Horace Clifford Westermann (1922-1981) was an influential post-war artist, though his work historically existed outside the popular mainstream. Audiences and critics have often attempted to situate Westermann’s works within various art historical movements ranging from Surrealism and Minimalism to Neo Dada. Though Westermann incorporated elements from these movements into his work, his oeuvre resists definition; Westermann stands alone as an eccentric art world maverick.
The following essay by Kasper König was written in December 2015 on the occasion of the catalogue H.C. Westermann which has been published to accompany the exhibition.
The first time I ever saw a work by H.C. Westermann, it was in a wonderfully compact exhibition called From Arp to Artschwager II at the humble New York gallery space of Richard Bellamy, the former founder of the legendary Green Gallery, and Noah Goldowsky, an antiquarian from Chicago. That was in 1967 and my fascination with his works hasn’t diminished since. The work on show was called Clean Air from 1964 – three glass vitrines with wooden frames stacked inside each other like Matryoshkas. It was definitely something different from Duchamp, but it also wasn’t Karl Valentin. Goldowsky helped put me on the right track by suggesting I read Melville, Poe and Whitman in order to hasten my understanding of American culture. The only thing I more or less authentically knew about America was Jazz, albeit from a schoolboy’s perspective. I’d only ever seen dubs of my favourite American movies.
This Westermann object electrified me and inspired an idea for a project at the Moderna Museet in Stockholm, which I was working for at the time in order to keep my visa. The exhibition would be titled Bill, Cliff, Dick, Ed, John – the first names of Copley, Westermann, Artschwager, Ruscha and Wesley. The idea wasn’t exactly well received and in the end nothing came of it. The hook for the project was supposed to be the legendary Stockholm exhibition 4 Americans from 1962, which also traveled to Basel, Amsterdam and a few other European stations. It was particularly noteworthy since two of the participating artists – Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg – would go on to become famous worldwide, while the other two – Alred Leslie and Richard Stankiewicz – have almost been forgotten. Either way, it was essential to me that the artists that I’d contacted for the project get to know each other, and eventually I took each of them to visit Westermann at his home in the woods of Connecticut. They were eager to get to know him too. His work was well known to insiders, but his person wasn’t. For the younger generation, Westermann was a glistening, almost mythical figure, even for people like Bruce Nauman or Mike Kelley. Maybe it was precisely because that former marine, acrobat and muscleman’s absolute insistence on technical perfection and his enormous sense of justice seemed so fantastically oppositional and anachronistic. His work drew on a lot of obscure sources but also on cinema and pop culture. Nonetheless, the work always maintained a philosophical dimension. Whatever he did, he did it 100%. He gave away a lot of his works to the colleagues and acquaintances with whom he had intensive correspondences, often in wonderfully illustrated letters.
In his introduction to the Catalogue Raisonné of Objects, Robert Storr refers to Westermann as a misfit and positions him in relationship to the war time experiences of his generation: “H. C. Westermann is one of postwar art’s great misfits. Emphasis should immediately be placed on ‘postwar.’ For generations increasingly remote from the events, it is World War II, Americas’s last ‘good war,’ that is primarily at issue, though it is important to note that after serving in the Pacific during that global confrontation, Westermann signed up for a tour of duty in the Korean War, a murkier cause. He subsequently watched in disgust as his country marched into the quagmire of Vietnam, its third Asian conflict in a quarter century and a ‘bad war’ by any measure.” (p. 17) What was interesting for me was that the word ‘misfit’ translates into three separate terms in German: Außenseiter (outsider), Sonderling (weirdo), nicht passendes Stück (something that doesn’t fit in). Perhaps the last one fits best to him and his work. With the knowledge that the ‘good’ America and its values were increasingly going to the dogs, Westermann put his all into his objects, always making them more robust, more solid. These objects were never explicit, rather they’re enigmatic and ambivalent. Ultimately they’re somewhat homeless art works, pieces that don't quite fit in, that never come to rest, not in art, nor history, nor politics. They’re more like ghost ships or will-o’-wisps. In contrast, his illustrations on his envelopes and letters are less restrained – they don’t have the strictness of the objects and are even more disillusioned despite their humour. They go wild.
I’m pleased to have been able to contribute a very personal gift from the artist to the exhibition. The mailman brought it by unexpectedly one day nearly fifty years ago. Untitled (Mallet in crate) is an absurd object with deep significance – typical for Westermann in the sense of it being an ‘object lesson,’ like a sorcerer trying to impart something to his apprentice. If one were to take the wooden hammer, reminiscent of a gavel, from its dirty box lined with sheep’s wool and tried to use it in a conventional way, you’d shatter its inlaid mirrors. Something similar is at work in Untitled (large hanging rock) – a boulder on a chain whose enormous weight makes the object’s installation as a pendulum virtually impossible. Westermann’s unrealised suggestion of hanging it from the heating pipes of my then New York loft was definitely accompanied by a subtle laugh.
The work of H.C. Westermann was steadily exhibited over the course of the artist’s career at the Kansas City Art Institute (1966 and 1970), University Art Museum, University of California, Berkeley (1971); the São Paulo Bienal (1973 and 1979); the Venice Biennale (1976); and the Serpentine Gallery, London (1980); and posthumous exhibitions of his work have taken place at the Art Institute of Chicago (1987); the Contemporary Museum, Honolulu (1994), among other venues. Major retrospective exhibitions of his work were organized by the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (1969); the Whitney Museum of American Art (1978-1979); and, more recently, the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago, which traveled to the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington, DC; the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles; and the Menil Collection, Houston (2001-2003). Zwirner & Wirth (New York) showed in 2007 a show with sculptures and Venus Over Manhattan (New York) has a current show with nearly 80 works, see article in the New York Times