Rediscovering H. C. Westermann
Horace Clifford Westermann is often overlooked in the history of American art. Described as "an artist of genuinely American sensibility unaffected by European esthetics”, Westermann produced works in a variety of media from the 1950s until his death in 1981. Westermann’s work does not fit into one particular movement in the art historical narrative. His oeuvre includes paintings, woodcuts, drawings, and collage, but the artist is best known for his highly-detailed and impeccably finished wood sculptures. Now, almost four decades after his death, his work is reaching new generations. Earlier this month the exhibition H.C. Westermann Goin’ Home closed at the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía in Madrid, Spain. This was the first retrospective of Westermann’s work outside of the United States, and the themes of home, the human experience, and Westermann’s recurring motif of the “death ship” were exhibited on an international stage.
Upon his death in 1981, Grace Glueck of the New York Times noted that “his art was unabashedly autobiographical.” Born in Los Angeles, Westermann first worked as a “gandy dancer” in logging camps for the Northwest Railroad before joining the U.S. Marine Corps at the outbreak of World War II where he saw heavy action serving as a gunner on the aircraft carrier U.S.S. Enterprise. After the war, he formed a two-person acrobat team and traveled with the U.S.O. across military bases in Japan and China. In 1947 he enrolled at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago’s (SAIC) Applied Art Program, but re-enlisted in the Marines in 1950 for service in the Korean War. At the completion of the war, Westermann returned to Chicago on the GI Bill, this time enrolling in the Fine Art Department at SAIC, completing his artistic education in 1954.
Westermann refused to give interpretation to his work. He is quoted as saying: ''It puzzles me, too … How can I explain a work like that? … I feel that life is very fragile. We're all just hanging by a thread; it's very spooky. I can best come to grips with it by doing my work. I guess that's why I'm an artist.''
Individual style and staunch nonconformity not only set him apart from other artists of his time, but have had a lasting influence, especially on artists of the 1960s and 1970s, such as the Chicago Imagists and California Funk artists, William T. Wiley and Ken Price. Yet if explored closely, Westermann’s influence, like his work, can not be boxed to just visual artists; he is featured on the album cover of the Beatles’ 1967 Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Heart Club Band.
Top: H.C. Westermann's Monument to a Dead Marine." Two views.
Bottom left: Close-up of the Beatles' 1967 Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Heart Club Band album cover, with H.C. Westermann's image highlighted in yellow.
Bottom right: Image of H.C. Westermann on the right.