H.C. Westermann at The Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden

H.C. Westermann, The Evil New War God (S.O.B.) (1958), mixed media; courtesy The Menil Collection

* * *

About eight years ago, I had a memorable and somewhat apprehensive conversation with a close friend, a painter. At the time, his wife was expecting their first child and the topic of discussion was parenthood. I asked if he had considered how the responsibilities of being a father might alter the diligent schedule he kept at the studio. He replied that this was a concern, but that his plan was basically to take the child to the studio with him. When I pointed out that young children are rarely content to sit and entertain themselves for hours on end, my friend answered that this problem was taken care of. All that was needed to keep a child occupied, I was told, was a playpen, a sack full of feathers, and a bucket of molasses. When I asked which child-care expert recommended this unconventional brand of behavioral enrichment, he replied: H. C. Westermann.

At the time of this conversation, the artist H. C. Westermann (1922–1981) was known to me primarily as a midwestern eccentric—a homespun absurdist whose sculpture occupied an edgy, if admired, niche in the annals of post-war American art. Knowing this much, I realized that the babysitting story fit the spirit of the man, though I doubted its veracity. Since then, I have learned that the above-mentioned regimen was, in fact, how Westermann occupied his own son. (For what it’s worth, my friend did eventually take his son to the studio—minus the molasses and feathers.) Since then, I’ve had the opportunity to see more of Westermann’s work. As a consequence, my curiosity about his art has turned to respect and my respect to enthusiasm.

An exhibition that was crucial to my appreciation of Westermann’s art—and, I gather, for others as well—was held a few years back at Lennon, Weinberg, Inc. Dedicated exclusively to the “Death Ship,” a recurring motif in Westermann’s oeuvre, this show of sculptures, drawings, and prints was adamantly personal. A marine who served in the Pacific during the Second World War, Westermann witnessed a kamikaze mission on the ship USS Franklin, an attack that resulted in the death of 900 men. His Death Ship sculptures were, clearly, a means of coming to terms with this horrific event. Yet one doesn’t have to hang on the particulars of biography in order to register their awful dignity. It’s plain to anyone with the eyes to see it. Inelegant, simple, and almost terrifyingly mute, the Death Ships are, once confronted, not easily shaken. They quickly put to rest my image of Westermann as a cornpone crank.

H. C. Westermann, the retrospective of his work currently on view at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, offers a splendid, if often bumpy, opportunity to acquaint oneself with this singular figure. Some twenty-one years after his death, Westermann’s art is as raucous and contradictory as ever. It also looks more significant than one would have imagined. Does this mean that Westermann, having long been consigned to the margins of post-war American art, deserves a place at the table? The answer is, if I may answer in a Westermannian fashion, hell no. What better position is there than the periphery to hurl broadsides at the establishment?

Which isn’t to say that the establishment hasn’t received those broadsides gladly. Indeed, Westermann’s work can be found in important collections, both private and public, throughout the nation, and his admirers include Robert Storr, the curator of painting and sculpture at the Museum of Modern Art and a contributing essayist to the exhibition catalogue, and the scene’s reigning perpetual adolescent, Bruce Nauman. Still, one should reiterate that Westermann’s art, while genuinely idiosyncratic, is not merely so. It can be profoundly moving and is always profoundly American. Westermann is part of that headstrong continuum—one that includes Thomas Eakins, John Marin, and Edward Hopper, to name just a few—that regards individuality as both a birthright and an imperative.

Of course, no artist exists in a vacuum. Westermann’s sophistication as an artist is never in doubt. The precedents to the art, while evidenced as sidelong glances more than all-out influences, are there. One sees the impact of Surrealism and Dada in Westermann’s fascination with the grotesque and his insistence on bucking the status quo. Not that he’d belong to any school that would accept him as a member. Westermann was too self-reliant a temperament to fall for the icky orthodoxies of the former and too life-affirming to capitulate to the cheap nihilism of the latter. Instead, he transmuted both currents into a kind of sideshow slapstick—which is, come to think of it, what Surrealism and Dada were in the first place.

Westermann found his most direct inspiration in the art of a loner, an oddball and an uncategorizable master. The sculpture of Alberto Giacometti, particularly the dead-end of wit of the early work, left its mark on Westermann as did that of Joseph Cornell, both in terms of format, the box, and his unaffected intensity. The other touchstone for Westermann was Elie Nadelman. In Nadelman’s seamless fusion of pristine classicism and down-home folkiness, Westermann discovered a true, if considerably more genteel, artistic soul brother. Certainly, that sinuous mix of sophistication and earthiness marks Westermann’s own plaintive and punning Homage to American Art (Dedicated to Elie Nadelman) (1966). Westermann also shared with Nadelman an immaculate sense of craft.

A master carpenter unwilling to brook compromise in the shaping of his art, Westermann did his finest work in wood. Finical yet never fussy, thorough but not obsessive, Westermann the woodworker is a joy to behold. The pride he took in materials—whether it be a particular wood, a slotted screw, or the dexterous fitting of a dovetail joint (one of the great loves of Westermann’s life)—contributes immeasurably to our appreciation of the work. Visitors to the Hirshhorn get close to Westermann’s pieces in order to marvel at their every nuance. Since alarms are set off whenever anyone gets too close to the work, a constant chorus of electronic beeps and admonishing guards form the soundtrack to Westermann’s retrospective. In its own distracting way, that is the greatest of compliments.

If craft provided the muscle for Westermann’s art, his wit provided the momentum. Often compared to Popeye, a figure to whom he bore a striking resemblance, Westermann shared that comic strip’s coarse and rambunctious humor, at least as it was envisioned by its originator, E. C. Segar. And Westermann’s humor is undeniable. So much so that when the work skirts the literal or the corny or the kitschy—qualities that Westermann, at his best, swallowed whole and spit out for the better—we’re willing to cut him the requisite slack. Not that there aren’t moments when we feel like pulling up the slack. This is particularly the case with the later work, which is less inspired than received and more slick than sturdy, or when Westermann worked in a medium other than wood. His chromium-plated homage to Giacometti, Le Keeque (after Jockomedy) (1966), for instance, is thunderously flat. It’s something whose proper home is a novelty shop, not a museum of art.

At the top of his form, however, Westermann constructed near miraculous contraptions of deep feeling, causticity, and wit. His Death Ships remain the core of the oeuvre. Nouveau Rat Trap (1965), a virtuoso feat of woodworking and as sublime a joke as one could imagine, is the masterpiece. Even at his most contrary—when inserting finely cut knots into pristine planks of pine, carving a jack-o’-lantern from stone or making a box for walnuts out of walnut—Westermann can’t help but divulge a mordant optimism. It’s a shame H. C. Westermann won’t find its way to New York. If it had, the exhibition might have taught a generation of postmodernists a thing or two about commitment, craft, and consistency of vision. Then again, such a museological omission is one that Westermann, ever cognizant of his off-center standing, would have responded to with an appreciative hoot. After which he would have followed up with the bird.

© 2002

Originally published in the May 2002 edition of The New York Criterion.

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