H.C Westermann with  The Big Change

H.C Westermann with The Big Change

About H.C. Westermann

H.C. Westermann was born in Los Angeles in 1922. His life story reads like the plot of a great American novel. As a young man he worked in logging camps in the Pacific Northwest, witnessed kamikaze attacks as a Marine gunner on the USS Enterprise in World War II, and toured Asia as a performing acrobat with the USO. In 1947, he enrolled in art school at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, left in 1950 to fight with the Marines in the Korean War, and then returned to Chicago to complete his studies. Westermann had a Zelig-like tendency to find himself aligned with significant moments and figures in 20th-century history: after completing his military service and art school, he sold his first sculpture to the architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, and in 1967 was among the crowd pictured on The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band album cover.

During the 1960s, while living in Los Angeles, Westermann was a fixture in the burgeoning LA art scene, where he was a beloved friend and mentor to artists like Ed Ruscha, Billy Al Bengston, and Ken Price. One of Westermann's first notable solo museum exhibitions was in 1968 at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, alongside a Billy Al Bengston gallery installation designed by a young architect named Frank Gehry, who also became a close friend. In 1959 he married fellow artist Joanna Beall, a former student of Josef Albers at Yale University, and the couple moved in 1961 to Brookfield Center, Connecticut. In 1978 the Whitney Museum of American Art staged a major retrospective of Westermann’s work, launching him into greater international visibility. By 1980, his career was accelerating, with exhibitions at museums across the country, and he and Joanna were finally nearly finished with the years-long construction of a hand-built home—referred to as a large-scale sculpture by his artist friends—on their property in Connecticut. Tragically, Westermann died following a heart attack in 1981 at the age of 58.

Westermann is best known for his sculptures wrought from timeless materials like wood, metal, and glass. He was a meticulous craftsman, obsessively mastering skills learned from cabinet-making, woodworking, ship-building, model-making, and the construction trades. Artist and critic Donald Judd stated in 1963: “It would seem that Westermann is one of the best artists around…It is obvious that Surrealist sources could be found for many of Westermann’s ideas. It is just as obvious that the objects are something new.” His sculptures play on the border between pure art and functional objects, often resembling vitrines, furniture, toys, cabinets, coffins, dollhouses, shipping crates, and monuments. He was also a printmaker, with a particular interest in lithography. His most well-known body of print work is See America First, a series of otherworldly landscapes that use the model of tourism advertisements to explore the the decay, absurdity, but also the glory of American society.

Westermann’s harrowing wartime experiences permeate his artwork, and he was an outspoken critic of American military expansionism. His art is filled with images from his time in combat: naval insignia, various types of weaponry, and shadowy “death ships” resembling the charred targets of kamikaze bombs. But these elements were always paired with ones of humor and tenderness: punning titles and inscriptions, hearts pierced with Cupid’s arrow, and a self-deprecating recurring character of Westermann himself as vain mock-hero with slicked-back hair and a trim tuxedo.

In the face of a mechanized world prone to nihilism and despair, the loving craftsmanship, deceptively simple materials and gallows humor of Westermann’s work offer a powerful message of empathy and hope. The artworks dark wit acknowledges the essential duality of the human experience, in which misery and horror mingle with hard-won moments of satisfaction and beauty.

Westermann’s bone dry humor and world-weary wisdom paired with his personal qualities of honesty, humility, and loyalty made him a cherished friend and guru-like mentor to many other artists. He was revered for his ability to tirelessly pursue his work without regard to what he and many fellow artists/colleagues viewed as the dominating trends of much of the contemporary art world. Despite the ardor he inspired among other artists, Westermann never achieved widespread popularity, perhaps because of his slow pace of production, aversion to self-promotion, the difficult themes of his work, and his tragically short life.

Although he was a devoted friend to many, Westermann was an introvert, and preferred the solitude of his home in Connecticut and company of his beloved wife “Joannie.” He became a prolific correspondent, maintaining epistolary relationships with an astonishing variety of people around the country and the world, including stirring love letters sent to his wife when he was required to travel. These letters showcase Westermann’s art in the form of marginalia, decorated envelopes, and sometimes fully-realized drawings and watercolors folded amidst pages of text. They also create a multidimensional portrait of Westermann himself - his humor, love, kindness, spite, worry, regret, ambition, and fear are all recorded on these pages in his own unmistakable hand. Although he did not consider his letters a part of his body of artwork, they are frequently treated as such by collectors, and are a crucial resource in understanding Westermann as a person and as an artist.