“H.C. Westermann”

At the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden to May 12

“‘See America First’: The Prints of H.C. Westermann”

At the University of Virginia Art Museum, Charlottesville, Va., to March 31

H.C. Westermann came out swinging, his fists blazing love and hate, landing blow after blow against the empire, striving to beat back the fraud, cruelty, and horror of an American century he was utterly besotted with. But he was a little guy, always outmatched, always fighting outside his class, a gadfly against behemoths that barely knew they were being pestered.

Starting in the mid-’50s, as postwar art grew increasingly recondite and distant, Westermann made by hand a body of wooden and metal sculpture that had its roots in surrealism and outsider art but was more plain-spoken than either. His craftsmanship tighter than most minimalists’, his language more common than most Pop artists’, Westermann kept abreast of an art world he held at arm’s length but anchored his work in the suffering of someone who had seen plenty. If his is some of the most moving protest art produced by an age that knew how to voice its objections, it’s because he never got away from himself.

A homespun Quixote, Westermann saw himself, in his drawings and prints, as a regular-Joe-turned-cartoon-hero: a helmeted diver gutting the artist-eating sharks of the deep; or a crimson-clothed “Champion of Justice” musing over the dizzying sculpture of the cityscape, little knowing he was about to be offed by some hood; or Popeye, under the watchful, worried eye of a denuded Pinocchio, slugging recalcitrant cactuses back to the land of Yves Tanguy; or a “silly shit” Superman, soaring above Metropolis with an arrow-pierced wooden valentine, goofy with love for his third wife. He would spend the last 12 years of his life building, on her father’s land in rural Connecticut, the house she’d sketched out, stinting on no detail—drilling, dovetailing, creosoting, and varnishing, right down to the “Joanna Beall Architect” inlaid above the window.

There were no half-measures for Cliff Westermann. “I would most certainly prefer to die than to do one, just one, piece that I didn’t pour everything conceivable within me, into,” he wrote to his sister Martha. “And this I mean right from my heart.” He kept that heart pinned to his sleeve. He was a tough-guy romantic, an avowed sentimentalist who, because he didn’t know how to sham, never turned mawkish. He integrated his biography with his art more fully and more forcibly than virtually anyone else of his generation.

And he wasn’t much like anyone else. He was art-schooled at the Art Institute of Chicago in the late ’40s and early ’50s, but he wasn’t made there. Born and raised in L.A., he had been shaped by family heritage and tragedy: In 1926, his grandfather, a skilled woodworker, had gone back to Medicine Lodge, Kan., and shot himself dead on the train tracks in the town where his daughter had been born; she would die of TB in 1942, when her son was 19. And Westermann was thoroughly transformed by war. He signed up for World War II and saw duty on the original U.S.S. Enterprise as an antiaircraft gunner. After his second wife took off for Florida, taking his only son, he threw himself back to the Marines, doing a tour in Korea. Many of his friends were killed, and he never got over it.

He met painter Joanna Beall in Chicago in 1957, they married in 1959, and in 1961, they decamped to Brookfield Center, Conn. Although for the rest of his life he would remain there, within striking distance of New York, where he showed frequently, he was never considered a New York artist. As trends shifted from abstract expressionism to Pop to minimalism and conceptualism, he became known to a substantial cult but, historically speaking, remained off the map, issuing his artistic communiques from the private domain he shared with his wife. When he was given a geographic pigeonhole, it was as a Midwestern regionalist, claimed by the city in which he spent only the first five or six years of his maturity.

The sculptural oeuvre for which he is best known, a large survey of which is at the Hirshhorn, is filled with obsessively handmade, frequently inescapable containers—haunted houses, surrogate coffins, and multiple variations on his signature motif: the “Death Ship,” a mastless, listing hulk, adrift and encircled by sharks. He couldn’t let go of the image, carving it out of wood, beating it out of copper, decoupaging a solid one with dollar bills, slathering a hollowed-out one with tar. It haunted his letters, many of which consisted of grotesque cartoons. One from 1966, depicting a Death Ship christened the God Damnit, failed to satisfy the artist: “To this I’d like to add the horrible SMELL of DEATH but thats impossible damnit! Of 2300 Men.”

That smell was the burning of the U.S.S. Franklin, which Westermann helplessly witnessed from the Enterprise. After a kamikaze attack on his own ship, Westermann saw the bodies of the dead “stacked, nude like cordwood” on the stern. He recognized a friend by the large eagle tattoo on the dead man’s chest.

Always with Westermann there is the understanding that, however beautifully finished, wood is dead flesh, grown and felled. A memorial aspect rests in its very fiber. His obsession with craft was a way of making amends to the men who were wasted by the war machine, a rejoinder to a culture racing to put the past behind it. His objects radiate rage and beauty. At the Hirshhorn, every room resounds with hand-carved, hand-polished invective, hurled against the shoddiness and destructiveness of the modern world: That, goddamnit, is the way you make something.

Westermann had a sense that his buddies had died to make the world safe for Cadillac fins, and though he loved automobiles enough to cast his own hood ornament for a custom camper-truck he christened the “bat-mobile” and took on a cross-country trek, he wasn’t happy with the national craze for progress. With Antimobile (1965), he went the Liberty Bell one better, absurdly handcrafting a monument to freedom that wouldn’t work right even a single time. Carved out of layer upon laminated layer of marine plywood, it’s a giant untrue wheel, a peace sign with the bottom strut yanked out of it, the weight of its distended rim fighting against any direction but straight ahead. It’s also a gaping scream that looks back to Munch (and forward to Craven and Williamson). If you were to jerk it around a couple of times, it would spin on an axle sprouting from a bicycle pedal entombed in the wheel’s great phallic mount.

