Critics’ Picks

H.C. Westermann, Suicide Rehearsal, 1965, ink, watercolor, paper, newsprint, 17 x 14".

H.C. Westermann, Suicide Rehearsal, 1965, ink, watercolor, paper, newsprint, 17 x 14".

New York

H. C. Westermann

Venus Over Manhattan
980 Madison Avenue 3rd Floor
February 20–April 6, 2019

H. C. Westermann is beloved for a type of sculpture that’s a potent mix of Dada and old, weird Americana. But this modest yet gripping exhibition also reveals that he was a marvelous draftsman with a sharp, satirical wit. Along one wall is a group of drawings, inspired by a road trip the artist took with his wife, that skewers 1960s fantasies of the Wild West. In Right Straight On, n.d., an old man seems the sole inhabitant of an overbuilt, abandoned desert city; is he a sage brimming with wisdom, or is he just lonely and exhausted, wondering how to go on? The palm tree in Buildings on a Red Butte, 1968, suggests that we might be taking in a tiki-style paradise—yet the butte it sits in front of looks a lot like a nuclear reactor. These arid oases are little hells, custom-built to torturous perfection. Though Westermann’s depictions feel apocalyptic, he’s merely just showing us how things were and, frighteningly, still are. He allows us to laugh a little—uncomfortably.

Other works, such as Suicide Rehearsal, 1965, target American militarism and what we now call toxic masculinity. It depicts a man who apparently hanged himself while wearing a cocktail dress. His head is a putrefied green. A yellowed newspaper clipping attached to the corner of the work tells the story of this subject, a “41-year-old ex-seaman who meticulously planned his ‘final curtain.’” It appears the former sailor left a long note clarifying that “I am not a queer” and that he just wanted to die in a frock. His journal, according to the article, describes a couple of girlfriends, “transvestites . . . who apparently had affairs with women as well as with him.” The column also talks about an incredulous coroner who didn’t believe the man killed himself. Westermann’s artwork is a cruel illustration of an even crueler culture that produced such a fatality. One is fascinated by this salacious bit of history—and a bit scandalized by one’s own titillated response.