New York

H. C. Westermann

This exhibition was the most important survey of H. C. Westermann’s work since the artist’s death in 1981. The sculptures and watercolors demonstrate a freshness and a vigorous capacity for self-renewal that is continually challenging.

A pivotal figure in the formative period of the Chicago School, Westermann employed his craftsman’s skills and personal history with a matter-of-fact directness. He brought his imaginative intelligence to bear on a number of lowlife subjects and banal images. His immaculately subjective constructions anticipated the vast expansion of cartoon reality and funky occultism, particularly in the Chicago and California art scenes of the ’60s. Westermann’s achievement, sometimes obscured by his influence, is his work’s metaphysical depth and its continuing relationship to current art.

The artist’s early work looks particularly distinctive in the context of its own time. Its fetishistic and self-obsessive qualities contrast vividly with the comparatively refined and narrow sophistication of Abstract Expressionism. Westermann’s use of practical craftsmanship and mundane materials served to contradict the notion of hidden processes and thus hidden meanings in art. Yet his work remains wholly Modernist in spirit insofar as it appears to proceed from a personalized sense of literary permissiveness.

On one level, the artist insists that we can “know” his work as pragmatic moral furniture. In creating puzzles of double meaning, Westermann prefers simple contradiction to duplicity. In The Big Change, 1963–64, a smoothly turned knot is rendered in solid, beautifully striated laminated plywood. The piece embodies Westermann’s “What you see is what you get” defiant illusionism and his insistence that the formal properties of art proceed from the qualities inherent in the materials.

This retrospective clarifies how Westermann’s sense of pragmatic formalism guided his search for subject matter. In Death Ship of No Port With a List, 1969, Westermann reflects upon his feelings about his horrific combat experiences in World War II. The work offers insight into the dramatic way in which he contributed a new and raw “psychological materialism” to the art of his time. Among the ink-and-watercolor pieces, The Black Ship, 1970, offers a detailed record of Westermann’s feelings of morbidity and impending violence. The more simplified and abstracted sculptural pieces, such as Walnut Death Ship in Chestnut Box, 1974, employ funereal coffin imagery. Westermann seems to want to demystify the coffin’s awesomeness with a respectful irony, a counterpoint of pragmatic paradox.

Westermann may have provided us with a remark about the role of the artist in a sculpture entitled Homage to American Art (Dedicated to Elie Nadelman), 1965. The work’s simple wooden stand displays a hanging tool handle, whose dangling shaft terminates in a beautiful sphere that admits to no practical function. The piece suggests that one function of the artist is to dig for an inexplicable biographical image of stark simplicity that is also pragmatically concrete.

Ray Kass