By ERIK LA PRADE September, 2022
The post-minimalist sculptor Jene Highstein was an integral member of a group of artists including Gordon Matta-Clark, Richard Nonas, Jeffrey Lew, and others, who established 112 Greene Street in 1970, one of the first alternative/performance industrial spaces in Soho.
He exhibited his works, participated in various dance performances, and helped change the way sculpture and dance were presented and viewed. He was also a participant in The Brooklyn Bridge Show in 1971, an historic on-site exhibition organized by Alanna Heiss, the founder of P.S.1. He continued to make and exhibit what he described as “organic” post-minimalist sculptures in stone, wood and ceramic until his death in 2013.
In this interview, which took place in July, 2012, Highstein talked about SoHo, and the early performances, dance events and various alternative exhibitions that occurred there. He provides a first-hand POV on these early activities.
ELP: I think Richard Bellamy was important to Holly Solomon. She bought work from him and I think she also learned something from him about being an artist or listening to them.
JH: There are two different kinds of people who represent artists or collect artists’ work. One is somebody who is selling a commodity. They come to an artist’s studio and they’re interested in this piece or that piece, or this set of work or that set of work. Because they see it as an entity and they connect with that entity and then they try to sell it, or buy it, or whatever they want to do with it. Then, the other kind of person is someone who was around in the Sixties and Seventies and they were what we used to call “patrons.” They were involved with the artists as thinkers. They were interested in what your thinking was, what your motivation was, what your world view was, what it was that made you tick. And the works were the product of that. One set of works weren’t the be-all of that. It was the mind of the person they were interested in. So, the collectors who we called "patrons," and the dealers, who were called "real dealers," were those people who got involved with the artists and the whole process. Bellamy was obviously one of those dealers. He was like a one-artist dealer, only handling Mark (di Suvero) and everybody else (also Alfred Leslie, Myron Stout, etc.) was peripheral to that. That was Bellamy’s passion. Holly learned that from Bellamy; the way people used to work. So, she connected with the artists and wanted to be involved with the artists. That really clicked with Gordon Matta-Clark.
ELP: In what way?
JH: They were just bonded. She and Horace made it possible for him to make his work. They supported it in every way. It wasn’t just giving him a house to split in half, they supported the whole thinking.
ELP: Giving him an expense account at the hardware store.
JH: It wasn’t all about money. It was really about buying into the whole process. And she tried to do that with a lot of artists, and personalities meshed, or didn’t mesh. I’m more standoffish. So, with Holly, we worked together, and they were really supportive, both of them. Horace too. He seemed to be this kind of nebbish-y guy who didn’t know anything but he was actually very involved. That was the way they operated. It was what I took to be the way things should have been. It came as a shock to me when I found out that it wasn’t that way, by and large. But with Holly that was the way it was.
ELP: How did you meet her?
JH: I met Holly when they were starting 98 Greene Street.
ELP: It was started in 1969.
JH: I was in London and came back in 1970.
ELP: They had it for three years.
JH: I was knocking around and needed to work and I met this guy who was a kind of entrepreneur/plumber. He was a local character who was a kind of a hustler. There were a lot of local characters around in Soho in those days. He would do things like if somebody’s water main would break in the street, he would go in and dig up the street and put in a new water line. It was emergency kind of stuff that was very lucrative. Lots of private contractors would do that. So, I met this character and he said, “Work for me.”
I said, “Okay.” And our job was to do the plumbing at 98 Greene Street. I mean, we ran cast-iron pipe from the basement all the way up through the whole building. That was cast-iron pipe with lead. You had to pour lead. Carrying the materials was the hardest part of the job. He taught me how to do that. That was my first plumbing job. We did Holly’s loft and that’s how I met her. So, it had to be in 1970.
After that, my partners were Philip Glass and Howard Booth. We decided it was so lucrative we went into business. Philip and I did Christo’s loft. We became friends by doing their loft on Howard Street. At that time, I was an artist showing at 112 Greene Street.
ELP: Holly Solomon opened 98 Greene Street, then 112 Greene opened.
