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Art Review

His Own Man

What once made H.C. Westermann exotic now defines him as terrific.

June 12, 2002|CHRISTOPHER KNIGHT | TIMES STAFF WRITER

H.C. Westermann (1922-1981) never fit the mainstream profile of a great American artist. That's one reason (among others) that he was in fact great--as is plainly demonstrated by the large and absorbing retrospective survey of his sculpture that opened Sunday at the Museum of Contemporary Art's Geffen Contemporary. Westermann's art has a singular eloquence.

Westermann was born and raised in Los Angeles and went to art school in Chicago. He resided there and in Connecticut, but he never lived in New York, where career-minded artists once gravitated.

Like many veterans of World War II, he took advantage of the GI Bill to pursue art studies (at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago). Unlike most, he then promptly reenlisted in the Marines and served in Korea. Death, not surprisingly, is a constant theme in his sculpture, but it's always rendered in a deeply personal, unheroic sense.

Westermann's work is informed by a critical admiration for artists as diverse as the elegantly stylized Elie Nadelman and the puckish Marcel Duchamp, both European expatriates to the United States. But his sculpture never seems concerned with wrestling dominant School of Paris styles to the ground, as much art of the 1950s and 1960s did.

And his work is craft-intensive. Who else would--or could--make a 6-foot sculpture of a sailor's knot from cut, laminated and polished sheets of Douglas fir? Westermann's sculpture has the look of having emerged from a tidy workshop out in the garage, not from an urban atelier or studio.

Westermann, in other words, has many of the hallmarks of an eccentric outsider. These alien qualities even underscore his embrace by the Whitney Museum of American Art, which championed folk art, regularly included him in biennials and organized the last Westermann retrospective, a quarter-century ago. (Chicago's Museum of Contemporary Art assembled the one now at MOCA.) The artist's departure from an aesthetic standard set and monitored in New York has always been important in assessments of his achievements. It's been used to set him apart.

Until now. Today, through the forces of globalization, our perception of art and its relationship to cultural centers and peripheries is changing drastically. Simultaneously, as Manhattan's well of new art runs dry, Westermann's place in history is beginning to look quite distinct. He's gone from being an outsider on the inside to being just a terrific artist. He's exotic no more.

Westermann has instead become a father of us all. In the end, what important 20th century artist was not eccentric, alien and outside the routine norms of contemporary social life?

"Memorial to the Idea of Man if He Was an Idea" (1958) is a key American sculpture of its decade, and only partly because it breaks from established formal traditions of casting and carving and moves aggressively in the direction of assemblage. It's key because it's a searingly apt portrait of its American moment.

Suitably, the body of Westermann's memorial is a pine box. Built with the finesse of a skilled cabinetmaker, the body is topped by a head in the form of a castle. A single bloodshot eye stares out from the center of the face. A palace built on mortality, it's part lumbering Cyclops, part sly One-Eyed Jack.

Beneath the staring red, white and blue eye hangs a distinctly phallic nose, which dangles above a ruby-red-lipped orifice. A digit rises straight from the top of the head, while a tiny globe is perched like a basketball on the finger's tip. The crenelated castle wall that rings the head doubles as a crew cut.

With hands on hips and mouth agape--a silhouetted figure can be glimpsed inside the mouth, gesticulating wildly--this cheerfully monstrous cartoon-figure seems ready to declaim. What is in its heart? Open the cabinet door and two chambers inside its body are lined with pop-bottle caps. On top, a shelf holds two toys: a headless tin baseball player and a circus acrobat. On the shelf below is a sinking battleship.

Westermann wove autobiographical elements into all his work. He was an antiaircraft machine-gunner aboard the USS Enterprise in 1945, during attacks by Japanese kamikaze pilots, and after the war he traveled through California, China and Japan working as an acrobat. But you don't need to know his personal story to read the simple symbols in Westermann's lovingly crafted memorial to Everyman. Its soul is light and gay, but below deck things look grim.

The retrospective is filled with works like this--feisty, funny, heartfelt, blunt about human failings, obsessed with mortality and generous in spirit. Many works have a toy-like quality--boats and robots are recurrent favorites--which asserts art's role as play for adults. Their careful craftsmanship makes them seem like gifts: "I made this for you."

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