H.C. Westermann is not very well known in old Europe; I got introduced to him when I was in Chicago, in 2001, after I have been in New York, when the towers fell. There was an exhibition in the Museum of Contemporary Art – which I, unfortunately, missed (there was something unspectacular, a most contemporary thing instead). But an immediate look at his uncanny-funny, paradoxical and well-crafted sculptures makes you fall in love with them <3 <3 <3 You immediately sense something profound has happened; earth, landscape, was shaken, mixed up; through his art.
On a visceral level you sense that his sculptures are simply cool and lovely; although they may laugh at you; but you see there is no actual sarcasm in them; you end up laughing with them (not a loud, vulgar, visceral laughter – an intellectual laughter which happens inside); to the educated commentator (like Robert Storr) John Ruskin may come to mind when he said that the grotesque ususally comes both in a „terrible“ and a „sportive“ fashion, there are „few so grotesques so utterly playful as to be overcast with no shade of fearfulness, and few so fearful as absolutely to exclude all ideas of jest“. You may associate this with Westermann´s art, although it may take you some time to register that it would be grotesque at all, respectively that their outstanding moment through which it may possibly be catched would be the grotesque. It is rather a complete juxtapostion of material, aesthetics, concepts; on the whole: the ingredients that make a work of art, of theses and antitheses – although you also soon realise that the language of dialectics appears to be rather inappropriate… Westermann´s art rather seems to be centered in individualistic expression and its own subversion, forming, via that gesture, a whole, which both allows possibilities for openness as well as closure.
Yes, Westermann was an individualist; also some kind of outsider and renegate in the art world. He was, on the one hand, a charming, multifaced, though unpretentious person, but on the other hand a misfit within the art scene which, despite their (assumed) embrace for iconoclasts, requires certain standards of conformism and of being „the right fit“. He disliked the pretentiousness of the epicenter of the American art scene in New York and experienced disdainful snobbishness by New York-based critics in the early days. At any rate, New York with its predominant trends would have rather not allowed him to find his own voice; Westermann moved to Chicago – as a somehow fresh and virgin territory for artists (as well as there was quite a striking a disinterestness of the public in art in those days) – and later to his own farm in Connecticut where he spent the rest of his life, living in an extraordinarily happy marriage with his wife, Jo (which also broadened his vision as an artist concerning the more ethereal aspects of existence).
Westermann displayed a natural talent for the arts early on. As a young man however he had to fight in WW2 in the navy. The death and destruction he witnessed – in its climax the destruction of the USS Franklin with 800 men dead – had a lasting impression on him. Nevertheless he enrolled for the Korean War, after he felt unable to find a place escpecially in the art scene and after his first marriage with June Laford had gone wrong. At that time the sentiment was that America was still the good guy fighting evil, as in WW2; yet especially the brutality of the Korean War transformed Westermann into a strong anti-militarist. In the immediate sense Westermann´s war experiences resulted in the Death Ship series. In the more general sense it solidified Westermann´s ambiguous humanism.
What immediately comes to mind when getting exposed to Westermann´s art is its playfulness. And, with reference to Ruskin, both a terrible and a sportive playfulness – but both elements seem to hold each other in check. You may experience to fall into the abyss of the vile aspects of human existence – even existence in a more general sense – as well as you seem to get elevated or levitate to a – probably cosmic – playfulness. That apparent conflict is not directly resolved in Westermann´s works, rather transcended into some kind of meta-stability. Those sculptures/objects somehow strike you with their impenetrability, evoking sentiments of them being autonomous or even sublime as well as humble, shallow and helpless, respectively of being the Great (or Small) Other who materialises in various and unpredictable ways. Maybe Westermann had the same kind of awareness when he often layed bare an „interior“ of his sculptures which is no less enigmatic, for instance in its seemingly arbitrary relation to the exterior or to its apparent arbitrariness in itself … if it is not empty at all or designed to merely to consist of dust which will accumulate over time (as you have it in Westermann´s last work Jack of Diamonds (1981)). In Westermann´s sculptures you have the power and strengh of life, as well as its pitifulness and abjectedness as well as its innocence, harmlessness and its need for protection. His objects/personage gets dehumanised only to appear more human and more identical with itself than before Westermann´s intervention. And when you look at Westermann´s abstract-concrete, uncanny-funny, idealised-degenerated, sportive-terrible, meaningful-meaningless, competent-incompetent, impenetrable-frail, those eccentric sculptures like Brinkmanship (1959), The Evil New War God (1958) or the Angry Young Machine (1959); well, you somehow feel that they actually ARE the definite appearance of the Evil New War God or the Angry Young Machine, and not „eccentric“ representations at all (which may account for the grotesque, since when something eccentric becomes the definite reality what you are likely to have is the grotesque).