JH: They opened more-or-less at the same time. Holly’s idea about 98 Greene Street was to create a performance space. That was the idea I got. Holly was interested in being in the theatre. I never did get down to it with her but she presented herself to me as an actress who was starting this performance space and it segued into a kind of a gallery space. But I’m not sure what was shown there unless it was Gordon’s work or Brad Davis’s work.
ELP: She showed films there, they had poetry readings there.
JH: Ted Greenwald was involved with her. So, it was a performance space, which was loose in those days. It could have been dance, it could have been theatre. I never did see her perform there but she may have. I never saw her perform except as Holly.
ELP: By the late Sixties, The Judson Church performances were well-established and the happenings were very jaded.
JH: The happenings were over but performance art had changed by then. It was something else.
ELP: How did you see this late Sixties period or movement?
JH: It was involved with dance. The individual dancers of Judson had split prior to that point. Not that they had split apart but they mutated and they became a loose group called The Grand Union. Some of the best Judson dancers were in The Grand Union and they performed as a group and individually. So, they were performing at 112 Greene Street. Also, there was The History of the Natural Dancer which was a slightly younger generation, performing at 112 Greene Street. Plus, a lot of performance artists. There were loads of South Americans and Chileans who were involved, like from The National Ballet of Chile, or different types of artists who fled Chile because of Pinochet. Richard Foreman was performing then. Happenings were something of the past and the performances came to be “art” performances of one sort or another. They were basically boring.
ELP: Jack Smith?
JH: Jack Smith was doing his stuff.
ELP: Robert Wilson?
JH: Bob Wilson had just started. His early performances were like raves. People could go in there and just kind of rave. At that point he was with Christopher Knowles, an autistic boy he brought in and saved. Knowles was his partner and they toured all over.
ELP: Knowles showed with Holly Solomon.
JH: Christopher turned into an artist. So, that was the mix. Alex Hay was doing performances which were probably the most boring performances in the world, but they were interesting. Very slow. Talk about Bob Wilson and time; a lot of it was very slow time. Then there were comedians like Ralston Farina and a couple of other comedians, all who died young. They were amazing stand-up people who did a cross between - it wasn’t comedy - it was performance art. Farina had a little suitcase and he’d rattle it around, then put it on the table, open it, and something would happen. It was very stretched-out, very surreal, and very much about pushing whatever boundaries there were. And that’s the kind of performances there were everywhere. So, the main performances at Holly’s space would have been that kind of general group. It was such a big mix of people at that time; dancers, musicians. . .-
ELP: There was a big overlap.
JH: The audience was the same also. And a lot of the performers were the same. So, it wasn’t so differentiated. I mean, I was never much of a performer but it was possible. If there was something going on, I could join in. The audience and the cast were more-or-less fluid. And it was the same audience for everything and there wasn’t really any differentiation. The musicians all performed in galleries; dancers performed in museums. It was a free for all. Things were in flux because the whole scene had moved from Fifty seventh Street to downtown. I lived here in the Sixties, and when you went to an opening, it was all on Fifty-seventh Street, and people would go for the drinks, and they’d go and get drunk. You could get beer, wine, whatever, at the galleries. People would dress up in these funny costumes and go uptown to these openings. It was a funny kind of scene. And if you went to a museum opening in the Sixties, you’d be in this big room and on one side of the room were the officials and collectors and they were all dressed in suits, and on the other side of the room was a big divide between where the artists were. I’m talking about 1964, 65, 66.
Then, by the Seventies, everything had changed. I wasn’t here. I went away from 1967 to 70. When I came back, everything that was happening was downtown and all the mechanics of the art world were forced to move downtown or come downtown to see what was going on. So, all the newspapers and magazines and writers all came to Soho to see what was going on. And the galleries all moved.
ELP: When Richard Bellamy opened The Green Gallery in October 1960, it was considered a downtown gallery on Fifty-seventh Street. Claes Oldenburg said Fifty-seventh Street was a formidable place. So, going to The Green Gallery was much more relaxing.
JH: Bellamy was very adept at explaining the work to people. The thing about Holly was, she was a funny mix. She lived on Fifty-seventh Street in a very fashionable building and her apartment was packed with art. She was a kind of uptown person but also involved downtown. Her lifestyle was very kind of formal.
ELP- It’s like, half of her is with the collectors and the other half is on the other side of the room.
