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Made in America

H.C. Westermann (1922--1981) was the sort of guy you would have been lucky to have as an uncle while growing up. He was a semiprofessional acrobat with a predilection for walking on his hands. With combat experience in both World War II and Korea, he had a storied past. And he spent most of his life making really cool stuff.

Two current exhibitions of this stuff -- one at MOCA, the other at Cal State Long Beach -- offer a rare opportunity to get to know the man in some depth. The first of these, organized by the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago, is a full retrospective of Westermann‘s sculptures -- the first mounted since 1978. The second, assembled by the University of Chicago’s Smart Museum of Art, is a complete collection of his prints. Westermann emerges from these complementary productions as something of an uncle figure to contemporary art. While a certain eccentricity has kept him to the outer limbs of the family tree -- the work is so unabashedly sincere, for one thing, that it seems almost embarrassingly out of place at MOCA -- his influence is undeniable. Robert Storr, in a catalog essay for the sculpture show, draws convincing connections to a diverse assortment of near contemporaries, including Donald Judd, Bruce Nauman, William T. Wiley, Richard Artschwager, Eva Hesse, Paul Thek and Claes Oldenburg. The sculptures of Richard Shaw, Mike Kelley and Charles Ray also come to mind, as does the loose graphic style of Jim Nutt, Jim Shaw and Raymond Pettibon.

Westermann‘s story is a colorful one. He was born in L.A., where he attended Fairfax High and L.A. City College. At age 20, after a brief stint as a logger in the Northwest, he enlisted in the Marines and served during the war as a machine-gun crewman on the USS Enterprise, an aircraft carrier stationed in the South Pacific. In May of 1945, Westermann watched a kamikaze plane barrel into his ship -- a vision that would haunt his work for years to come. After the war, he married for two months, developed an acrobatics act that toured China and Japan with the USO, married again (this time for two years), moved to Chicago and enrolled at the Art Institute on the GI Bill. He joined the Marines again in 1950 and served in the Korean War for two years, then in the reserves in Chicago for another six. In 1954, seven years after he began, he graduated from the Art Institute, and in 1959 he married again -- this time very happily. He and his wife settled in Connecticut, and odd jobs eventually gave way to commissions, awards and exhibitions, including a 1968 retrospective at LACMA and another at the Whitney in 1978.

Traces of this biography surface in various forms throughout Westermann’s oeuvre. Particularly prominent are the echoes of his wartime experience, epitomized in the image of the Death Ship. In the works on paper -- lithographs, woodcuts and linoleum prints -- these ships lurk ominously in the near distance, sometimes burning or sinking but often just quietly waiting while doomed characters have their last dance in gloomy, rat-infested ports. In the sculptures, the motif appears as a long, narrow, elegantly refined form, frequently carved from a single block of wood. One of the more haunting of these, simply titled The Death Ship (1974), is covered in black tar and encased in a glass vitrine. With the broken form of a small plane sunk into one end like an arrow in the side of a great buffalo and shark fins circling in the tarred sea below, the object seems the very distillation of war‘s dark character.

Grief, anger, pride, irony and an ambivalent sense of patriotism mingle potently in these and other war-related monuments, such as Korea (1965), an exquisitely crafted pine cabinet filled with ambiguous wartime tokens, and The Last Ray of Hope (1966), a glass case that contains a highly polished pair of black leather boots and speaks to the doomed valor of the individual soldier. As America drifted into the disorder of the ’60s -- with mass social unrest at home and a morally questionable war headed toward catastrophe abroad -- a sense of disillusionment intensifies in the work, manifesting in a vein of sharp social criticism. The See America First series of lithographs, for example, inspired by a cross-country road trip taken in 1964, describes a nation of grandeur and idiocy in which the promise of freedom, embodied in a vast open landscape, is indistinguishable from the prospect of desolation. The Connecticut Ballroom suite of woodblock prints, issued about seven years later, is an even bleaker portrait of a world poisoned by environmental abuse and cultural mindlessness, crafted in heavy black lines and bold hues.

But Westermann‘s interests were restless and far-ranging. He loved the movies, for example; images of robots and sci-fi machines proliferate in the work, as do references to combat films and Westerns. Though socially critical, the work is frequently touching and often quite playful. Temporary Repair of a Damaged & Ill-Fated Spacecraft on a Hostile Planet (1969) -- a glass-encased tableau involving two strange little creatures who seem to be arguing over what to do about the big blue globe that’s balancing precariously in a tree above them -- made me laugh out loud.

Notable throughout the work is Westermann‘s passion for his materials and his belief in good, honest workmanship. In the inscription for 30 Dust Pans (1972), he brags about handcrafting each pan’s handle without a lathe; in another, on a wood sculpture called Negate (1965), he exclaims: ”MAPLE -- I LOVE IT!“ He knows these materials intimately, and frequently configures them into puns, as in Imitation Knotty Pine (1966), a box made from knot-free pine that he‘s carefully inlaid with knots from elsewhere, or Walnut Box (1964), which is made from the wood of a walnut tree but also filled with unshelled walnuts.

While he worked in many media, it is Westermann’s woodwork that really stands out here. The pride he obviously took in a well-constructed box, a smoothly rounded edge or a flawless inlay is an all-American, Everyman sort of pride, and one can‘t help but feel a very wholesome admiration in response. The physical qualities of the wood, moreover, imbue the show with a lovely sense of warmth and accessibility. In a piece like Monument to Martha (1960), a tall, intricately decorated structure made in honor of the artist’s sister, the effect is disarming and inspires affection; in a more sinister piece like March or Die (1966), a strange assemblage of vaguely dangerous-looking contraptions in a shallow box, the wood suggests a sensuality that makes the work all the more chilling.

What emerges from these two exhibitions to distinguish Westermann from so many of his peers and predecessors is a resounding spirit of generosity. It appears in the materials themselves, as well as in the work‘s populist thematics and unassuming intentions. A large number of the objects on display were intended as gifts for friends, and bear warm personal inscriptions. (One of my favorites, on a pine box that is perfectly sized to contain three cans of varnish, reads: ”Dear Ed -- Not only may you borrow a can of varnish but you can keep these -- for your cabin in the desert.“) One senses that Westermann felt a similar generosity toward his viewers: He wanted his art to be understood in a direct and personal way. For all its cleverness, there’s little about it that‘s coy or smug; for all its technical sophistication, it’s never intimidating.

The cynic in me can‘t help but find it surprising that Westermann, afflicted as he was with this obvious big-heartedness, should have met with such success in the art world during his lifetime. Whatever the reason for that good fortune -- no doubt it has something to do with the work’s many other fine qualities -- it‘s notable that museum directors have largely let him rest for the 20 years since. These two exhibitions, however, are especially timely. With notions of patriotism and war taking on a pressing new dimension in American thought, and detached irony proving ever less satisfying an artistic strategy, we would do well to reacquaint ourselves with this wise old veteran.

SEE AMERICA FIRST: THE PRINTS OF H.C. WESTERMANN At the UNIVERSITY ART MUSEUM, CAL STATE LONG BEACH, 1250 Bellflower Blvd., Long Beach | Through July 28

H.C. WESTERMANN | At the GEFFEN CONTEMPORARY, 152 N. Central Ave., Little Tokyo | Through September 8

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