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The Critical Craftsman

H.C. Westermann was the quintessential American artist

The Menil Collection's retrospective of H.C. Westermann's work could not be timelier. In a city where subdivisions of McMansions are thrown up willy-nilly in a matter of weeks, it invites us to consider the uncompromising craft of a man who spent 12 years building a simple and beautiful house for himself and his wife, only to die of a heart attack just before they were to move in. At a time when men who've never seen combat are beating the drums of war, we can contemplate the darkly comic creations of a man who served in both World War II and Korea, and could never rid his memory of the smell of death. And in an age when venal pessimism often masks itself in fuzzy platitudes, we find inspiration in a man whose cynicism camouflaged his abiding idealism.

Born in Los Angeles in 1922, Horace Clifford Westermann demonstrated an early artistic aptitude. He was offered a position with Walt Disney Studios on the strength of some drawings he submitted -- until they learned he was only 16. But he had plenty of life experience by the time he returned to art. He kicked around a bit, working in logging camps and the like, before enlisting in the marines in 1942. After the war, he toured eastern Asia as one-half of an acrobatic act and then entered the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.

As an artist, Westermann was all over the place. He was primarily a sculptor, though the multiplicity of his forms is staggering: boxes, tableaux, houses, robots, vitrines, free-standing figures… The exhibit also includes samples of his exuberantly illustrated letters. When asked by the Whitney to provide a description of a work, he typed "No Description" and drew a cartoon of himself being forced to walk the plank.

The Evil New War God (S.O.B.) references the money and power that send young men to war.
Menil Collection
The Evil New War God (S.O.B.) references the money and power that send young men to war.

Westermann's reverence for wood, his principal material, may have been almost genetic: His maternal grandfather, a frontier mortician and coffin maker, also made small keepsake boxes, with fine inlays and beautiful joinery, that were Westermann family treasures. The outlandish nature of his work can be explained by the strong influence of Dada and surrealism on 1950s Chicago. The wildly imaginative irreverence of these movements operated as a foil to the artist's respect for materials and craft, as evidenced in works like Mad House (1958), Eye of God (1955-56) and He-Whore (1957). Another wellspring to Westermann's imagination was mid-20th-century vernacular architecture, which spoke to that especially American brand of genius: marketing. (The exhibition's catalog provides photos of a pig-shaped hot dog stand that the artist frequented as a child, as well as an ice cream shop igloo.)

But the most singular influence on Westermann's work was his war experience as a gunner on the carrier USS Enterprise. One battle, in early 1945, marked him for life. The first of the kamikazes were being deployed, and after Westermann managed to deflect one from midship to the stern of the Enterprise, he watched the USS Franklin take a direct hit to its ammunition hold. It "was engulfed in flames," he later wrote. "Smoke and explosions from stem to stern. It went dead in the water and I counted 36 tremendous explosions…Weeks later we saw the Franklin…It was still smoking & had a terrific list & the smell of death from her was horrible." Only 800 of the 3,000-member crew survived.

From these experiences came the Death Ships, the recurring nightmare/ motif in Westermann's art. The first, Death Ship of No Port (1957), is a vessel with black shrouds hanging from its three masts, a dying red sun on the mainsail, and a small figure -- like the Ancient Mariner -- on deck. Later, the ships are simpler, losing their masts and becoming more like "everyships." Death Ship Runover by a '66 Lincoln Continental (1966) floats on a sea of dollar bills, a shark's fin slicing through the paper water, the tire tread crossing midship. Nearby, Untitled (Death Ship) (1967) is papered over with dollar bills, brass tack heads punctuating the edges of the bills and, in one instance, replacing George's eyes.

In addition to the personal experience of the sculptor, these ships evoke Egyptian and Viking funerary vessels, as well as ghost ships, like the Flying Dutchman, from art and literature. But those dollar bills and tire marks make the timeless contemporary, only to reference the timeless again. The later Death Ships date from the years when America was sinking deeper into the quagmire of Vietnam, a venture Westermann opposed early on. With them, he portrays, humorously and chillingly, the axis of money and power that sends young men to war, as well as a culture too commodity-besotted to pay attention.

Two works touching similar themes are The Evil New War God (S.O.B.) (1958) and Temporary Repair of a Damaged & Ill-Fated Spacecraft on a Hostile Planet(1969). With his squinty eyes, hook arm and pathetic little hard-on, the former is a vile troll whose brass and chromium plating can't help but suggest coinage. In the Planet of the Apes-ish scenario of the latter, the Statue of Liberty tilts as the ground cracks beneath her base. Bare branches speak to ecological devastation, and a postcard of Native Americans hangs above the tableau like a ghost.

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