JH: With the real collectors. Not the patrons, I mean the collectors of objects. She had this persona of the dumb blond, but she was actually, quite bright. It was a funny kind of mix with her and she didn’t let on how smart she was. Both of them were. And very astute at what they were looking at. She realized early on, if she wanted to run a gallery she’d have to find a new movement. So, she invented this movement of Pattern and Decoration. It was her baby. She figured it out. She was tired to people to like Gordon, Susie Harris, myself, and that generation, which was really the generation before the Pattern and Decoration people. Or, at least different from the Pattern and Decoration generation. So, she tried to support us and she did, but it was a hard mix. It was a very hard sell to have those two things in the same room; extreme minimalism, large scale installation work, then at the same time, to have something that was obstinately frivolous. So, what happened was she ended up sticking with Pattern and Decoration. Also, those artists she adored and wanted to support like Gordon. Nan June Paik, who she showed forever.
ELP: Kim MacConnell.
JH: Yes. All those artists she really put on the map.
ELP: What is it you liked about her when she talked about your work?
JH: She couldn’t talk about my work. She had a commercial gallery, and I wasn’t a commercial artist, so it was very hard to sell what I was making. Although the shows I did there were very successful. The mechanism of a commercial gallery wasn’t the tool to sell my work so it wasn’t a good fit for us. So, I did a great show there and it moved my career along. I got a lot of attention because of the work I made there but she wasn’t able to market my stuff. It wasn’t her fault. It wasn’t her ability to do that. It just was difficult. In a sense, the gallery was set up as a non-intellectual gallery. That was the front or persona. She wasn’t intellectual. Here’s this stuff and isn’t it great. She didn’t go into the brain behind it. She was much better at handling artists who were represented as idiots- savants, or peculiar, or off the edge. Something kind of outrageous or a little off-center. Like Kushner. He does fairly conventional imagery, but he put on this fashion shows where he costumed all the models and everything was covered but the genitals. So, he had these grand entrances from all the models covered with all this stuff except for their genitals. It was outrageous in some way but then the actual works were beautiful, but traditional.
ELP: I guess that was a performance.
JH: That was the performance section of what he was doing but then his real persona was to be outrageous. But the product was not outrageous. Holly was able to sell the product. Not that it was all commerce. Holly was part of my world and I stayed friends forever. There wasn’t a problem. Suzie Harris was my friend and lover who died young like a lot of my generation. Later on, I put on a show of Suzie Harris’s work at Holly’s gallery. So, we always stayed in touch. It wasn’t that we were estranged.
Another thing that was interesting was how Horace was always seen as the husband with the money, but he was deeply involved in art. He didn’t get it for awhile but once I did a very difficult show there, he was the one who really was able to communicate about it.
ELP: You were in the opening, group show there in 1975, and you had a one-person show there in 1976.
JH: I don’t think I did much else with Holly. It was at that point the Pattern and Decoration thing took off. We just moved on. My generation’s work was really, mostly known in Europe. Most of the opportunities and most of the gallery shows were in Europe. The people interested in the work were Europeans, so they would invite us to come and do exhibitions. And the people who collected the work were Europeans. It was too early and there just weren’t American supporters for the work.
ELP: Who was showing this minimal style there, at this time? Judd? Morris?
JH: Judd and Morris were commercial artists, so they were being shown by Castelli. Our generation was the next generation and nobody was showing us. So, we invented our own gallery which was 112 Greene Street. We invented our own museum which was P. S. 1, and that’s how we did it. That was our support network: 112, P.S. 1, and then all the alternative spaces started at the same time. The artist’s space, The Kitchen, others. They would all come to us and say, “How should we operate?” “What should we do?” They wanted to get the grants but they didn’t really know how to operate. So, they came to the 112 Greene Street artists and asked us how they should proceed.
ELP: Holly Solomon paid the rent at 98 Greene Street. It was $154.00 a month. This went on for three years.
JH: It had a parallel life with 112 Greene Street.
ELP: When Holly Solomon found the performance generation, she must have felt this was the next thing.
JH: I don’t think so. 98 Greene Street didn’t go on for that long, and then she opened a commercial gallery and became a real art dealer.
