Published: April 9, 2002
By Stephen May
WASHINGTON, D.C. – Although his name is unfamiliar to many art lovers, H.C. Westermann (1922-1981) occupies a special niche in late Twentieth Century American art, and had great influence on numerous artists. Seeking to communicate deeply felt, universal human emotions, he created a new kind of three-dimensional work that combined traditional sculpting techniques and surrealist assemblage practices with time-honored carpentry and woodworking methods and designs.
Westermann’s decidedly quirky objects, often depicting offbeat subjects, set him apart from the mainstream, helping to explain why he has not received the recognition he deserves. He is surely one of Connecticut’s most significant, underappreciated artists.
The current touring exhibition, the first posthumous retrospective of Westermann’s sculpture, should go a long way toward establishing his lasting reputation. A splendid selection of some 130 of his constructions and assemblages, most of them made of wood, metal and found objects, and ranging from the autobiographical and political to the ominous and humorous, make up this appealing show.
“H.C. Westermann,” on view at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden through May 12, was organized by the Museum of Contemporary Art (MCA) in Chicago, where it opened last year.
The exhibition travels to the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles (June 9 to September 8) and The Menil Collection in Houston (October 4 to January 5, 2003). The show was curated by MCA curator Lynne Warren and MCA assistant curator Michael Rooks, who also put together the outstanding accompanying catalog.
Showcasing Westermann’s eccentric sculptural explorations of such themes as war and peace, life and death, patriotism and dissent, and conformity and individualism, the display offers an enjoyable and sometimes challenging and eye-popping experience for old and new Westermann observers. Employing an idiosyncratic aesthetic in superbly crafted works that bear close study, his oeuvre is at once thought-provoking, enigmatic, whimsical and disturbing. Visitors to this show will not soon forget many of the nonmainstream works they see.
Born and raised in Los Angeles, Horace Clifford Westermann — “Cliff” to his friends — was a physical fitness buff and worked for a time in the timber industry before enlisting in the Marines in 1942. Thwarted in his ambition to be a paratrooper, he became an antiaircraft machine gunner aboard the aircraft carrier USS Enterprise, and was exposed to appalling carnage while on duty in the Pacific. Westermann was particularly traumatized by witnessing hundreds of sailors burning to death and drowning after a kamikaze attack on a sister ship, an experience that haunted much of his later art.
Discharged after two-and-a-half years at sea, he developed a hand-balancing act with a partner and toured the Far East with the USO. After studying for a few years at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, the highly patriotic Westermann reenlisted in the Marines and participated in bloody combat in Korea.
He returned to civilian life in Chicago in 1952 anguished about his wartime experiences, filled with concerns about the threat of nuclear war and appalled by the rampant materialism he encountered in his homeland. A dedicated nonconformist and genuine macho man, Westermann “was an odd amalgam of Herman Melville’s cursed wanderers, Raymond Chandler’s tough guys, and Walt Whitman’s solitary individualists,” according to Dennis Adrian, a Chicago friend, art historian and critic.
“Westermann looked at the United States “sort of cross-eyed,” observed Robert Storr, senior curator at the Museum of Modern Art in a recent lecture at the Hirshhorn. He saw America, said Storr, as “wide open, but subject to disasters.”
For a time Westermann knocked around the Windy City, earning a living as a handyman, janitor and carpenter. “Westermann was…a typical American man of the World War II era — modest, hard-working, respectful of national values and ideals — who also happened to be a profoundly sensitive individual who was very good with his hands,” writes curator Warren in her catalog essay.
In his spare time, Westermann started turning leftover pieces of wood into small, intricately handcrafted objects that reflected both his angst and whimsical nature. The former, growing out of his vivid war memories, is epitomized by such foreboding works as “A Soldier’s Dream” (1955) — showing the “soldier as sacrificial lamb,” says co-curator Rooks — and “Death Ship of No Port” (1957). Death Ships — frequently depicted as damaged hulls of boats adrift on shark-infested seas, symbolizing the perilous nature of life — became a recurrent theme.
In 1957 Westermann began exhibiting his sculpture in Chicago galleries. His off-beat work was so out of step with Abstract Expressionism — then all the rage in New York City — that it would have been scorned in the East, but found favor in the Windy City. His works were acquired by important Chicago collectors and museums, including the Art Institute of Chicago.