Although Westermann´s themes are, to some degree, recurrent, his works are always fresh and they surprise; he does not repeat himself. There is a Westermann style, but it is a style of endless variation, actually his „style“ is rather a territory, an island, where things emerge, where the emanations take place, and they rarely emerge from/at the same spot. (The ends of a personal style are endless repetition and endless variation, and the major artist will always be fresh and virgin if his style is repetition as well as he will have his distinctive signature in variation; the dangers of repetition are of course that it may become boring and insipid, the dangers of variation are that people or critics won´t follow you any longer or that the energy may become too diffused to make a very distinct impact: and such seems to have been the case with Westermann – the perils of individualism. (The other thing is that while Westermann managed to keep his level all over his career he did not actually produce a signature masterpiece which made him very famous or distinguished (in the eyes of the public; he made an impact in the art scene, but rather as an „artist´s artist“))). Upon reflection, Westermann´s oeuvre is a territory (yes, I think we can put it that way).
Westermann was a very careful, scrupulous craftsman who worked with many materials – and you are under the impression that he managed to establish not only a different perspective on the object of his art, for instance an Uncommitted Little Chicago Child (1957), but also on the material (wood) itself. Likewise Westermann displays his objects not in an actual sense but in a conceptual sense, i.e. his personage, his death ships, his war gods etc. refer to concepts, not to their actual apperance but he does so in a way seemingly indebted to comics. While being conceptual, Westermann´s sculptures are full of idiosyncracies and particularities, establishing an interplay between the abstract and the concrete, the idea and its realisation, leaving us wondering what is actually more alive, more authentic, the „real“ living thing, or coming in with a higher degree of reality: the concept, the idea of something, or the concrete, individual appearance (in a way, the realism or/vs nominalism thing)? Respectively is the common human experience prey to conformism (i.e. not to a „high“ idea, but to a low one, casting light on the concept of idea itself not necessarily as an elevator but as a grand leveller)? Westermann´s Memorial to the idea of Man If He Was an Idea (1958) is, in that fashion, not only one his most well-known pieces, it is also an underlying texture of his oeuvre in a general sense.
Westermann´s sculptures are apparently childish. The art genius is childish; respectively is a hybrid between a child and being as old as time itself. Again, the sportive and the terrible grotesque (and the grotesque maybe, in general, as an extension or abstraction of a fierce individuality?). Throughout his life, Westermann remained an outsider to schools and dogmas. He said in doing his art he wanted to do things that, in the first place, please himself. Because of this, his art is vivid and full of life. Because of this, the impact of his art may not be strong and concentrated but diffuse and surrounding. Because of this, it cannot be fully deciphered as it is based on immediate ideas which are translated and elaborated within an architecture, a personal (though objectified) system of reference to make „sense“ out of them, where, howver, the archaic nature of the idea – and of anything else – remains present. It remains as idiosyncracy. What is the meaning of his art, of his sculptures? „It puzzles me too“, Westermann said. Puzzles and enigmas – that still seem to remain after all is acutally deciphered, said and done or maybe overinterpreted about them – are good. They keep the fires and flames alive. And they do not cease to bother and concern us. H. C. Westermann has left a body of work which allows us to experience the multiple dimensions of existence and the multiple dimensions of art.