The Najar FoundationFour of the American artist’s irregular works are now on show at the Jean-Paul Najar Foundation, but to get them in place the museum had to use a forklift gives weight to the late US sculptor
Rare opportunity to see work by New York sculptor Jene Highstein
To say that Jene Highstein’s work carries weight is no meaningless turn of phrase. The late New York artist’s sculptures are made in forged steel and are 600 to 1,000 kilograms apiece.
Four of the American artist’s irregular works are now on show at the Jean-Paul Najar Foundation, but to get them in place the museum had to use a forklift. The Najar Foundation is hosting a rare retrospective of the award-winning artist, who died in 2013.
Interested in heft, presence and the effect of his works on the viewer, Highstein was a central figure in 1970s post-Minimalism. He exhibited at 112 Greene Street, New York, the artist-run space that was the movement’s base, and participated later in survey shows at the Museum of Modern Art, the Whitney, Guggenheim and Tate Modern.
But despite this pedigree, he is not as well-known as his contemporaries, such as Gordon Matta-Clark or Richard Serra, and this show, Jene Highstein: Space and Place, will be an introduction for many.
Post-Minimalist artists looked at sculpture as a function of space, frequently using architecture and performance to create their works. They stressed that the artwork consisted not in the work itself, but in the encounter between sculpture and viewer.
In a 1977 interview with Jean-Paul Najar, who was a collector of his pieces, Highstein said: “I work with a spatial reality that cannot be seized in its totality but through the experience of one’s relation with the work.”
The show is drawn from work held by the Jean-Paul Najar Foundation and loans from the artist’s estate. Large sculptures in wonky, almost biomorphic shapes sit on the floor. Behind them are Highstein’s immense drawings of seed-like ovals, which hover in the centre of the paper and, like the sculptures, seem poised halfway between void and presence.
Highstein made the latter works by drawing sketches of forms freehand with pencil, and then covering them in bone-black paint, a natural pigment made from incinerating the bones of animals.
Later, in the 1980s, he would let strands of the graphite sketches peep out from behind the black forms, as if their solidity were unravelling.
Although the Foundation includes a few of these works, the focus in this small-sized show is on the relationship between his larger-scale sculptural and drawn forms. The largest of these, Multiple Distortions (1976), on view here, was made through a process similar to that of the drawings: he created an armature of steel, which he would then cover in layers of cement. Paired here with a bone-black drawing of a similar shape, it looks like a shadow cast in three dimensions, although the drawings and the sculptures were all conceived separately.
Highstein made Multiple Distortions in situ in Najar’s apartment in Paris. An archival display upstairs shows the process of its creation, as well as the alterations to the floor plans of the collector’s living room that had to be made to accommodate it – it was so heavy the floor had to be reinforced.
Dubai is a surprisingly good fit for these works. The industrial space of the Najar Foundation evokes the factories and lofts of SoHo, where Highstein first showed his artwork, and under the high ceilings, the sculptures feel humble and sympathetic. They bear traces of the processes by which they’re made, with lumps, blemishes and irregularities that pad them out into something less – or more – than ideal forms.
Some of the artist’s steel sculptures have been installed outdoors, and rather than restore them, the Foundation curators chose to show them with the patterns of rust that have formed on their surface, like freckles coming out on a baby’s skin.
The juxtaposition of the sculptures, for which he is best known, and his bone-black drawings feels particularly strong: it shows the same inquiries tested in two dimensions, as the light-swallowing effect of the dark black mimics the sculptures’ accumulation of weight. This is art at its deepest, but above all, oriented towards the viewer.
Jene Highstein: Space and Place is at the Jean-Paul Najar Foundation, Alserkal Avenue, Dubai, until June 30, open Saturday to Thursday, 11am to 6pm. For more information, see www.jpnajarfoundation.com/current.html