Organized by Chicago's Museum of Contemporary Art, the Westermann show has been roaming the range since early 2001, going from the Windy City to the Hirshhorn to El Lay and now to Houston, its final stop, and nary has been heard a discouraging word. From Artforum: "H.C. Westermann had everything a real artist needs." From The New Criterion: The exhibition "put[s] to rest my image of Westermann as a cornpone crank...[Westermann is] more significant than one would have imagined." From no less than Robert Hughes, the critic with the sharpest pen in the biz: "A marvelous retrospective...a revelation, for it sets before us an artist who deserves to be rated as one of the great American talents...an aesthete of unshakeable integrity who looked and talked like Popeye the Sailor Man, a cigar-chomping wisecrack[ing]" American genius.
As this first Westermann retrospective in a generation shows, there is much to be admired. But wandering through the exhibition, one has the nagging suspicion that all this applause for the work is based in no small part on admiration of this most American of lives, a suspicion heightened by the slight stench of jingoism and nostalgia that wafts from some of the reviews. For H.C. Westermann was an American original. Born in Los Angeles, he came of age just in time for World War II. Never an elitist, he spurned an appointment to the Naval Academy in favor of a tour as cannon fodder, serving as a Marine gunner aboard the U.S.S. Enterprise. He had a thoroughly American instinct to question authority, a thoroughly conscientious sense of duty and horrifying life experiences to provide the angst of which art is made. During the war Westermann witnessed 700-plus men being burned alive aboard the U.S.S. Franklin following a kamikaze attack. He recognized the corpses of friends awaiting burial at sea. Back home, he used his G.I. benefits to put himself through Chicago's Art Institute, and then reupped for Korea, a Vietnam preview that seems to have deepened Westermann's profound doubts about what used to be known as the "military-industrial complex."
He returned home to Chicago, where he worked as a freelance carpenter and, in his spare time, turned out meticulously crafted, neo-surrealist assemblages. Heavily indebted to Joseph Cornell, he began constructing small tableaux inside boxes, little houses and boxes with figures beset by all manner of disaster, by fire and cages and death and imprisonment. In Westermann's view, all was clearly not well in postwar suburbia. During this period he also began his famous "death ship" motif--a series of listing wooden ships and coffinlike boxes that serve both to exorcise personal demons and to signify man's treacherous journey through life.
The Menil show displays Westermann's early work from the '50s in a separate space, implying a break between the larger, later pieces and this early period. The pieces from the '50s tend to be small and exquisitely worked, at once funnier, more tortured and more sexually charged than the later work.
It is easy to understand why the stench of nostalgia drifts over this show, for Westermann embodies all that is missing from contemporary art today. His sense of craft, his conception of art as an endeavor one can spend a lifetime trying to master, is nowadays virtually extinct, and contemporary art is far worse for this loss. In this sense, Westermann was less Popeye than a sort of seagoing, art-making Philip Marlowe--a loner, a man of action and principle. Indeed, Westermann fits Chandler's description of his fictional American hero to a T: Westermann was "a complete man and a common man and yet an unusual man....a man of honor--by instinct, by inevitability, without thought of it, and certainly without saying it." He took an old-fashioned pride in his work, laboring obsessively over every joint and finish; as he explained in one letter, "I made each one of these by hand and by that I mean I did not subcontract them to a factory or pay some guy to make them for me." As another response to Whitney Museum's inquiry about his 1965 work "Antimobile" shows, he refused to toady up to the art establishment.
To be sure, post-September 11 and pre-Iraqi war, the exhibition is timely. And yet one can't help feeling a bit flummoxed by the zeitgeisty praise being heaped on Westermann. There are plenty of half-baked ideas, cheap puns and slick repetition. Westermann was hardly the first or only voice questioning the Vietnam War, and there are too many pieces like "Aluminated," with its uninspired anti-nuclear imagery and vacuous tribute to JFK ("I liked him"). Westermann's later work, particularly, loses all of the edginess that makes the early work convincing, relying too heavily on recycled imagery and moderately clever wordplay.
In many ways, the best part of the show is its setting. In an inspired bit of sympathetic staging, the Menil has chosen a cross section of its permanent collection that shows the precise art-historical background of and influences on Westermann. Wandering through the stunning, in-depth surrealist section or the Menil's wide-ranging collection of African and Oceanic art, one can see exactly where Westermann fits in the art-historical continuum. The whole Menil collection serves as a backdrop for Westermann and an exploration of his influences on others, providing an integral experience that allows viewers to make their own connections and to understand Westermann in more depth. For this reason, the Menil's show is that rarest of museumgoing experiences, one not to be missed.