ELP: What do you think was the jump in psychology - from being a collector to being a dealer - that she made?
JH: I think she was just passionate about art and also about artists. That was how she figured out how to stay in contact with everything: by being involved with artists.
ELP: The artists had the network?
JH: And the artists were the people she wanted to spend time with. Look at all the people she showed.
ELP: When I looked at the artists Paula Cooper was showing, I realized she was selling a brand and she did it very well. Holly Solomon seems to have taken more chances on showing artists whose work she liked, than say, Paula Cooper.
JH: It was a completely different thing than Paula Cooper. Holly’s whole attitude was much more risk taking. Paula is a consummate business person. She’s been very successful as a business entity, plus she owns a lot of real estate in Chelsea. But Holly was much more of a real person.
ELP: Why do you think Holly Solomon never bought a building in Soho?
JH: She wasn’t a business person. She was running a commercial gallery but it wasn’t her reason for being. Building an empire was not what it was about for her. She was a much more open-ended entity as a person. She was a unique person. Maybe it will be difficult to write about her as a person because she’s not a brand. She’s not a business entity. She’s not a myth maker. She’s not telling her own story all the time. People who want to be famous, spend a lot of time telling their own story. If you tell your own story, you can hone it as you go along with your life. Also, if you refine your own story as you go along, you make it a stronger myth, and Holly was not a myth maker. Her story was not about herself, it was about the artists.
ELP: Well, that’s the important reason for writing about her. Now, we can go back and pick out the artists she showed. Like Mapplethorpe.
JH: Mapplethorpe was just outrageous. And for Holly to show that work was amazing. He was a very nice guy; but his work was outrageous. He was right on the edge and Holly loved that. It was all about being on the edge.
ELP: Holly liked that?
JH: Holly loved that. That’s what she wanted.
ELP: There was a music concert at her gallery in 1978 with Laurie Anderson, Patti Smith, and others; that’s very early.
JH: It is early. I think that’s the key. She lived through the artists. She was able to be outrageous and right on the edge of things through the artists. But her personality was more conventional. She was the blond babe. She told me when Marilyn Monroe died she snuck into her apartment and stole one of her bras. Monroe lived in her building. For her and her generation, Marilyn Monroe was it. She would have loved to have been Marilyn Monroe but she couldn’t be. But, through the art she could be on the forefront. That’s where it’s at.
ELP: They opened the gallery in 1975, and by 1983, they closed it and moved uptown.
JH: That building on Fifty-Seventh seventh Street was always a solid, gallery building, so for her to move there made sense. A lot of galleries moved in there over the years. I think Holly was trying to be more contemporary. Later, she moved downtown to Houston to what I think was a better gallery. She did more interesting shows down there. She did an amazing Nam June Paik show in the basement.
ELP: What was her relationship with Paik?
JH: I don’t really know because I didn’t know Paik that well. But Holly always had a relationship with him. Did shows with him.
ELP: I guess she was devastated when Gordon Matta-Clark died?
JH: Yes. Gordon was very important to her. Gordon was very charismatic and beyond that he was outrageous. She could get into real trouble with Gordon.
ELP: Like what?
JH: Like when he got the pier. Piers in those days were like the wild west. You could go by there and see people having sex. It was a cruising ground for gays. Gordon went over there and started building a piece and Holly supported it. I mean, he started cutting the pier apart. Holly was going to do an exhibition of the work, but then the city came and freaked out. He had cut through and separated part of the pier. There were the pilings and then there are the buildings on top of the pilings; that’s what holds the pier together. He made a motemoat; cutting through and across so you could walk across the mote moat and you could see the water below. It structurally weakened the whole structure and the city freaked out. Then, Gordon decided it was time to go to Europe for a while.
There was a one-day opening and then Gordon left, but Holly made the opening happen. So that kind of stuff for Holly was great. It was outrageous and quite good. Then, predictably, Gordon went to Europe and people would forgive him for doing that too. That’s a different story, a different mentality.
ELP: Emotionally, Holly Solomon must have identified with the outsider.
JH: I think so.
ELP: Whereas Paula Cooper . . . .
JH: I did a performance at Paula Cooper’s and she didn’t speak to me for two years because it was too far out.
