Westermann: Memorial to the Idea of Man If He Was an Idea is a 3-D documentary film about the life and work of sculptor and printmaker H.C. (“Cliff”) Westermann, directed by Leslie Buchbinder, featuring interviews with Ed Ruscha, Frank Gehry, among others, and executive produced by the international art icon KAWS.

About the film

As a veteran of World War II and the Korean War who struggled with the ramifications of modern warfare, Westermann’s dramatic personal history can be traced through his beguiling, surreal artworks. Pentimenti's usage of 3D technology immerses the viewer within the beauty, mystery, comedy, and pain of Westermann’s work and life. Our documentary aims to explore the themes of Westermann’s life and work: the scars and lessons of his experience as a veteran; his position as a source of inspiration to other artists; and the empathic and hopeful spirit that courses through his artwork and relationships. These themes will be woven into a visceral essay-film format (as opposed to a biopic or didactic art history lecture), which will invite the audience to interact with Westermann’s story in a visually lush and meditative way. The film features interviews with Ed Ruscha, Billy Al Bengston, William T. Wiley, Frank Gehry, Martha Westermann Renner, Dennis Adrian, Barbara Haskell, Happy Price, Terry Allen, Jo Harvey Allen, and more. Westermann: Memorial to the Idea of Man If He Was an Idea is slated to be completed in 2020.

Our film’s narrative follows the chronology of Westermann’s life, driven by his prolific and wide-ranging letters, which will be delivered in voiceover narration by actors, and supplemented by audio of Westermann’s own voice from a rare interview with Walker Art Center director Martin Friedman. A strong character arc is traced through Westermann’s life-long journey of processing his war experiences. Act 1 immerses the viewer in Westermann’s experiences of sea and ground combat in the Pacific theater of World War II and the Korean War respectively, and explores how this crucible forged his unlikely commitment to the path of a visual artist. Act 2 probes the struggles of post-traumatic stress and the challenge of extracting meaning from war, through Westermann’s reminiscences of morally ambiguous events, which led him to a skeptical position in line with that of the veteran authors (Joseph Heller, Kurt Vonnegut, Norman Mailer) of post-war American literature. Act 3 culminates with Westermann—a patriotic volunteer Marine from age 17—experiencing a surprising anti-war transformation in response to the Vietnam War, and extending a final gesture of empathy and solidarity with the dedication of an artwork to the Kamikaze pilot who incinerated his comrades on the USS Enterprise in 1945.

Not unlike our first film Hairy Who & The Chicago Imagists, Westermann: Memorial to the Idea of Man If He Was an Idea is auspiciously being made at a time of renewed interest in Westermann’s oeuvre within the art world, evidenced by a series of recent shows, including a solo retrospective at Venus Over Manhattan in late 2015, followed by a comprehensive survey of Monster Roster artists at the Smart Museum of Art at the University of Chicago. Moreover, Fondazione Prada presented a triad of Chicago-centric shows in the fall of 2017 devoted to Westermann, his contemporary Leon Golub, and the Hairy Who and Chicago Imagist artists. In early 2019, the Reina Sofia in Madrid will unveil a major Westermann solo exhibition. As a result of this intensified curiosity around Westermann’s work, we feel that our project will resonate strongly with institutions, critics, and the art savvy public alike. However, we feel that Westermann’s story of trauma and catharsis via art is universal, thereby allowing our film to appeal to a broad audience. 

All art, photos and letters by H.C. Westermann are © Dumbarton Arts, LLC/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY