PRINT September 1967

The Art of H.C. Westermann

H. C. WESTERMANN’S ART PRESENTS to the critic numerous problems of stylistic definition and classification, but not merely within the context of mid-20th-century art movements which, if anything, offer an embarrassment of choices among Procrustean beds. The difficulties really lie within Westermann’s oeuvre itself, which, since its beginning in about 1953, has presented extremely varied facets of form and imagery, and has developed, not through the systematic working out of a formal vocabulary and syntax, but through the relentless and nervy exercise of a specific sensibility. While it is tautological to define this sensibility as unique, the special character of Westermann’s art demands that it be considered in a particular way.

In his case, “art” is a specific order of response to the duality of living memory and immediate experience that does not result, as is usual, in the formation of an attitude flavoring an art that has a relatively autonomous formal growth. Because of this, Westermann’s art exhibits the widest range of eccentric forms and media; his invention is at once the artistic impulse and response, and so leads or rather propels him into territories that are bewildering and arcane from the point of view of formal analysis.

Because Westermann’s creative responses are a continuing affair, not so much opted for by the artist as asserting their priorities for objectification, his work does not show imagistic currents which are thematically explored and embroidered. In this way Westermann’s art differs fundamentally from the New Realist approach to imagery, where the image is at the service, or even the mercy, of a clear and rigorous set of formal demands. The serial use of images in the work of Warhol or Wesselmann, I think, demonstrates this very well.

Westermann’s art is closer perhaps to Surrealism than to any other defined artistic position, and this is strikingly so in the fantasy articulated in it. However Surrealism pretty much retained the traditional format distinctions of “painting,” “sculpture,” and so forth and Surrealist collages and objects did not very often transcend the actual or theoretical limits of, respectively, Dada and Futurism. While the Surrealists welcomed innovations of form and media, the novelties they did introduce, such as Ernst’s decalcomania, reassembled engravings, or frottage, remain within (or at the most, spoof) traditional artistic formats and usage because Surrealist confidence ultimately rested in established artistic standards. The surreal object, with its honored descent from Cubist collage, Boccioni’s theoretical position as a sculptor, and Dada practice, seems, with few but notable exceptions, to be the enervated product of an over-extended bloodline. That Dali, in the forties, was asked to decorate Fifth Avenue windows is surely symptomatic of the inherent corruption of much of this genre even earlier. At best, surreal objects play skillfully on the nostalgic and referential possibilities of items whose previous identity remains clearly discernible in new and irrational juxtapositions.

The other side of the coin is Giacometti’s objects and sculptures through 1934 or so. This early flowering, exemplified at best in The Palace at Four A.M. and Disagreeable Object, made up a small body of work wherein the horizons of Surrealist imagery were broadened not through the manufacture of ever more tricky three-dimensional rebuses, but by the artist’s radical plastic invention. This was directed by, rather than referring to, his essential expressive concerns.

Among living artists, it is just as well to treat of Cornell here and now and get it over with. The introversion of Cornell’s ineffable vision has always required the framework and definition of a prefixed and fairly stable format in which to be distilled. The suggestive nostalgia of his “contents” gain in emotional focus and esthetic remove over everything external by being in boxes, periodically enriched as they are with lids and drawers. The haunting magic of Cornell’s work depends greatly on the play among the specific identities of his component image-forms, the inscrutable lyricism they project in their deliberate association, and their unaccountable reciprocal psychic action. In his way, Cornell has produced a distillate Surrealism, which as far as content and imagistic sources go, mnemonically refers to a past now inaccessible except through the articulated preserved relics.

To come directly to Westermann, it is possible to see that his production lacks the conscious creative deliberateness of orthodox Surrealism, and it is not essentially formalist in orientation as is the New Realism. While Westermann is as idiosyncratic as Cornell, his work is not retrospective in character or predetermined in format. These sketchy indications of what Westermann’s work isn’t are intended not as an exhaustive negative definition or even description, but as a kind of pruning of the thicket of misconstructions frequently put about by the current manie de classification endemic in critical literature. Thorough classification of Westermann’s art fragments and disrupts its sense. It may be seen as whole and coherent only as a continuing dynamic response to his apprehension of current reality, directed to its forms largely by a concurrent recollection of this reality as a past containing a growing fund of images with which to structure the present. In this fashion Westermann’s art is autobiographical, but not reflective. The works themselves may acquire a history and an independent, resolved existence to which the forces responsible for them can never attain. That is, the artist’s creative mechanism, continually “processing” an existence whose dual nature mingles the direct perception of current reality with a lively awareness of the autobiographical past, cannot shut itself off but leaves a wake of concretized experience in the form of the work. Viewing Westermann’s artistic processes in this manner permits one to see how “related” works are not the exfoliation of a formal theme except fortuitously. They are objectifications of serial experiences which come to form in a similar way, or else multiple responses to polymorphous experience.

Westermann’s need for his work to be completely objectified (as opposed to “representative”) led him from the beginning to prodigies of craft and technique that upon examination appear close to the obsessional. The series of houses beginning in 1956 led rapidly from severe initial pieces such as The Old Eccentric’s House to a full and dazzling monumental decorated phase in the quartet of the Mad House, The Mysteriously Abandoned New Home, Burning House, and the Mysterious Yellow Mausoleum. Each of these four contains, within a triumph of joinery, multiple subsidiary images in the form of applied elements, hidden inner constructions, views, mirrors, painting, intarsia of great intricacy, and whatnot. They were immediately succeeded by excursions into the genre of the semi-architectural personnage in the He-Whore and the Memorial to the Idea of Man If He Was an Idea.

Together with an extensive production of smaller, equally intense table-size pieces, Westermann had, by 1959, set out a number of broad currents in his work. The personnage came to a very full and impressive form with three huge pieces: Silver Queen, Swingin’ Red King, and Angry Young Machine. The mechanistic and “operatable” aspects of the last piece were amplified in the heroic gadgetry of About A Black Magic Maker, where the genus of the penny arcade slot machine receives its apotheosis in a frenzied baroque form.

With the Object Under Pressure of 1960 Westermann managed to deal with the treatment of both visual paradox and physical forces experienced quite abstractly. The piece, vaguely anthropomorphic in the disposition of its upper projections and the bolts that pierce it in eight places, seems about to explode and burst its constraints. Indeed, the large beam that is the main part of the piece has already opened in long splits; the industrial gauge at the top registers an ominous “27,” but does not tell whether it reads pounds, atmospheres, degrees, or what. The principle of expressive economy is powerfully eloquent here. One is a bit leery in the presence of the piece, reacting to its barely leashed dynamism much as one unthinkingly moves out of the line of fire before Bernini’s David. The reductive concentration which Object Under Pressure uses so well is mitigated slightly in the contemporaneous White For Purity, which moves back into the sphere of irate ferocity and searing irony. As a satiric perversion of popular iconography it sets a level of immaculate banality that Westermann comes to again in later works also incorporating popular images such as wedding photographs and currency.

The early sixties find Westermann more and more concerned with the paradoxical aspects of various materials, particularly those with ambiguous properties, such as glass and mirrors. A large group of glass boxes expresses, on many levels, the mysterious qualities of transparency, reflection, hardness, refraction, fragility, and the “double depth” of reflected space in a marvelous run of constructions which, while similar in format (rectangular glazed boxes), present themes and concerns of an extremely wide range, covering suicide, astronomical mechanisms, misfortune, infinite voids, the dream world of the peep box, metaphysical treatments of illusion and reflection, and many others. In this remarkable and continuing suite, Westermann regularly employs a peculiar technique of his own devising, a kind of negative eglomisé. The pieces usually have several mirrors set at regular intervals in planes parallel to the front of the boxes. The mirrors have been partially desilvered (and so made transparent in those areas) by scraping the glass clear. All of these pieces present complexities of reflections and transparencies together with an illusory depth apparently greater than the physical extent of the pieces. The Eclipse series compounds this intricacy by exploiting the shadows that the relieved silvered forms (circular discs) cast on one another, and their apparent movement relative to the motion of the observer. The mysterious suspended forms, insubstantially hovering in unaccountable depths, contain perplexing layered reflections that are paradoxical apparitions. Westermann’s sense of impending violence and trauma emerges strongly in mirror pieces elaborated with real and fake holes and cracks worked in the reflecting surfaces with a combination of drilling and hinterglasmalerei. Analogous paradoxes of material appear in a group of wooden pieces garishly poly-chromed in marbleized enamels, achieved by complex dippings. The random swirled veining of these pieces suggests that they have an internal structure wildly at variance with their form, as in a large untitled question-mark-shaped piece.