ELP: Yet, she bases her foundation on these minimal artists and I guess they’ve become so acceptable.
JH: Paula can deal with some people and not others. She can deal with Robert Grosvenour, whose who’s a very good artist and out of his mind. But, he’s containable. With my generation, we weren’t containable. With my performance, we drove the audience out, they had to leave.
ELP: Sorry I missed it.
JH: It was Mabou Mines. Mabou Mines was another company operating then and a lot of the artists were interacting with them. Mabou Mines was just far out. The happenings were far out and transgressive. La Mama was also far out and transgressive, also. Let’s say they had a social context which made them transgressive. This other group, we’re intellectuals and not politically aligned so much. So, if it is far out, it’s intellectually far out. Maplethrope Mapplethorpe was far out because he was photographing . . . they weren’t really pornography, his photographs, they were idealizing people’s genitals. It was on the intellectual edge of photography. It was redefining what photography is. It was seen as pornography or transgressive but that wasn’t the point.
ELP: Or idealizing women.
JH: Or mostly black males. But there was a redefining that was different than being outrageous or transgressive. Maplethrope Mapplethorpe was shy, he wasn’t a persona. It was all in the work. Gordon was kind of a character but he wasn’t really a performer. He trained as an architect.
ELP: He trained as an architect but at some point he had a different approach to the whole business.
JH: But if you look at it as architecture and put it together with art, you can see where it’s going. Carving a building in the shape of intersecting cones is an architectural conceit. The building is the material and he’s making a three-dimensional object out of it. It’s just scale and the kind of audacity of it that makes it what it is. When you look at it intellectually in terms of what he was doing, he was applying a system to this structure, and that’s one of the things our generation did, which was to shift scale. So, we were able to use scale in another way, to work on a very large scale. That’s what we learned from the Earth artists from the previous generation. But, we took it and put it in architecture.
ELP: Is it a negative to say Holly Solomon wasn’t an intellectual?
JH: I think she was an intellectual. She was very smart but her means of operating weren’t intellectual.
ELP: As opposed to someone, - getting back to Paula Cooper, - businesswoman.
JH: Paula’s a businesswoman. But Bellamy was an intellectual. Bellamy operated out of an intellectual plane.
ELP: He had other planes too.
JH: He had other things to do too.
ELP: He was a “poster boy” for pot. Alcohol.
JH: Everybody was into drugs. It was a druggie generation. We all smoked pot. There were cases of people who weren’t into drugs but, by and large, we were all into drugs. Pot. Heroin. Anything else that came by was game. And don’t forget, there was the gay revolution going on. Talk about daring, there were the gay bars. The gay bars were pure theater. It was just, how far could you go? What could you sell? What costumes did you wear, or what personas could you have? Bob Wilson used to want to take me to the gay bars and I didn’t want to go because it was . . . I didn’t want to go and get involved, but I’d go occasionally. Bob would say, “It’s theater! You don’t have to get involved, but look at it as theater.”
ELP: Did Holly Solomon go to gay bars?
JH: Holly must have gone to gay bars, everyone went to have a look. It was pure theater.
ELP: And outrageous?
ELP: When the Eighties started, there is another group, the Neo-Expressionists coming from Europe. Then, another, younger group of dealers, college educated, ambitious, wanting to make money, coming up. Mary Boone for example.
JH: Mary’s a great salesman.
ELP: What is it that Holly Solomon missed that Mary Boone didn’t miss?
JH: Holly didn’t need to make money. Mary Boone is all about making money because she’s running a business, and a much more interesting one. It isn’t just that there is someone new coming along, but someone whose who’s been working all along, suddenly seems relevant. It’s that too. There is a great nostalgia for the Seventies now. The Seventies, the Seventies. Things are constantly shifting because that’s what makes art interesting. There is no standard that’s going to stay there, it is always moving around. So, people who are ignored suddenly become important, people who are important suddenly are ignored. There’s a re-evaluation. Another generation comes along and somebody who is open to the situation is valuable, . to To me. , Holly was a kind of filter for a certain kind of work. But, I don’t know that she was open in the same way that Mary Boone is open. It was much more personal for Holly, for her fulfillment. She didn’t need money every day because she married a rich guy. Mary Boone has to pay the rent every month.
ELP: The triangle of Mary Boone, Paula Cooper and Holly Solomon is interesting.
JH: I think it is interesting.
ELP: They are three, distinct personalities.
JH: Paula Cooper stays with a small group of people she promotes and she does a good job of it.
ELP: Annina Noesei, European.
JH: She was very interesting. Annina could really spot the art. And when she was married to John Weber, they had a great gallery. A lot of it was due to her.
JH: Illena was another generation. Sonnabend was very open. She really looked around and tried to represent people. She had Wegman for a long time, but he didn’t fit in there at all. She was very loyal to him but it wasn’t the right mix.
ELP: Can you talk about Holly Solomon’s relationship with John Gibson?
JH: John had a good gallery. He showed a mix of European and American artists. So, he had one foot in Europe. Holly was different because her market was Americans. She wanted to find , American, middle-class collectors. I think she had a hard time in some way because she was too much like them. Castelli was Italian and suave and could whisper, “Oh, this is a very important artist.” Castelli had the distance to do that. But Holly couldn’t say that. They’d laugh at her because she was a babe. But Holly’s ideal was to get these New York collectors involved with these artists. It was a hard sell. But, she ran a gallery for a long time so she must’ve been successful at it.
ELP: I found it interesting that she had a group show in 1980 called The Italian Wave. All Italitan artists.
JH: Then, she was paying attention.
ELP: The last show at the gallery was a show by Donna Dennis in 1983. Then, she moved the gallery uptown.
JH: Donna’s become pretty successful now and it has been a long haul. Holly supported Donna 30 years ago. Donna’s only become well-known now. It’s taken her whole life to become known.
ELP: Did Mary Heilmann have a long haul?
JH: Yes. Mary did too.
ELP- You mentioned Horace Solomon was pretty insightful about artists’ work. Did they work together in looking at artists’ work?
JH: He was running his business also. She got involved with the artists but he was part of the deal.
ELP: The relationship they had as a collecting couple is interesting.
JH: It wasn’t a stereotype of here’s this blond and she’s got this rich guy. It wasn’t like that at all. But Holly liked to play that a little bit too.
ELP- When did she not play that?
JH: I would see Holly off and on through the years but I didn’t really hang out with them much. In the early days I would go up to their house and I would see her and interact with them more, but then later on I would just see her at the gallery, so I don’t really know a lot of that since I wasn’t really involved in their lives. I just know from interacting with Horace that he had a good eye. I did this outrageous show with this black sphere in the gallery and he got it right away. He was the support for it. So, it was a very traditional show. They had just built the gallery and I had to tear the whole front of the building apart to get my sculpture in there. They had just completed the gallery and the paint wasn’t even dry. And it had to be torn out again when the sculpture left!
ELP: It fed into her sense of outrage.
JH: Yeah. It was a big success and the news camera came. But Horace was the one who seems seemed to understand what the piece was about and be supportive about it. There was a lot of publicity about the show. Then, some museum people saw the work and then they asked to travel the piece, but they didn’t ask Holly, they asked me. Thinking about it now, it should have all gone through Holly, Holly should have had that part and negotiated that arrangement, but it wasn’t Holly, it was me who did it. Then, the work travelled. The same work went to Chicago to The Renaissance Society, and then it was brought and put in front of The University of Chicago. But she should have been the one who was involved in all of that and picked up on all those contacts. That’s what a dealer does. But for some reason, that’s not the way it worked. I wasn’t trying to push her out of the way because I would have been happy if she had taken that role and done it. But she didn’t do that. Her focus was finding a New York collector. It would have been a different story had she done that. Then she could have represented my work. But she never did represent my work that way. So, I think her approach was a more traditional approach, which is, a buyer comes into a gallery. Maybe she grew into that role, I don’t know.
ELP: Do you think that was a limitation?
JH: Well, for my relationship it was. Because that’s what I needed for somebody to do: to be a gallery that was representing me, as opposed to a commercial outlet selling to retail stores.
ELP: Or like a Mary Boone who would have jumped right in?
JH: Well, yes or no but she would have sold something besides what she had to do. Had she treated my work in a different way, she would have been my representative. But she didn’t. Also, the Pattern and Decoration thing was coming in and that took up a lot of her time.