A pivotal event in the artist’s life was his 1959 marriage to Joanna Beall, an artist herself and daughter of well-known graphic designer Lester Beall, Sr. After several failed marriages, Westermann found true love in his union with Joanna. She was his muse, artistic partner and inspiration throughout their happy two decades together.
Westermann’s profound and sympathetic understanding of human nature is summarized in “Memorial to the Idea of Man if He Was an Idea” (1958), made of pine, bottle caps, cast-tin toys, glass, metal and enamel. The artist’s initials are spelled out in bottle caps on the opened door of this boxy, male figure, while inside a headless baseball player, an armless trapeze acrobat and a death ship are displayed. It is topped by a Cyclops’ single eye surmounted by a globe balanced on a human finger. Close examination suggests this complex piece symbolizes the helplessness with which Westermann felt man confronted his fate in a postwar world dominated by nuclear weapons and the Cold War.
A careful reading of “Brinkmanship” (1958), made primarily of electroplated metal, reveals the oval face of cigar-smoking General Curtis LeMay, a proponent of that Cold War policy. He is surrounded by a latrine from which protrudes an erect, macho penis; an expensive Cadillac with a large, wasteful tail fin, and a flattened, plywood self-portrait of the artist with a hinge clamping his jaws shut. The average man, living in a time of crass materialism in a world filled with weapons of mass destruction, is at the mercy of powerful forces beyond his control, Westermann appears to be saying here.
Westermann’s seemingly humorous “Angry Young Machine” (1959), a enigmatic structure made of galvanized iron and pipe fittings, and featuring ruby red lips from which a tongue-like apparatus protrudes, also suggests the artist’s affinity for the grotesque. Indeed, “Westermann represents one of the high points of the grotesque in American art,” said Storr in his Hirshhorn lecture. “This is the moment for Westermann,” he added, “because we are living in grotesque times,” exemplified by the mind-boggling events of September 11.
In a lighter vein are a pair of large, robot-like figures, each about 80 inches tall, “The Silver Queen” (1960) and “Swingin’ Red King” (1961). Other similarly sized, playful works include “Aluminated” (1976), an aluminum triangle punctuated with red reflectors and what appears to be a profile of comic-book icon Dick Tracy; “Hutch the One Armed Astro-Turf Man with a Defense” (1976), a wooden frame covered with AstroTurf with a boxing glove for a head, and one of his last pieces, “Jack of Diamonds” (1981), made of wire mesh left over from building his house and studio.
Westermann gained national attention in 1959 with his inclusion in “New Images of Man,” a controversial exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art. As a newcomer among a number of well-known artists, his humor, quirky designs and superb craftsmanship stood out and drew favorable responses.
Although an American original who followed his own instincts without regard to art-world trends, Westermann became an important inspiration for such artists as Bruce Nauman, Jim Nutt and William T. Wiley, and influenced movements like the Chicago Imagists and West Coast Funk artists. While he kept his distance from the main currents of contemporary art, his work has been widely collected by private patrons and leading museums.
In 1961, the Westermanns moved to Dunbarton Farm, a rural property in Brookfield Center, Conn., where Joanna’s father, the successful graphic designer, had his studio from 1954 until his death in 1969. After living for a time in a small cottage on the grounds, Westermann began building a studio for his wife, a studio for himself and a house for both of them, tasks that preoccupied him for more than a decade.
Both were captivated by the woodsy location. The peace and quiet of the site, surrounded by nature, offered the Westermanns “conditions that encouraged asceticism, reflection and hard work,” writes Rooks in the catalog. Westermann constructed the buildings just as he created his sculptural art, by meticulous handcrafting, close attention to details and using simple means. “[I]t was,” according to Rooks, “a labor of love.”
The house, a real Westermann masterpiece, was built from sketches made by Joanna Westermann. Working with disciplined focus on details, sometimes assisted by area carpenters, Westermann handcrafted beams, posts and joists from trees felled on the property, bolted and nailed structural timbers together, framed and sheathed the structure, and shingled the roof.
As curator Rooks observes in his essay, like Frederic Church’s celebrated home, Olana, in Hudson, N.Y., Westermann’s house is among his greatest works of art. He “applied every discipline he practiced as an artist in the details of the house; every conviction he had compelled its meticulous realization,” writes Rooks.
Sadly, after working obsessively on the place for so many years, Westermann suffered a heart attack and died in 1981 before he could occupy the house. His wife Joanna lived there alone until succumbing to lung cancer in 1997.
Today, Westermann’s studio, which he completed before the house, remains meticulously organized with his tools, equipment and wood products in place. The property is privately owned by a neighbor, who rents it out. It is certainly one of the most remarkable artists’ homes/studios in America.
In spite of his ceaseless building efforts, Westermann created some of his most memorable sculptures during his years in Connecticut. Indeed, a number of works, such as the gaily painted “The Log Cabin” (1968), incorporating maple, beech, pine, redwood and walnut into a lively ensemble, echo his construction project. “Billy Penn” (1976), a distinctive figure almost 61/2 feet in height, was made from “Billy Penn” stove pipe used in the house.
“Antimobile” (1965), a solid, superbly crafted steering wheel made of Douglas fir marine plywood, reflects Westermann’s concern that cars were taking over the American landscape. It is also an homage to another Nutmeg State sculptor, Alexander Calder, whose light, moveable mobiles contrasted with this heavy, immovable piece. It is beautifully crafted, as is “Westermann’s Table” (1966). With its pile of leather-bound books bolted to a round stand, this piece seems to celebrate the artist’s interest in reading and his intellectual bent.
One of the most appealing works in the exhibition is “Homage to American Art (Dedicated to Elie Nadelman)” (1966), in which a suspended bentwood shovel handle merges into a ball of laminated wood. It is Westermann’s poignant tribute to the Polish-born American sculptor (1882-1946), whose simplified folk art work had inspired him. “[R]ather than literally quoting…[Nadelman, Westermann] referred indirectly to Nadelman’s unconventional use of materials and to his impeccable craftsmanship,” notes Adrian in his catalog essay.
Westermann’s dark side is represented by a number of late works, often structures beset by sinister forces. Examples include “Suicide Tower” (1966); “Battle to the Death in the Icehouse” (1971) and more Death Ships, like “Death Ship, Out of San Pedro, Adrift,” completed in 1980, a year before his death. “Nobody else in American art had such a strong sense of the sinister,” wrote Time magazine critic Robert Hughes last summer.
On the other hand, Westermann created some of his most humorous and appealing works in these last years — a series of whimsical silhouettes, such as “Jockstrap” (1966); “Le Keeque (after Jockomedy)” (1966), a takeoff on the emaciated, elongated sculptures of Alberto Giacometti, and “The One-Eyed Poet” (1979), which is in the collection of the Yale University Art Gallery. These are wonderfully playful figures that bring smiles to visitors’ faces.
Westermann’s career peaked in 1978 with a much-admired retrospective that opened at the Whitney Museum of American Art and toured the country. By this time the artist, slowed by heart problems, had begun to cut back on creating sculpture to marshal his strength to complete his house and studio.
Westermann’s lifelong commitment to a demanding exercise routine, dating back to his days as a teenager on Santa Monica Beach (later known as Muscle Beach) helped keep him going. His final heart attack, at age 59, brought an end to a remarkable life and career.
Often dismissed as a folksy, even naïve, craftsperson, the current exhibition documents that to the contrary, H.C. Westermann was a gifted, sophisticated, aware and discerning artist with something to say. His diverse life experiences, formal art training, intellectual curiosity and pronounced sociopolitical views enabled him to explore the world’s anomalies, dangers and turmoil in profoundly original works.
As Valerie J. Fletcher, the Hirshhorn’s curator of sculpture puts it, Westermann’s “art highlights the painful paradoxes of living in a world in disarray, where melancholy and tension coexist with humor and joy, and seriousness and angst are leavened with puns and silliness.” Concluded Time critic Hughes, this exhibition reveals that Westermann is “an artist who deserves to be rated as one of the great American talents, and should have been a long time ago.”
The exceptionally handsome exhibition catalog helps explain how and why Westermann’s sculpture, combining high aesthetic quality, angst and sardonic humor, will continue to speak to and intrigue audiences for a long time to come.
Essays by such leading Westermann authorities as Adrian, Rooks, Storr and Warren examine the artist’s life and work from a variety of perspectives. Lavishly illustrated, the book contains a detailed chronology of the artist’s life, a list of his exhibitions and an extensive bibliography.
Published by the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago, in association with Harry N. Abrams, Inc, the 212-page book sells for $49.50 (hard cover) and $34.95 (soft cover). It will be the standard work on Westermann’s sculptural oeuvre well into the future.
Also on tour is a lively, complementary exhibition, “See America First: The Prints of H.C. Westermann.” Organized by the Smart Museum of Art at the University of Chicago, it features some 90 equally fascinating, but less well-known, graphic works.
After opening at the Smart Museum and traveling to the Bayly Art Museum at the University of Virginia, “See America First” will be on view at the Contemporary Arts Museum in Houston (October 4 to December 1) and at the University Art Museum at California State University at Long Beach (July to August, 2003).
Like his sculptures, reflections on his horrific experiences in war and his off-beat, personal view of America animate much of Westermann’s print work. Executed between 1962 and 1977, the heart of his mature artistic career, these works graphically record his disillusionment with war, his fascination with Hollywood and science fiction, and his anxieties about the menace of nuclear arms.
Inspired by his avid interest in science fiction literature and movies, his experience with kamikaze attacks during World War II, and perhaps recalling the 1945 crash of a B-52 bomber into the upper floors of the Empire State Building, starting in 1962 Westermann created a series of powerful linoleum cut prints entitled, “Disasters in the Sky.”
In light of the tragic events of September 11, they are prescient and compelling. In “#4,” a terrified pilot, his hands pressed to his face in terror, watches as the nose of his plane plunges toward a tall apartment building. Even closer to the World Trade Center catastrophe is “#5,” in which flames and/or smoke burst from an exceptionally lofty skyscraper into which a plane has crashed.
Westermann’s first lithographs, made at Kansas City Art Institute Impressions, draw on his affinity for science-fiction movies, as well as comics and novels on the same theme, and his concerns about nuclear proliferation. Among the most striking of these multicolored works is “Red Planet ‘J'” (1967), featuring a space ship, a Sputnik-like rocket and the landscape of Mars, inhabited by mutated victims of nuclear war. Reflecting his familiarity with science fiction dealing with outer space and prehistoric worlds, “Green Planet” (1967) depicts dinosaurs, rainforests and a plummeting space ship.
During a fellowship at the Tamarind Lithography Workshop in Los Angeles in the late 1960s, Westermann produced a suite of 18 prints called “See America First.” Inspired by a cross-country trip with his wife in 1964, they convey his distinctive take on the American scene, with images ranging from the humorous to the dangerous to the artificial.
Standouts among Westermann’s woodcuts are the black-and-white “Human Fly” (1971) and the brightly colored “Human Cannonball” (1971). They reflect the artist’s interest in daredevil activities and his own stint as an acrobat.
The print exhibition concludes with a series of seven woodblock works executed by Westermann in Brookfield Center in 1975-76. The vivid, colorful images in “The Connecticut Ballroom” suite range from Death Ships and aerial disasters to other key concerns such as cruelty to animals, the threat of nuclear war, world hunger and environmental problems.
Utilizing examples of Westermann’s preliminary drawings and wood and linoleum blocks, many never seen publicly before, this print retrospective illuminates both the artist’s printmaking methods and the meticulous craftsmanship of his finished works. Kudos to the Smart Museum and the show’s co-curators, Smart Museum senior curator Richard Born and art historian/critic Adrian, for organizing this revealing survey of Westermann’s intriguing print oeuvre.
Born and Adrian also contributed useful essays to the fully illustrated, 232-page accompanying catalog. Published by the Smart Museum, this first scholarly examination of Westermann’s prints is excellent and will be a valuable addition to the libraries of art historians and laymen alike.
Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden is on the National Mall in Washington. For information, 202-357-2700. The Contemporary Arts Museum is at 5216 Montrose Boulevard in Houston. For information, 713-284-8250.
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