Westermann’s Table (1966) bears a similarly blunt humor. Bolted to a thick, laminated pedestal is a stack of books, from the Illustrated Family Bible on the bottom to Le Rhythme Musical on top. Discovering that the bolt runs all the way from the top of the stack down through the base yields a thrill at Westermann’s stubbornness. Naturally, he wouldn’t cheat. It’s exactly the opposite sensation to the disappointment you felt upon first learning that bronzes are hollow. (The few that Westermann did, of course, were not.)

Westermann’s facture has a conceptual edge, our perception of its integrity arising as much from the sheer knowledge of its unbreachability as from its outward affect, but every time there’s more to look at than you first think. Unless you crouch down to examine the underside of the shelf in the guts of the Cyclops called Memorial to the Idea of Man If He Was an Idea (1958), you’ll miss the painted devil reveling in the sinking of the ship below. The back of Rosebud (1963), one of a series of elegant mirror boxes that perhaps prefigures some of the work of Robert Irwin, reveals a dedication to Elie Nadelman, whose folk-art-inspired, glued-and-carved wooden figures made him a Westermann favorite. And the houses, emblazoned with punched-type messages, pierced with peepholes, and filled with tense tableaux, beg you to breathe down their wooden necks. The main fault of the museum’s installation, in fact, is the squawking of overzealous alarms tripped by viewers doing nothing more than answering this invitation, their hands held behind their backs.

Institutional display is always a challenge with Westermann, who made many of his sculptures not for the gallery or museum, but for the eyes and hands of his friends. He often kept in touch by mailing out bizarre personal gifts. When he couldn’t attend the opening of a William T. Wiley project in which people were invited to add black tape to a sculpture in memory of Martin Luther King Jr., he carved out a log as a case for six rolls of tape and sent it instead. He also made extravagant cases for a six-pack of beer for Terry and Jo Harvey Allen and three cans of Man O’ War Ultra Spar Marine Varnish for a cabin he dreamed Ed Ruscha was building in the desert.

Westermann’s first prints, linocut Christmas cards, were gift works as well, and they kick off a show of his graphics at the University of Virginia Art Museum in Charlottesville. It’s not required viewing, but if you’re a fan, you’ll want to make the trip. The graphics are more casual than the sculptures and not as free as the illustrated personal correspondence, for which you’ll need to dig up the crucial 1988 book Letters From H.C. Westermann. Whereas the sculpture makes plain Westermann’s indebtedness to folk-art carving, the prints lay bare the inspiration he drew from two-dimensional popular forms, such as comics, science-fiction illustration, bathroom walls, and circus posters. A career could be founded on a dissertation that links Westermann to all his forebears and heirs in comics and animation, unraveling direct lines of influence from the zeitgeist. After all, only Westermann’s youth kept him off the Disney production line, and I’d be hard-pressed to believe that comix creators from Aline Kominsky to Bill Griffith to Chris Ware haven’t long been aware of him.

Just as comix are frequently autobiographical, Westermann’s graphic work is populated with his alter egos, from a brilliantined ballroom prowler to a human cannonball. Not a natural athlete, Westermann built himself up so he wouldn’t get pushed around, eventually becoming half of an acrobatic team that toured for the USO in the ’40s. He later trained his wife, and she briefly joined a Montreal troupe. He maintained a strict exercise regimen in his studio, which was appointed with a climbing rope, rings, and other equipment. Characteristically, he poked fun at his dedication to fitness—and at Giacometti, whose work he continually answered with his own—with A Little Black Cage (1965), essentially The Palace at 4 a.m. reimagined as the habitat of a pet-bird bodybuilder.

Whenever Westermann perceived that he was out of step with dominant movements, he dug in his heels, twisting the new forms to his own ends. Doing something right and doing it himself were one and the same. “I MADE EACH ONE OF THESE BY HAND & BY THAT I MEAN I DID NOT SUB-CONTRACT THEM TO A FACTORY OR PAY SOME GUY TO MAKE THEM FOR ME. EACH HANDLE WAS HAND FORMED & NOT MADE ON A LATHE,” reads a brass plate attached to the rack he made for 30 Dust Pans (1972). For a while in Chicago, the Westermanns had made their living doing custodial work, and the act of cleaning up after other folks was not without symbolic freight to them. In his guise as Janitor of the Western World, Westermann built an insanely well-crafted case to house ranks of empty sardine cans, one of which has its key twisted off and lying inside it like a corpse. But the dust pans are the apex of this vein. Sold individually, all but one have been regrouped for the Hirshhorn show, lined up in their rack like headstones in Arlington Cemetery. Each pan receives the military honor of a brass anchor that recalls the tattoo Westermann adopted as his colophon. Each handle is marked with the name and origin of its wood, from Panamanian lignum vitae to American oak.

In 1978, when Westermann, an unreconstructed cigar smoker, suffered his first heart attack, he learned that he had one dead kidney, but that it was too dangerous to remove it. His last works are redolent of the foreknowledge of death. They Couldn’t Put “Humpty Dumpty” Back Together Again (1980) raises a losing game of tick-tack-toe on a walnut scaffold. With Jack of Diamonds (1981), a wire-lath tin man strides forward; an access panel in his back allows caretakers to sweep out the dust that gathers in his chest cage. A few months after Westermann finished it, his heart gave out.

Alone with Joanna, Cliff had made his own country in the woods of Connecticut, modeled on America but better than it in almost every way—bolder, funnier, more honest, more free. Now she’s gone, too, dead of cancer in 1997, and what we have left are the public monuments of Westermania, a private nation gone missing. CP