Black Sphere's series of transitory installations in the first years of its existence form an integral part of the sculpture's history and its place within Highstein's early artistic practice. Though seemingly introspective and driven by formal rather than social concerns, Highstein's early works were in fact deeply entrenched in the transformation of blighted areas of New York in the early 1970s. It was in these years, after Highstein's return to New York from London, that his sculptural practice found its own formal language. In post-industrial, recession-struck New York City (vast swaths of which were earmarked by Robert Moses for ever more invasive large-scale urban renewal projects), empty warehouses and former manufacturing plants provided alternative art spaces for artists.
In those formative years in New York, Highstein became closely associated with the artist community in and around 112 Greene Street, where he was a member of the Anarchitecture Group of artists, whose work responded critically (and often radically, as in the case of lead member Gordon Matta-Clark) to the radical transformations in their built environment. Highstein also worked and exhibited during that period in alternative art spaces—such as P.S.1 and the Clocktower—that were procured by the Institute for Art and Urban Resources, which was founded and run by his then-partner, Alanna Heiss. Highstein's installation and sculptural works in this era took the form of spatial interventions that were in dialogue with the temporary spaces and broader urban environment in which they were both created and sited.
Conceived at the height of this period of artistic experimentation for Highstein, and at the point of development of his distinctive formal sculptural language, Black Sphere marks a crucial shift in Highstein's practice from works that intervened into existing spaces, to discrete sculptural objects. From 1973 to 1975, Highstein created his works in the Condemnation Blight Sculpture Workshop in a defunct industrial beverage facility on Coney Island. The Workshop was an initiative under the Institute for Art and Urban Resources and was a WORKSPACE project, namely, “a program designed to turn unused urban buildings into studios and exhibitions spaces for artists.” The land that the Workshop occupied was leased from the city only until 1975, the same year Highstein began making his concrete sculptures. In this way, Black Sphere was produced at the threshold between Highstein's period of artistic experimentation, which was deeply embedded in the alternative art spaces of early 1970s New York, and the distinctive sculptural practice he developed immediately following, which moved far beyond the confines of the art capital of the United States.
Initially created for the commercial setting of New York's Holly Solomon gallery, Black Sphere has since traveled to several prominent institutions across the country. Before it arrived at the University of Chicago campus in 1980, Black Sphere had been on display in the University of California, Berkeley's Art Museum, where it was part of one of the earliest exhibitions in the MATRIX Program for Contemporary Art in the fall of 1979, thus travelling more than 5,000 total miles from its creation to its installation here at the University.
When Black Sphere first arrived on campus for its exhibition at The Renaissance Society in March 1980, its installation in front of the Brain Research Pavilion (across the street from The Renaissance Society's Bergman Gallery) was only ever meant to be temporary. However, following The Renaissance Society's initial installation, Black Sphere had proven so popular that it was chosen by Betsy and Andy Rosenfield, the children of Edwin A. Bergman (then-Chairman of the University's Board of Trustees), as a gift to the University in honor of Mr. and Mrs. Bergman's anniversary. In 1984, the sculpture briefly abandoned its home at the University of Chicago to travel to New York, where it greeted visitors as they entered the vast new gallery space at MoMA New York for the International Survey of Recent Painting and Sculpture exhibition. Comprised of nearly 200 works made since 1975, it was a monumental show of contemporary art planned for the inauguration of the MoMA West Wing expansion, and Black Sphere took pride of place.
When the sculpture was ready to return to the University of Chicago campus in August of 1984, it suffered severe damage in transit before it could be securely installed. While the specifics of insurance policies and restoration processes were being investigated, Black Sphere occupied a new, temporary space on a lawn next to the Lorado Taft Midway Studios until it was moved inside the building for restoration. Highstein worked with Art Department faculty members to mend the steel armature, apply new chicken wire, and apply a new layer of concrete by hand to produce the sculpture as it appears on Ellis Avenue today.
In this way, Black Sphere both originated and has been consistently sited in urban settings undergoing transformation. From the gentrification by artists in Lower Manhattan, through the MoMA West Wing expansion, to the University of Chicago campus, Black Sphere's sites have been intertwined with histories of art and artists' role in changing the built environment. As a result, Black Sphere presents to us a material manifestation of the complex negotiations between urban transformation and art.