ELP: Holly Solomon really made an effort to get out and see the art as Bellamy did.
JH: Yes. She was a player. And you had to go and find it. It was mostly word of mouth and little hand-made cards. Nobody had business cards and nobody had an answering machine. You had to show up.
ELP: Lucas Samaras told me POP and Minimalism got more exposure than other things. So, I guess after they peaked, these other things surfaced.
JH: I don’t know how much exposure Minimalism got. It was underground and a smaller world. POP art really gutted the media. Minimalism was very successful but how could you fit that into the media. The media is a big machine and it needs a certain kind of allure and Judd’s boxes didn’t have that allure. You can do cartoons about it but you’re not going to put that on the cover of Time magazine.
ELP: You say that you were the next generation after Serra but I always see him as part of your generation.
JH: It’s a different generation. Serra’s a different mind mind-set. He’s more akin to Judd than to our generation. Serra’s generation is Smithson, Heizer, they were all competing among themselves. Nancy Graves, but she got pushed aside. Carl Andre. They were different from our generation. They already got a start by the time our generation came up. Their generation showed in established galleries. Our generation started our own galleries. Outsider galleries.
ELP: Quite a difference.
JH: A big difference. So, their whole way of operating, no matter how far out it was, was to have a cart that would fit within the gallery structure. And we were naïve and didn’t think that way, didn’t understand that. We didn’t have that goal. They had that goal.
ELP: Even Serra having a piece leaning against a wall was commercially saleable.
JH: It was also about . . . . I didn’t know what was going on. I was just doing what I was doing. I was like Holly; I didn’t have that consciousness of a big plan about how I was going to proceed. I was just doing it. So, I remember I made a show in Belgium and I did only these large-scale objects and I thought, “I should make something smaller that has the same power. I think what I’ll do is I’ll get these blocks of steel and I’ll carve them into these shapes that I’m interested in and that will be a smaller object.” So, I did this, working on this show, and this guy came over, and he said; “This is fantastic! I want one. Don’t sell them all. I want one.” So, I did the pieces and had the show. He came to the opening and he said, “These aren’t commercial.” They were too heavy and they needed a machine to pick them up. You couldn’t just put them in the living room or move them to another room if you got tired of them. And, the other generation had the same kinds of problems but they figured out a way around it because they had that intent to be commercially viable and be in this structure that existed. Our generation, we didn’t get it. We were just making these things and they were far out. I mean Gordon only took photographs of the pieces that he made to have a record of them, and then started playing with the photographs, but that’s all that’s left.
Installation view: Jene Highstein 'Sculpture 10–22, 1973 at 112 Greene Street/Worksho courtesy of the artist and White Columns, NY.
ELP: And now the photographs are the art.
JH: The photographs are the art. And we all looked at them and said, “That’s nice Gordon, but that’s not the work.” We kind of turned our noses up at them; “Oh yeah, Gordon’s having fun.” So, I’d use his printer and make some cCyber Cchrome prints too because we were all sharing information and stuff, but we didn’t take it seriously. But that’s the art now. The real art were [sic] those building interventions. That was the experience. He came to me and he said, “I have this house and I have to let one end down, do you think it’s going to stand up or fall apart?” I said, “I guess it going to stand up, Gordon. Just do a little bit at a time.” That’s what he did. And when you walked through the house, it was a revelation. He only let the house down, three inches. He cut it in half and let the back half down three inches. But, psychologically, when you walked through the house, it was a revelation. You can’t get that in a photograph. It’s not about the photograph. It’s about the experience of walking through the sculpture.
ELP: No one has attempted to recreate that work?
JH: No one is going to do that because they don’t have the mentality to do that. It’s all about the thinker, Gordon Matta-Clark, and what effect he has on architecture or architects. It’s not about the sculpture. It’s about the revolutionary thinker and how people can take that information and write about it. Do books about it. Do photographs of it. And how it will influence other people, but it’s not about the sculpture because the sculpture is gone. It’s a different generation because it was different ways we had of thinking.
ELP: Do you and the people you hung out with feel you were so locked out of the commercial galleries that you felt the need to start your own galleries?
