H.C. Westermann at Zwirner & Wirth

In the catalog accompanying H.C. Westermann: Selected Works, an exhibition of sculptures and drawings at Zwirner & Wirth, curator Michael Rooks observes that art critics’ persistent inability to neatly categorize the art of H.C. Westermann (1922-1981) often compels the artist’s admirers “to explain why his work still matters.”

Critics writing about Westermann’s art can’t help but mention his independence from the -isms that purportedly define the art of our time. Robert Storr, former MoMA curator and dean of the Yale School of Art, dubbed Westermann “one of postwar art’s great misfits.” The critic John Canaday, writing about Westermann’s distance from the art scene, described him as “a guest … in a clown suit.” Donald Judd straight out called him “one of the best artists around.” Another commentator thought Westermann a “fucking nut!”

That’s more like it. The quote comes from Westermann himself, and hints, not too subtly, at the spirit of the man: unpretentious and ornery, boisterous, vulgar and self-aware. Add resolutely patriotic, and you have an artist who was driven and defined by America’s can-do spirit. Westermann wasn’t unquestioning—his experience serving in World War II and the Korean War planted his politics left of center—but he took contrarian pride in nationalism: “I don’t like England (or France),” he once wrote. “I am an American artist.”

Westermann, much like Joseph Cornell (whose art influenced Westermann’s), was a stealth sophisticate. He may not have liked England or France, but he knew what was happening there (most of the work in Europe, he thought, was “pretty weak”), and you can be sure it led him to play up his loner status. Feted by a Whitney retrospective and the Venice Biennale, Westermann didn’t lack recognition during his lifetime. He navigated the art world pretty well. He was no outsider.

All the same, Westermann was the real thing—a corn-pone absurdist. He transformed nagging strains of Surrealism and Dada, denuded of romance and aggression, into defiantly plainspoken art. You can see it in the homespun craft—Westermann was a master carpenter with a particular love for dovetail joints, and a constitutional inability to brook snobbery. This is undoubtedly what led him to folk art, in which material necessity, humble ambitions and seclusion often resulted in startling innovations of form.

The finest work at Zwirner & Wirth, Homage to American Art (Dedicated to Elie Nadelman) (1966), trumpets Westermann’s relationship to one of his heroes. Nadelman’s stylized, urbane and elegant sculptures would seem anathema to Westermann’s cigar-chomping aesthetic. But he knew Nadelman, and loved him, as a fellow devotee of folk art and practitioner of impeccable craft. How exactly Homage to American Art, a wooden sphere attached to an antique shovel handle suspended from a gallowslike armature, honors Nadelman is a good question. All the same, its ridiculously impractical instrument concentrates definition even as it tiptoes around it. It’s as much a deeply felt eulogy as it is an inscrutable homage.

With the possible exception of Clean Air (1964), three ascending vitrines presumably safe-holding the title substance, none of the other sculptures can touch it. They’re well made, of course, and funny—particularly The Silver Queen (1960) and Swingin’ Red King (1961), oversize figures as hieratic as an Egyptian reliquary and as cheesy as robots from a 1950’s sci-fi flick. But none of them are as gentle, haunting or introspective. Even so, they’re of a quality that should stop us from worrying about Westermann’s isolation and start us relishing how his ballsy gumption reveals the mainstream for the rickety thing it is.

© 2007 Mario Naves

Originally published in the October 23, 2007 edition of The New York Observer.

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