New York

H.C. Westermann, 30 Dust Pans, 1972, various woods, galvanized sheet metal, and brass, 46 x 45 x 32 3/4".

H.C. Westermann, 30 Dust Pans, 1972, various woods, galvanized sheet metal, and brass, 46 x 45 x 32 3/4".

H.C. Westermann

People often complain, and they’re probably right, that there are two kinds of art: the kind the art world likes and the kind everyone else likes. To appreciate the former, you have to know something about art history; the latter holds an immediate, broad appeal that doesn’t depend on specialized knowledge. Although he has his fans in the art world, H.C. Westermann sits primarily in the latter category.

This Westermann retrospective—his first in twenty-two years—collects most of the artist’s major pieces as well as many surprises. The density of the exhibition and the immediate presence of the work is almost shocking, particularly in light of the spareness of Minimalism and its ubiquitous heirs and the slickness of recent highly produced art. Indeed, Westermann’s contempt for the European art world and the mainstream New York avant-garde is just one trait that marks him as an honorary Chicagoan. He lived in the city for only a few years after attending the Art Institute but unmistakably bears the Chicago imprint: expressiveness, surrealism, funky materials, a love for visual and verbal puns (traits shared by Jim Nutt, Karl Wirsum, and others). His work was peculiar, and peculiarly American, even in the ’50s and ’60s, a time when most American artists were focused on European modernism.

Westermann’s oeuvre is often discussed in terms of his biography (especially his involvement in the Navy during World War II) and the personal iconography he assembled. The various house sculptures of the ’50s are filled with little figures and words and tableaux, in-jokes not available (sometimes not even visible) to the casual viewer. But a particular social sensibility, the quality of being both fiercely American and angry at America, dominates the first (stronger) half of the exhibition. The Death Ship drawings and sculptures (1955–80), some of his best-known objects, refer to the carnage Westermann witnessed as a gunner on the USS Enterprise. They also evoke a dark vision of American consumerism: In a 1966 piece, a wooden ship “floats” on a sea of dollar bills; a wide tire tread marks the vessel (the artist inked a tire on his father-in-law’s new Lincoln Continental and drove over the sculpture). Other works of the ’60s pay tribute to JFK (Aluminated, 1964, a pyramidal mini-monument) and Martin Luther King Jr. (the coffinlike Walnut Log, 1969).

Westermann combined these social symbols with a formal rigor not usually associated with figurative work: He carved and forced wood into elaborate, organic knots and bulges; he also dealt with basic physical forces. For Tension, 1967, he bent and steamed long strips of oak and bolted them together, straining them to the breaking point. Westermann also explicitly addresses the concept of weight in several works such as Untitled THIS IS TITLE, 1964, in which a wooden column seems to buckle under the stress of supporting a sealed box. The sculpture resembles Leonardo’s studies of the strength of beams; Westermann was an acrobat and lifelong weightlifter, and many works here seem to refer to his intensely physical experience of the world.

All this squeezing, pulling, and hefting recalls the issues raised by Richard Serra and the Minimalists, but Westermann always couches them in his semi-figurative, semi-expressionist form. And the material, handled lovingly, like a precious substance, was out of step with Donald Judd’s more anonymous Plexiglas and Robert Morris’s painted plywood. The work looks even more nostalgic today, when wood is as unfashionable as existentialism. But Westermann was conscious of the material’s endangered status: The inscription on Death Ship of No Port with a Shifted Cargo, 1968, reads, “BOX IS MADE OF CALIF. REDWOOD & REDWOOD IS JUST ABOUT ALL GONE NOW YOU KNOW. THIS IS THE GOOD LIFE?"

Westermann also deliberately splits with the contemporary world in his production methods. In 30 Dust Pans, 1972, he displays a group of metal-and-wood dustpans—perhaps a reference to his constant cleaning up in the shop—in a rack inscribed: “I made each one of these by hand and by that I mean I did not sub-contract them to a factory or pay some guy to make them for me.” Or, as he wrote on the bottom of Lily Bolero, 1967, “I MADE THIS PIECE AS I MAKE ALL MY PIECES. I’M NOT SO PRECIOUS I DON’T HAVE TIME TO DO MY OWN WORK.” At a moment when mass production dominated the larger culture, which many artists mimicked by shopping out their work, Westermann championed old-fashioned skill and self-reliance.

However oddly beautiful these objects, in technique they are not so different from the products of the basement woodworker, the suburban hobbyist in his “shop” (and Westermann’s art does seem intrinsically masculine). There is a tradition of this in American art, from the self-taught sign painters of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries to sophisticated contemporary artists who refer to folk or regional traditions (e.g., Kerry James Marshall in Chicago and Greely Myatt in Memphis). Such a tradition might even include artists whose work depends on a homemade scientific or mechanical sensibility, such as Tim Hawkinson and Tom Friedman, current art-world darlings whose work has a certain mad-scientist feel.

What’s bad about this kind of art is its determined appeal to the volk: It can seem too deliberately “regular,” too disdainful of the self-consciously artistic and the intellectual. Populism can be smug. What’s good about this kind of art is that it protests some of the worst qualities of late-modern culture. Westermann takes on many favorite subjects of the mainstream avant-garde (inhumanity, mass production, the disappearance of skilled labor, materialism, social degradation—even, like Warhol, bodybuilding and do-it-yourself art), but, unlike that avant-garde, he critiques these values by resisting rather than reflecting them. In the end, neither approach (resistance or reflection, art for the people or art for the initiates) is more sophisticated or authentic than the other: As with high and low, they are both part of the same picture.

Katy Siegel is a frequent contributor to Artforum.