REMEMBERING
Jene Highstein
(1942 – 2013)

It was an entire time and a place that shaped us then, and not specific ideas or theories. Everything seemed open in New York in the early ’70s; anything was possible. We tried everything. And did it without money. Writers, dancers, musicians, painters, sculptors helped each other, criticized each other’s work, pushed each other further; argued constantly. Art and life merged for us. We had no real theoretical assumptions, or rather, so many that they effectively canceled themselves out. We knew what moved us and what annoyed us. And we worked from that. Built from it. Played from it. And pushed each other continually. Taught each other. Relentlessly forced each other to see.

Jene Highstein, “Two Horizontals,” 1974, seamless steel pipe. 112 Greene Street, New York. Two 16-inch diameter seamless steel pipes suspended from the walls and spanning the room at different heights, the lowest 6’4” high and the highest 8’ 8” high, each 36’ long. Panza di Biumo Collection. Photo © Gianfranco Gorgoni.

Jene forced me to see the sliding, punctuated silence of his two horizontal steel pipes spanning, cutting, shaping the otherwise empty 112 Greene Street space. Forced me to feel his rough concrete mound pushing the edges of what was still a 1930s classroom in the first P.S. 1 Contemporary Arts Center show. Forced me to acknowledge his thick, boulder-like iron castings each sucking more than their own share of gravity. Forced me to accept his unmoving and unmovable black ball as the hulking center to Holly Solomon’s centripetal walls. Forced his black charcoal drawings on me as the embodiment of hard, central, and extraordinary elegance. Forced me to absorb them, to make them a part of me.

Jene’s art was an art of presence and not of specific meaning: an art of single and all-encompassing presence, tough and smart, and absolutely silent. It was an art whose meaning was that silent presence. —Jene gave us that shift to insidious silence. He claimed that silence for us, restored it to us. He forced us to it. Jene opened us up to silence.

Jene Highstein, “Mound for Suzi,” 1976 (recreated 2013). Concrete, chicken wire, black pigment, and wood. 12 × 18 × 6.5’. © 2013 Selina Highstein.

Everything we shared then still resonates with that strange silence he gave us—that watched-waiting, noticing everything, acknowledging everything; that search for art that is, somehow, both less and more than art. That still paradoxical search for more—not more of anything specific, but just generalized, ambiguous more: more seeing, more being, more feeling, more immediacy, more directness, more roughness, more energy, more presence. And more silence.

We started where we started. We used everything we had. We tore our experience open. We pushed the categories we found; we cut them. We forced air and light into them, let confusion in, let ambiguity and power in. Or tried to. We played with art like a cat plays with a ball of string. Played, because it was the most immediate way to understand, to communicate, to be. We played because work could be play, should be play, was, indeed, play; played because art was the acknowledgment of seriousness, not a particular kind of seriousness.

We were not hyphenated artists then; not land-artists, or post-minimal artists. We were artists finding our own ways to build worlds of strong, temporary but concrete feeling; worlds that could move other people too. Move and confuse them, and even, perhaps sustain them—as Jene, artist and man, did move and sustain them to the end. Did as part of the same shifting trans-generational international dialogue about art and human meaning that caught and surprised and fulfilled us in the ’70s, and can, it seems, miraculously continue to do so till we die.

Contributor

Richard Nonas

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