- The Washington Times - Saturday, February 16, 2002

Horace Clifford Westermann's first posthumous retrospective is a long, powerful cry of pain sometimes mixed with dark, sardonic humor.
"H.C. Westermann," at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, looks at the artist's idiosyncratic and autobiographical approach to sculpture. It places him among the top American post-World War II artists who burst on the art scene in the 1950s.
War helped shape the work of Mr. Westermann, who lived from 1922 to 1981.
He was just 21 when he helped remove dead bodies from sunken ships at Pearl Harbor. The USS Enterprise, on which he was a Marine gunner, took a kamikaze hit in 1945, and some of his buddies were killed.
He also wrote about the "horrible smell of death" that came as 2,300 trapped men were roasted alive on another ship, the USS Franklin.
Mr. Westermann suffered recurring nightmares for years.
Later, he relived his wartime experiences in some of his "death ship" sculptures. The ships have no home port or destination. They wander like ghosts of the men he saw burned, drowned or consumed by sharks. He returned to the subject during the Vietnam War, the conflict he hated most, with "Death Ship Runover by a '66 Lincoln Continental" (1966).
Mr. Westermann married entertainer June Jeanette LaFord in 1947 in Shanghai when he was touring as a USO acrobat. She left him two years later and took their son, Gregory, with her. "He was devastated and confused and re-enlisted," says his sister, Martha Westermann Renner.
Mrs. Renner was stationed in Japan with the Women's Army Corps and sent food packages to her brother during the Korean War. She recalls that he thought he would die during the war with all its killing. There was little food or sleep.
He later disagreed with America's policies and turned against the war.
After Mr. Westermann graduated from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago in 1954, he expressed his anger and grief in his work.
He had his first exhibits in 1954 at the National College of Education in Wilmette, Ill., and in 1956 at the Rockford College Art Gallery in Rockford, Ill. Chicago and New York dealer Allan Frumkin saw the sculptor's work at Rockford, signed him up and represented him until 1978.
The sculptor supported himself with janitorial and carpentry jobs while creating signature works such as "Memorial to the Idea of Man If He Was an Idea" (1958) and "Mad House" (1958). Several Westermann preoccupations begin to surface. The soldier who stands in the colored glass tower of "Mad House" seems to represent the artist's ambivalence about patriotism and war. The artist well could have been questioning his own sanity, too.
The French existential philosophy of the Jean-Paul Sartre mode was popular with American intellectuals when Mr. Westermann studied in Chicago. "Mad House" points to the sculptor's interest in Hermann Hesse's 1927 novel "Steppenwolf." The sculptor, like the protagonist Harry Haller, had anti-war sentiments that conflicted with his patriotism.
Haller was fighting to understand the scarier aspects of his complex, psychosexual inner self. The leg attached to the right side of the sculpture cites a specific happening in the novel. Mr. Westermann punched "Keep Out" above the front door of "Mad House." It echoes the words in Hesse's novel, "Magic Theater/Entrance Not for Everyone/For Madmen Only," which also appeared above a doorway.
The sculptor explores society and the self in "Memorial to the Idea of Man," a Cyclops-like figure embossed with Mr. Westermann's initials in bottle caps inside a cabinet door on the bottom box of the work. It is a large, startling construction of pine wood, bottle caps, cast-tin toys, glass, metal, brass, ebony and enamel that could be a self-portrait. Valerie J. Fletcher, Hirshhorn curator of sculpture, wisely placed it at the exhibit's entrance. It's a dynamite draw for the rest of the show.
Hesse's "Steppenwolf" influenced "Memorial" as well. The sculpture, remarkable for the complexity and depth of its imagery, is the concluding work of Mr. Westermann's early figures. Dennis Adrian suggests in the exhibit catalog that the artist is asking, as in the title, "Is man a physical entity or an idea, or both? In what sense can he be memorialized, and for whom?"
Mr. Westermann would continue to explore these existential questions throughout his life, right through works such as the metal-and-wood "Billy Penn" of 1976.
Other "personages," such as "Swingin' Red King" (1961) and "The Silver Queen" (1960), appear to answer these queries in the negative. The sculptor made these automata as evidence of how modern life affects individuals.
The sculptor liked to make single, vertical towers as tributes to people he loved and admired. One was "Monument to Martha" (1960), a gift for his sister. In a letter, he wrote to her, "I think often of how kind you've been to me Martha, extremely understanding and when I was in Korea, you sent me all that chow. I have been deeply moved during the past and also I've felt you were the only one who really had faith in me."
Mrs. Renner says the conflicts and losses of the wars were only part of what her Los Angeles-raised brother suffered. His hotel accountant father and homemaker mother did not consider art a suitable profession for their only son.
"Our mother's dream was for him to go to the Naval Academy in Annapolis, and he earned an appointment there in June 1942. Our whole family loved boats. But war was coming. Instead of going to Annapolis, he ran away from home and enlisted in the Marines. Our mother died that year. Clifford was born an artist, but at the end of the Depression it was never an option. He adored our father, who never understood Cliff's art. It was a big conflict for him," she says.
Although he was a contemporary of Robert Rauschenberg's and Andy Warhol's, Mr. Westermann distanced himself from the pure abstraction and pop imagery of the time. The sculptor concentrated on inherited enigmas from the surrealists, using their tableaux for arranging diverse, mysterious components. Whether they were the "House Sculptures," in which he transformed the American dream house into a metaphor for tragedy and madness, or the "Box Sculptures," which were both symbolic and functional containers, he arranged them first on simple, low platforms or in boxes. The beauty of his crafted wood, often laminated plywood, greatly enhances the show.
Unfortunately, the much-too-big exhibit includes Mr. Westermann's final work, which lost its bite. He suffered from cancer, high blood pressure, depression and the heart disease that would kill him at age 59. Realizing that death was around the corner, he made works that implied hopelessness and embodied brokenness and the transitory in "The Tin Woodman of Oz" (1981) and "They Couldn't Put 'Humpty Dumpty' Back Together Again" (1980).
Curated by Lynne Warren and Michael Rooks of Chicago's Museum of Contemporary Art, the 130-work exhibition travels next to the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles and then to the Menil Collection in Houston.

WHAT: "H.C. Westermann"
WHERE: Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Independence Avenue at Seventh Street SW
WHEN: 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. daily through May 12
TICKETS: Free
PHONE: 202/357-2700
SUPPORT: The Holenia Trust funded the Washington exhibit in memory of Joseph H. Hirshhorn.


Copyright © 2018 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

The Washington Times Comment Policy

The Washington Times welcomes your comments on Spot.im, our third-party provider. Please read our Comment Policy before commenting.

 

Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide