ponza. There were others that were done before, which were quieter and less dramatic, so that when 10 of them had been done, or however many of them there were, there wasn’t really too much point in doing any more.
DS Imagining the carvings as enormous or the castings and the small wood carvings as enormous as the big stone pieces, I don’t visualize the same feeling of displacement.
JH No, I think that’s something else entirely. It’s not just the larger the thing is, the more it displaces, and therefore the more presence it has, because I don’t believe that’s true. I think there’s a very specific size that things have to be to have a certain kind of presence. And more is not necessarily better. After a certain point it’s about something else entirely. It’s about overpowering people. It’s not about making a presentation or altering them.
DS And yet they don’t overpower.
JH Yes, but a lot of sculpture is seen in terms of dimension. The more area it occupies and the heavier it is, the more presence it’s supposed to have.
DS I know that you had a long relationship with Suzanne Harris, also a sculptor, whose concerns echo yours or yours hers, in terms of the kinds of forms and the approach to the organic molding of them. Her work, however, was firmly rooted in esoterica and symbolism. Does that at all play a part in your work?
JH Well I think her attitude about my work was that there was similar information in her work but that mine had more to do with unconscious association. And I think that’s true, that my work doesn’t address numerology and other esoteric subjects, but if it works, part of it is that it has those kinds of symmetries in it. Her work was very specifically about addressing those issues. That was her subject matter as well. So that her work was much more intellectually generated and quite amazingly so in some ways. She made some innovations in casting, bronze casting, for instance, that no one…
DS Well she used equations that hadn’t been dealt with since the Middle Ages because of alchemical ideas.
JH The translation of those ideas into sculptures was also a point of innovation. I don’t think that’s been seen yet but I think it will be. But because of that I think our works differed sharply at that point.
DS Was that ever a point of conflict between you?
JH No. There was a crossing over of information. I think she read information into my work which was more important to her than it was to me.
DS But you didn’t deny that information.
JH No, because there is a common ground there.
DS Yes and it’s not necessarily arbitrary because it’s there. Influences are not arbitrary. It’s impossible not to let your work be imbued with that information if you’re susceptible.
Working as much as you did on sites in countries around the world, would you say that traveling from place to place and being subject to different cultures had an effect on the way your work evolved? Or would those spaces, for example, had they all been in New York, have produced the same kind of work that was produced in France, Italy, Germany, etc.?
JH Well I think the feeling of the work changed depending on its environment, and if it was in an Italian setting the work was more Italian. It was influenced by where it was and I learned from being where it was. But I don’t think the work was fundamentally changed by the environment it was in, because the environments weren’t so symptomatically different, fundamentally different than our own here.
DS Did you enjoy working there more than you do here?
JH No, I didn’t. Both situations were wonderful. The problem of course, was at that time there was a very limited audience here in New York and a much larger audience there, so it was always a boost to do it there. You could do one show in New York and that could cover America. No one else was interested.
DS When did you do the installation for Count Ponta?
JH I did two. One was in ’76 and one was in ’77.
DS Did he learn of your work in New York?
JH Yes he saw the work at Greene Street, or saw a photograph of it.
And that was the first real experience I had with a patron and something that was really significant in supporting the activity. The activity of myself and the rest of those people. I was oblivious to whatever commercial concerns were going on. We really were completely naive about…
DS Who is we?
JH Myself and Suzie and Gordon and Alan Surat, even though Alan was working in commercial galleries, and Jeffrey Lew and a lot of the other artists at Greene Street at that time. None of us were involved with commercial galleries and none of us were making things that could be sold or even seen in galleries. And it quickly became apparent that the galleries just were terrified of us, that they didn’t know what to do with us.
DS They couldn’t sell it.
JH Right. But I just thought of it as a hindsight.
DS But you have to understand their point also.
JH Well 10 years later I’m beginning to understand their point. But 10 years ago or 8 years ago it was another story. But there was a response to the work on its own terms.
DS So you were indignant at the time that the work couldn’t he put in galleries?
JH Yes, I thought that the job of the gallery was to adapt itself to the work. It wasn’t the job of the artists to adapt themselves to the gallery. And I still think that.
DS How do you propose they eat, for example, or pay the rent with certain work?
JH You mean the artist or the gallery?
DS The gallery.
JH Well I think the job of the gallery is to figure out how they can make that work available in the world. There must be a partnership there.
DS Well there are patrons and there are commercial galleries, and don’t you think that that ideology is just as naive as being indignant?
JH Well, it’s naive but I don’t think there’s anything wrong with naivete…. It’s in naivete that ideas are generated.
DS Cynicism stunts ideas.
JH I think so. I think there are other possibilities for making real cultural changes outside of let’s say rich patrons, captive artists, captive patrons, rich artists versus commercial outlet in production. There has to be some other option.
A lot of earth and site specific works were made possible by patrons, for instance, and that work was also somehow fit into a commercial situation. I don’t think it was successful, but there was a real try. That was a good time in that the institutions bent, they had to adapt and they had to change. And now is the time when all the institutions are in charge, and the changes they’re going through now have nothing to do with art…
DS Which institution?
JH Some of the non profit spaces and cultural…
DS What do you premise that on?
JH Well, most museums are now building an addition. And most of them are building additions that rent out. So I draw that conclusion from that…spaces are fighting for their lives and looking for corporations to finance them. The galleries are only interested in what they can sell.
DS Well, that’s part and parcel also of a direct reaction to all the work of the ‘60s and ’70s that was purely intellectual, and required for the most part an extreme amount of knowledge of history, to understand the work and be moved by it. With the exception of maybe a handful of people who approached it intuitively and got it. Otherwise the work that’s around now, everything that you can throw into the post-expressionist catch-all label, I think is interesting in the sense that it is a reaction and in the annals of our history will go down as a reaction to the could work that was around in the ’60s and ’70s.
JH It’s Europe’s reaction also, which is healthy. I think one of the things that happened…
DS I don’t think it’s only Europe.
JH I think one of the things that happened was that all the intricacies and self-expression and cultural history and records which are in fact more about European sensibility of art, what the Americans encountered when they invaded Europe, what we’re seeing now is the absorbing of the American information into that and then the adaption of that American information into that work and then that work continues on.
I think it was a healthy revitalization for the European work as well as its counterpart in America.
DS I don’t know if that’s exactly fair. I say that because a lot of European work, I think of someone like Francesco Clemente has been doing that work for many many years.
JH I’m sure he has. I’m not saying that he hasn’t, but I’m saying that it is influenced by or was influenced by that period and you know couldn’t avoid being…
DS Well, maybe influenced in that it was a direct reaction against it.
JH Well, that’s influence, I’m not making a judgment about which is what either.
DS No, one doesn’t make judgments in print.
David Seidner is a photographer who lives and works in New York, Los Angeles and Paris.
I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee