H.C. Westermann's sculptures are so exuberantly alive and beautifully made that it's easy to delight in them and misread the artist's intentions. The same is true for his graphics, which entertain us with fantastic imagery and electric draftsmanship.
If we look carefully at Westermann -- and ask why he did as he did -- we discover complexities that bespeak a serious and sophisticated artist. "I would most certainly prefer to die than to do one, just one, piece that I didn't pour everything conceivable within me into," he once wrote. "And I mean this right from my heart. Art is not to be cheated or bargained with."
Westermann (1922-1981) is now the subject of two major exhibitions in Chicago that seek to "clarify his contributions to postwar American art." "H.C. Westermann," at the Museum of Contemporary Art until Sept. 23, features roughly 130 sculptures, 20 works on paper, and supporting materials. Organized by Lynne Warren and Michael Rooks, this show has been in the works for about a decade.
"See America First: The Prints of H.C. Westermann" presents the complete graphic works -- about 90 prints, drawings, trial proofs, woodcut blocks and ephemera. Organized by Dennis Adrian and Richard A. Born, it is up at the Smart Museum of Art until Sept. 9, 2001.
The sculptures will tour to the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington, D.C.; the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles; and the Menil Collection in Houston. The prints will travel to the University of Virginia Art Museum, Charlottesville; Laguna Art Museum, Laguna Beach, Ca.; and the Contemporary Arts Museum, Houston.
An anxious temperament
Horace Clifford Westermann, Jr., grew up in Los Angeles. As a child, he was close to his mother and sister but not his father, who worked long hours, traveled often and viewed art as an impractical pursuit. In 1942, Westermann abruptly quit school and ran off to work as a railroad laborer and logger. Later, he joined the U.S. Marine Corps and became an anti-aircraft machine-gun crewman aboard the aircraft carrier U.S.S. Enterprise in the Pacific Ocean.
On May 14, 1945, a kamikaze plane attacked the U.S.S. Enterprise. Westermann shot the aircraft as it approached, deflecting its course from midships to the stern. Kamikazes hit two nearby vessels, damaging one severely and killing many men. Westermann smelled their burning flesh.
Westermann never forgot these episodes, which became key sources for his art. In numerous sculptures and graphics, we see half-sunken warships and airplane crashes. As late as 1980 -- 35 years after his service aboard the U.S.S. Enterprise -- the artist made a wooden Death Ship with a crashed World War II fighter plane at its center.
Wartime experiences -- and an anxious temperament -- set the foreboding tone of Westermann's art. His prints are full of erupting volcanoes, tidal waves, cracking icebergs, ferocious rodents and circling sharks. Nature is a hostile and threatening place for this artist, never a tranquil retreat.
Westermann knew art history, read good books, enjoyed movies and popular culture, and had political opinions. All this went into his work. One of his sculptures nods to Alberto Giacometti. In a print, he mangles the title of a Herman Melville novel. He lifts much imagery from science fiction pulps and films. Brinkmanship, a sculpture, attacks U.S. foreign policy.
The artist's reputation as a quirky loner comes in part from forms he made that fall outside the fine art tradition -- ship models and decorated wooden boxes, for example. He avoided the Manhattan art scene and did not exhibit in a New York gallery until late in his career. He has a place in art history regardless. His work can be grouped with that of Elie Nadelman, Alexander Calder and Joseph Cornell. He has influenced William T. Wiley, Billy Al Bengston, Ken Price, Donald Judd, Bruce Nauman and others. There are correspondences between Westermann's work and that of Chicago's Monster Roster and Imagist artists.
Chicago to Connecticut
After his discharge from the military, Westermann was a touring acrobat for about a year. In Shanghai, he married an American showgirl. In 1947 he enrolled at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago to study graphic and applied arts.
In 1950, Westermann's wife left him and took their infant son. Soon after, he dropped out of school and re-enlisted in the Marine Corps. He served in the Korean War, lost several close friends in that conflict, and became bitterly disillusioned with military life. His Korean experiences also come into his sculpture.
By fall of 1952, Westermann had re-enrolled at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, but as a painter in its Fine Arts program. His career began then. Within two years, he had completed his degree, shown his paintings solo and made his first sculpture.
During the rest of the decade, the artist developed and exhibited his sculpture in Chicago. In 1961, a remarried Westermann took a cross-country trip with his wife, then moved to a house in the Connecticut countryside where he resided for the rest of his life.
While he lived in Chicago, Westermann made many art-world friends, among them Dennis Adrian, who was then assistant curator of prints and drawings at the Art Institute of Chicago. The two men viewed 19th-century French prints and work by Edvard Munch and the German Expressionists as these works entered the Art Institute's collection.
Adrian believes that the work Westermann saw during the late '50s influenced his graphics. He kept in close touch with Westermann after the artist left Chicago, helped organize the current print and sculpture exhibitions, and contributed essays to the catalogues for both shows.
Death Ship of No Port
Westermann's signature image, the Death Ship of No Port, suggests human mortality; the U.S.S. Enterprise and other warships; Ancient Egyptian and Viking funerary vessels; and ghost ships in art and literature. American Death Ship on the Equator (1972) is an open-topped wooden vessel form with copper sheet nailed over it and drips of solder down its sides. A tiny rope ladder hangs over one side of the ship and two shark fins emerge from the copper surface of the ocean. The sculpture is enclosed in a glass box.
This work was inspired by Samuel Taylor Coleridge's The Rime of the Ancient Mariner:
All in a hot and copper sky,
The bloody Sun, at noon
Right up above the mast did stand,
No bigger than the Moon.
Day after day, day after day,
We stuck, nor breath nor motion;
As idle as a painted ship
Upon a painted ocean.
The crinkled copper sheet, nail heads and solder drips activate the surface of this piece while the rope ladder and shark fins suggest a human presence and the impossibility of escape.
Westermann gave different surfaces to his Death Ship sculptures with varying results. A tar covering makes The Death Ship (1974) gloomy and dead-looking, while the black and gray polychromed surface of U.S.S. Franklin Arising from an Oil-Slick Sea (1976) just looks ridiculous. Many of his varnished wooden Death Ships recall hobby models and lack intensity. Adrian says that these works gain power when they are handled, but we cannot do this in the museum.
The Death Ship comes to life in the graphics, where Westermann sets it into pictorial context. Death Ship in Port (1972) is a bleak image of abandonment. We see a port with the moon a black crescent in the night sky and a lone man almost out of sight as he walks away down the quay. In the foreground are lurking rats and a broken rope. Anchored nearby, the listing Death Ship shines a spotlight on the water. More light comes from a building on the quay, but the solitary figure already knows that he is alone in the world.
The Dance of Death (San Pedro), a memento mori, shows a couple dancing on a rat-infested pier in the moonlight, oblivious to the decrepit Death Ship that will inevitably take them both. Dressed in tails and a cummerbund, the man (Westermann's alter ego) has a pencil mustache and slicked-down hair. The woman is Louise Nevelson (look at her eyelashes!), a Connecticut neighbor of Westermann's, with whom he once danced. San Pedro is another name for the Port of Los Angeles, Ca.
Westermann's semi-human personages are among his most successful and characteristic sculptures. The Evil New War God (S.O.B.) (1958) is a squat, repellent humanoid, made from brass strips (some chromium plated) attached to a frame with round-headed fasteners. The War God has one hand (a hook), narrow eyes and a slit-like mouth, suggesting a closed, cruel personality. IN GOD WE TRUST is inscribed across his chest.
Memorial to the Idea of Man If He Was an Idea (1958) may suggest Westermann's view of the way that industrial society has treated primitive people. The figure is the cyclops from Homer's Odyssey. Its head, a wooden box, has a crenellated top and a long finger in the center with a small blue sphere balanced on its tip. A man stands inside the cyclops' open mouth. The door of the large box that constitutes the cyclops' chest opens to reveal a lining of metal bottle caps, an armless trapeze artist hanging upside down, a headless metal baseball player, and, beneath them in the bottom compartment, a sinking ship.
In the Odyssey, Ulysses' men are trapped inside the cave of the cyclops Polyphemus, but they escape by blinding him with a stick and clinging to the woolly bellies of his sheep as he lets them out to pasture. The sailors hang upside-down like the trapeze artist. Polyphemus flails at them helplessly like a headless baseball player. The clever sailors have bested the rustic cyclops whose blindness means certain death.
This interpretation does not account for the crenellated top, the finger and blue sphere, the man in the cyclops' mouth, or the bottle caps. These elements may have exclusively formal functions or they may have held special meanings for the artist. Much in Westermann remains obscure.
Boxes and houses
Westermann was a self-taught carpenter whose boxes are among the most winning of his sculptures. Made from beautifully grained wood, they recall antique toys or furniture with their rounded edges and perfect mortise and tenon joints.
The humorous Imitation Knotty Pine (1966) leans to one side as if it is itching to sprint. Equipped with leaning hinges and an off-kilter keyhole, this work has pine knots preposterously inlaid on its surface.
Westermann sent amusing gifts in wooden boxes to his friends. Ed's Varnish (1976) is three quarts of varnish in a bird's-eye maple box, presented to the artist Ed Ruscha. Others got a six-pack of Pearl beer in a Purpleheart box with multiple inlays and oak kindling in an inlaid box.
Mad House (1958) is an elaborate structure of plywood with a steeple on top, a door and window in the roof, and decorated peepholes on the sides. A headless nude woman guards the entrance to the madhouse. A ladder leads pointlessly up one wall to a blank piece of metal. The roof door opens to a monkey's head.
Language inscribed on Mad House comes from Steppenwolf, Herman Hesse's novel. The piece is said to embody the artist's dark view of the human race and his anxieties about the world.
The greatest house that Westermann ever built was his own, which he worked on for 12 years, but did not live long enough to occupy. He and his wife Joanna had moved to Connecticut to live inexpensively on inherited property. The couple designed themselves a home and studio, which he built in his spare time --and when he had money for materials.
Westermann insisted upon the highest levels of craftsmanship and quality in every detail of this building. He selected beautiful woods for the interior, then fitted every board together by hand. The house is a monument to the passion he poured into his art.
"A man doesn't build something that's going to last a thousand years if he doesn't have hope or optimism," Westermann once said. "He just wouldn't do it. I think that if I lacked hope I would go home and knock something out ... [believing that] we're going to blow [ourselves] up tomorrow anyway. But I can't live like that."