H.C. Westermann was a most peculiar man. He was a sensitive artist with a tattooed, grizzled look. His art had anti-war content, yet he was a combat veteran of World War II who volunteered for the Korean War.
In between the wars, Westermann studied art and toured the Far East as an acrobat for the USO. Trained at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, he defied most conventions except his own brand of Surrealism. He pioneered sculpture from found objects, drew profound subject matter with an eccentric, comic-book style and spent the last years of his life building a house and studio in Connecticut.
He never finished the last.
While Westermann is often described as an artist’s artist �– "Dreaming of a Speech Without Words: the Paintings and Early Objects of H.C. Westermann’s" accompanying catalogue contains a number of appreciative essays from contemporary artists — his work is relatively unknown by the public. Most of the 70 pieces in the show have not been seen and the last display of his early work was in a Chicago department store in 1954.
Westermann’s pieces are not exactly uplifting, dealing with issues such as the stupidity of war, the miserable nature of mankind and the horrors of urban life. Whatever hope may come through is difficult to see.
Born in Hollywood, Calif., in ’22, Westermann died in ’81. He enlisted in the Marines in ’42 and served in the Pacific as a gunner on the aircraft carrier the USS Enterprise. Despite his distaste for war, he would enlist in the Marines again in ’52 and fight as an infantryman in Korea.
Profiting from the GI Bill, he studied at The Art Institute of Chicago, focusing on applied arts. He was a skilled carpenter, mason and woodcutter. After Korea he would return to the Chicago school, but turn to fine arts.
Returning to a childhood habit, Wastermann collected stray items and arranged them as sculpture. Minimalist Donald Judd, one of Westermann’s first admirers, called the creations "specific objects" that were the rejection of both painting and sculpture. To look at it today, it seems slightly shopworn, but compares well with modern-day artists who patch together found objects.
For a short time in ’47 Westermann traveled with the USO to Japan and China as part of the acrobatic act "Wayne and Westermann." One of his most revealing self-portraits, "The Reluctant Acrobat," suggests his emotional insecurity with his life and work. He was heavily influenced by friends, family, masterpieces at the Art Institute, the folk art at the Field Museum of Natural History and the tension between art and the financial rewards of the commercial field.
One work on view relieves some of the tension. "My Buddy Montoyo" is a portrait of Louis Mendoza Ortiz, an ex-Marine and artist who shared Westermann’s interest in acrobatics. The pair were part of a small, tight group of ex-servicemen involved in art. The oil is sparse, but clearly affectionate and respectful of its subject’s character and heritage. A later portrait of Ortiz, done as a flat sculpture, exhibits the same.
Westermann is often associated with Chicago, as he went to school and first exhibited there. He was very much a part of the scene, living on Division Street, frequenting bars with students and veterans and marrying the daughter of a local artist. It also was where Westermann began to articulate his anti-war sentiment and depict what he could not express verbally — the evil in man’s nature.
Today, Westermann is known more for his wooden sculptures than his drawings or paintings. Overall, his work is influenced by so many other art forms there is a temptation to say he never found his groove.
In ’57, Westermann sold his first sculpture, "Butterfly," named both for the insect and the carpenter’s joint. The work is coiled cotton rope affixed to wood and shows the heavy influence of the ethnographic work he was familiar with from the Field Museum. It was purchased by Mies van der Rohe, the famous architect who settled in Chicago in ’30 to head the Illinois Institute of Technology.
This signature work, as well as many others that reflect Westermann’s diverse background and influences, can be seen in the current exhibition.
H.C. Westermann was a man and artist of contradiction, which is evident in his works such as "Battle of Little Big Horn" (1959), above, and his specific objects, including "Mad House" (1958), on view at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts.
Dreaming of a Speech Without Words: the Paintings and Early Objects of H.C. Westermann
Through Sept. 16
The Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts
118-128 N. Broad St.
Adults, $7; ages 62 and older and students, $6; ages 5-18, $5