JH: I think we were just naïve and didn’t know what the game was. Also, Jeffrey Lew, who started 112, was very savvy and he knew what was going on because he knew both sides of it, but he didn’t care. He wanted a theater for action; he built it and they came. It was really about making something new and different. For us, it was an opportunity and also it was where we went and what we did. I don’t think we examined it so carefully. Gradually, it began to dawn on me that we were the outsiders. We had acceptance in Europe but we didn’t know about here.
ELP: On the other side of it, you were also the insiders.
JH: We were the outsiders commercially, but we were the insiders intellectually.
ELP: Did you go to galleries on Fifty-seventh Street?
ELP: What did you think when you saw this commercially-promoted work?
JH: Most of it was uninteresting, or unfulfilling. Especially like the Castelli galleries and all these were ugly galleries. The spaces were terrible.
ELP: How did works by Flavin, Samaras, or Judd look to you?
JH: They didn’t look good because they were too confining. The ceilings were low, the spaces were cut up. Space was so important to my generation. There was a guy named Joe LoGiudice who had a gallery that was a loft (484 Broome Street) that became The Kitchen. He was a character and he did a lot of shows. He had a big space and it was beautiful. Gordon was the son of Matta, so, he knew more about it than the rest of our generation. He had some sense of what an artist was and how an artist’s builds a myth. The problem with the access of my work from the other artist’s artists’ work, was, my work was too big. It was too large large-scale and dependent on the opportunity to really mix it up in the spaces, and because of that it was very difficult to transpose it somewhere else. I did a piece for the Paris Biennial and it was destroyed. It was bought and rebuilt again for the Guggenheim Bilbao show, ; it was destroyed again. It was too big. I’ll build it again sometime. So, there’s a history with some of my works that get built and destroyed and built again, but it is just too hard to put that into a gallery context.
ELP: You said the sense of scale the earth artists had was so important to your generation.
JH: Yes. There’s Turrell, Heizer, Smithson, De Maria, Peter Hutchinson. It was the scale of their work that needs to be out doors. We were doing large-scale work indoors and that was a different thing. Maybe it was also limited by the fact that real estate kind of ran out. Abandoned buildings weren’t around anymore.
ELP: Mary Heilmann told me a story of how she was in Max’s Kansas City and she was talking with Smithson. She was telling Smithson how much she liked David Hoffman’s work and Smithson said, “I can’t believe we’re having this conversation.”
JH: Mary’s a real outsider. Smithson was very judgmental and Andre was the same way. That whole generation was very strategic and judgmental about other artists. They really were exclusive.
ELP: Mental chess?
ELP: And Serra was part of that?
JH: He was part of that too. They really wanted to destroy each other so there wouldn’t be any competition because each one thought they were the greatest artist. Knock out the competition so they wouldn’t have to worry about other artists. It was the kind of camaraderie where, “I’ll beat you up and than then we’ll be friends.” That kind of street stuff.
ELP: How did Rauschenberg fit into all of this?
JH: Rauschenberg was my generation’s patron. He was our guy.
ELP: In what sense?
JH: Rauschenberg was a big supporter of all of us. He was brilliant. You could hang out at his house, go to his parties. He was somebody who was very generous. He was somebody who talked about being an artist. He talked about it all the time. He was always up front and whatever he was thinking he talked about. He had a persona and he wanted you to have a persona too. I was kind of shy, so I didn’t have a persona. So, he’d say to me, “Oh, don’t be a closet artist, Jene.” He was like, - live your life out in the open; even through he was a closeted gay. His generation didn’t swish. They didn’t act gay, but despite that, they were really living their lives out in the public. Rauschenberg did too much work. He made an enormous amount of work. He was always experimenting, changing, trying to figure out new stuff.
ELP: Did he like that about your generation?
JH: Yeah. We liked to have a good time. WM
Erik La Prade has a B.A. and M. A. From City College. Some of his interviews and articles have appeared in Art in America, The Brooklyn Rail, ArtCritical and NewsWhistle. His book, Breaking Through: Richard Bellamy and the Green Gallery, 1960-1965, was published in 2010. MidMarch Arts Press. His forthcoming book, WEATHER, is published by LAST WORD BOOKS. Olympia, Washington. 2020view all articles from this author