This striking sense of form and material completely at odds with one another and yet undeniably co-existent and impossible in any other conjunction appears again in three large pieces in laminated plywood, A Rope Tree, The Big Change, and the more recent Antimobile. Each of these pieces looks as if the heavy and massive elements of laminated plywood, glued, screwed, and dowelled together in layers, have had, at the artist’s bidding, a taffy-like consistency that has permitted him to distend, braid, twist, and tie knots in them. This element of material paradox has been responsible, accidentally, for a pernicious notion that Westermann is a kind of gagster, or a purveyor of whimsey. This misapprehension is actually due to an idiosyncrasy of the English language, i.e., that in English the pun as a form of expression is almost invariably humorous or so considered. Since visual paradoxes frequently make use of visual puns, in the form of at least two coherent, distinct, and conceptually unrelated perceptions which are alternate and simultaneous aspects of a single object, verbalization of this state of affairs results, in English, in the experience described being devalued to the level of an amusing conceit. The same foible of English has tormented generations of translators of Japanese poetry for the same reason, because in Japanese the pun is a device for the expansion of meaning in both spoken and written language and is not necessarily humorous. Westermann is an inspired practitioner of the visual pun, particularly as an element of (or identical with) paradox, and as such he is necessarily involved with the conceptually absurd. But, the character of his absurdities is rarely light-minded. Perhaps the most extreme of Westermann’s paradoxes makes use of simple and even ordinary elements, but the contrast of the alternate perceptions offered is high and intense.

The very best pieces frame paradoxes of utter consistency. The Walnut Box, a casket of moderate size made of superbly joined and finished American walnut has inlaid on its lid, and also in walnut, the words “WALNUT BOX.” When the box is opened, it is a shocking surprise to discover that it is completely filled with walnuts in the shell. The absurdity consists in the object being exactly what it says it is to an unexpected degree. A similar phenomenon is present in the Plywood Box, a smallish piece of horizontally laminated plywood that, when opened, is seen to be solid rather than hollow. The Plywood Box is as full of plywood as the Walnut Box is full of walnuts. The simplicity of this description is not meant to transcribe the effects of these objects, but to fix upon their essential mechanism. They are so utterly consistent that they are truly absurd. Expanding from this realization is the possibility, even the likelihood, that unexpected absurdity underlies every certitude. These examples of piercing insight, perceptually realized, are Westermann’s abiding subjects and are the animating principle of his works. A final and ultimate example of this manifold conflict of perceptions and rational apprehensions of a single object is the recent Imitation Knotty Pine. The peculiarities of this piece are numerous, be ginning with the fact that each of its six sides is a parallelogram. The leaf hinges at the rear of the box and its brass keyhole in the front of the lid conform to this configuration too, giving the impression that the verifiably solid box has been warped out of an originally rectangularly prismatic shape. The box is made of clear pine, into which has been inlaid, on the exterior, knots cut out of planks of knotty pine. The interior of the box is clear of knots, as the inlaid knots visible on the exterior do not extend through the sides of the box. The box, then, is knotty pine of a sort on the outside but not knotty pine on the inside. As is evident, it is barely possible to describe this object without lapsing into a kind of double talk that reflects accurately enough the multiple and contradictory aspects of an object which is quite simple visually, but replete with philosophical perplexities as to the nature of mimesis. In just what sense is the box imitation knotty pine? This and related questions in Westermann’s art arise not from detached speculation about essential existences, but are clearly structured confrontations which come out of studio experience.

