Westermann with "The Big Change," 1963

Westermann with "The Big Change," 1963

About the film

Printmaker and sculptor Horace Clifford Westermann (1922 - 1981) is an artist’s artist: widely revered by his colleagues in the art world for his meticulous craftsmanship and bleak humor, but little known to the general public. 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 Productions’ new feature documentary will use cutting-edge 3-D filmmaking techniques to bring the beauty, mystery, comedy, and pain of Westermann’s work and life to a new generation of viewers. Production began in October of 2014 and completion is expected in late spring 2019. Archival research, script-writing, fundraising, and filming are currently underway.

Our documentary aims to explore themes of Westermann's life and work, including: 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 are being woven into a visceral essay-film format, as opposed to a biopic or didactic art history, which will invite the audience to interact with Westermann’s story in a visually lush and meditative way. The film’s 3-D format is intrinsic to its thematic content. Westermann was enamored of the creative potential of tools, and their ability to transform raw materials into objects of totemic power. For us as filmmakers, the 3-D format is the ideal tool to convey the literal and metaphorical multidimensionality of Westermann’s works - both their physical shape as well as their humor, horror, absurdity, and exquisite beauty.

3-D Technique

The 3-D approach will position this project at the forefront of emerging currents in independent documentary filmmaking. Wim Wenders’s Pina and Werner Herzog’s Cave of Forgotten Dreams are two critically-acclaimed examples of the revolutionary ways that documentarians have begun utilizing 3-D technology in order to eloquently represent artworks and artists to audiences.

Pentimenti will take advantage of brand new tools and techniques that can further enhance the audience’s experience of Westermann’s engrossing artwork and life story. The shooting format is two RED Scarlet cameras (4K), operated stereoscopically with beam-splitter and side-by-side rigs created by Goat&Yeti and Redrock Micro. 3-D filming that replicates fire on water, burial at sea, and sunken ship salvaging will all be achieved using miniature scaled production sets.


About H.C. Westermann

H.C. (“Cliff”) 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, then returned to Chicago to complete art school. 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, and a friend and mentor to artists like Ed Ruscha, Billy Al Bengston, and Ken Price. Westermann’s first solo museum exhibition was in 1968 at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, in a gallery installation designed by his friend, a young architect named Frank Gehry. In 1959 he married fellow artist Joanna Beall, 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 on their property in Connecticut. Tragically, Westermann died following a heart attack in 1981 at the age of 58.

               I feel that life is very fragile. We’re all just hanging by a thread; it’s very spooky. I can best come to grips with it by doing my work. I guess that’s why I’m an artist.

- H.C. Westermann

The Art of H.C. Westermann

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 cabinetmaking, woodworking, ship-building, model-making, and the construction trades. 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, particularly drawn to 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 decay and absurdity of American society.

The Horrors of War

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. Its dark wit acknowledges the essential duality of the human experience, in which misery and horror mingle with hard-won moments of satisfaction and beauty.

An “Artist’s Artist”

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 craft without regard for the flimsy trends and insincerity 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.

Westermann's Letters

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.


Westermann left a legacy that is all too rare in American art: work that is immediately accessible yet almost impossible to fully plumb, objects that convey profound human emotion and experience in engaging physical form…[T]hey are at once touching, mysterious, and precious to the generations of viewers who encounter them.

– Lynne Warren, curator, Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago


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