The utter objectivity of Westermann’s production has always demanded a consideration of materials that is exacting and precise: none of the pieces can exist in any other material and form, as a work of Rodin’s may very well exist simultaneously in plaster, marble, bronze, and in different sizes. This sort of transposition is precluded from Westermann’s art since the uniqueness and historicity of each piece, considered as an existential response, would be diluted and compromised. In such an event the work surely would be only the illustration of an ingenious concept, the statement of a “poser,” existing essentially as mental abstraction, and not, as Westermann’s objects do, as the structured and concrete nexus between the inner life of thought, feeling, and memory, and the random and indefinable nature of present, immediate experience.

If this etiolated framing of the nature of Westermann’s art is taken as on the right track (or at least partially correct), the specific character of his imagery and its outer meanings can be seen as the envelope, the necessary boundary, even the external structure of his objectified response. Because of the violence, enigma, and energetic vulgarity of a good deal of Westermann’s imagery, he has been now and again considered as a kind of intuitive social commentator or moral satirist. The nature of Westermann’s engagement with the contemporary world is, however, not a matter of characterizing its peculiarities conceptually and then exaggerating or burlesquing this characterization for polemic effect, in the fashion say, of Oldenburg on occasion. Because Westermann’s art, as drawn here, is consistently and continuously objectifying a complex experience of reality, it competes with and coexists within the locus of that experience, i.e., contemporary America. The psychic pitch of life now and its manifest violent absurdities then determine generatively the precise modalities of Westermann’s concrete responses to it. Interlaced subjective currents are then not unexpected: war and death, the debasement of sensibility, unexpected honesty and worthiness in unlikely streams of popkulch, and particularly the still unequivocal position of craft and expertise within artistic life.

Weighting as I have so heavily the specifics of Westermann’s experience of reality, making it in fact the substance of his art, recurrent autobiographical themes gain an interest beyond the minutiae of his life. Certainly Westermann’s two combat tours with the marines and his resultant participation in the cataclysms of modern warfare have stayed within him as still vital experiences as the recurring images of derelict ships, blasted and filled with the dying and dead, testify. Perhaps there is a certain rhetoric in the elemental confrontations of war on the face of the sea, but the horrific drama of these experiences is reconstituted in Westermann’s work with severely disquieting impact; the reality is again present and remains vivid in these pieces of naval disasters. Apparently it cannot be exorcised.

Westermann’s unexpected turns to new and varied media have lately brought him to working with bronze, in a series of solid cast pieces, a number of which are carefully patinaed or plated. To date they form a group in some ways analogous to the basic considerations of material properties which the earlier glass boxes showed. The bronzes deal with the weight, color, ductility, compressive strength, and other qualities of the material. It is perfectly consistent that the pieces are not cast hollow. If they were, they would be in the order of simulacra, representations of yet something else. It is their own existences and identities which must not be compromised, and so the bronzes have to be “bronze all the way through.” At this point at least, it is not possible for them to diverge from an essential bronzeness. Perhaps further pieces will come to articulate absurdities and paradoxes in the manner of Imitation Knotty Pine.

IN THE CURRENT PANORAMA panorama of American art, paradoxically enough an international phenomenon at the moment, Westermann’s position is somewhat anomalous. For about ten years he has exerted an influence among artists here and abroad, but this unsought role has, understandably, not been so much a formal or thematic influence as a tutelary one. His sustained inventiveness and loner status are regarded paradigmatically by all who are vexed with the question of artistic identity vis-à-vis the artistic establishment (of which Westermann has never been a part). This autochthonous position explains Westermann’s acceptance and following among artists and the most venturesome of private collectors, and as well, the corresponding lack of recognition, until very recently, from the museum world. Even now, after the inclusion of groups of work in two or three recent sculpture roundups in the past year and a half, Westermann is represented by but single pieces in no more than four museums in this country. The continuing quality and moment of his work deserve fuller consideration in the matter of exhibitions, and hopefully the magnitude of his unique genius will receive the wide recognition in public collections it has long deserved but not yet received.

Dennis Adrian