‘I guess I’m really some kind of fucking nut!’ wrote H.C. Westermann. The word is choice. Westermann’s art, be it sculpture, painting or assemblage, is nutty, screwy, cracked. It’s infused with the mad, sad lunacy of America’s postwar years, the same inspired craziness that filled Lord Buckley’s jive monologues and the dripping, pustular pages of MAD magazine.
Westermann had been a gunner on the USS Enterprise in World War II. He had watched battleships explode and sink under kamikaze attacks. Five years later he had volunteered for the Korean War. Of madness and absurdity he’d seen plenty, and so when he started making art it seemed only fitting that it should follow suit. The result was a stripped-down American surrealism, a visual language blended of bebop and comic books that’s both uniquely hip and, as Robert Storr described it in comparison to contemporaneous art, ‘riotously uncool’.
Post-George Grosz but pre-Robert Crumb, Westermann’s target was the blind optimism and postwar opulence of the US, its empty totems and unexamined symbols. His desolate landscapes, rotting seascapes and grotesque exotic scenes turn simplistic American assumptions on their heads. Everything that you thought was gleaming is befouled, and funny for that, and sad because it’s funny.
In this show at Lennon, Weinberg, Inc., Westermann’s favoured themes seemed less displayed than entombed on the walls. In Untitled (Woman Rising From the Harbor) (1973), a putrescent sea laps up against a ragged, rat-infested wharf. A woman – or is it a mermaid? – emerges raggedly from the brine, the moon vomits light on the scene, a stick figure lopes into the distance. The same decrepit wharf appears again in Death Ship in a Port (1972), but this time a ship lists in the ocean, a filthy light spilling out of its porthole into the water like effluence. Smoke clings to the air like oil, a frayed piece of rope lies on the dock. It’s ominous yet painted in a cartoon vernacular that distances its horrors. It’s funny in the same kind of way that hopeless situations are funny. What else can you do but laugh?
An Affair in the Islands (1972) sees Westermann himself appear, hideously caricatured in black and white, a silent film star against a riotously colourful background. He’s from another age, askew in the world, stretching his empty hand out to a naked, wide-eyed islander who is also just another fiction. Similarly, ’J’ Print (1972), a heavily etched monochromatic biblical scene of Jesus preaching is superimposed onto a garish, Krazy Kat desert, where a bleeding coyote hurries across the ground and stick figures stagger in the heat. A head on a spring bounces along the bottom of the picture. This is the American desert, one quite lacking in the mysteries of the biblical one, if indeed those ever existed.
Westermann’s finely honed, handcrafted sculptures also walk a bleakly funny line. Death Ship (1965) depicts a smooth teak ship holed beneath the water line. Its simplified lines make it unmistakably take on the shape of a coffin. Meanwhile, in A Human Condition (1964) a cruciform coffin with a hinged top dedicated to one of Westermann’s army buddies (‘C’pl Paul Flower … He Was A Soldier & A Man!!’) proves to be impossible to open – its hinges are not on the same axis – making whatever happens within it both unknown and inescapable. But perhaps the greatest piece on show was Untitled (First Peanut) (1973) which was exactly that, a giant peanut sculpted out of pine. At first this seems like a madcap Pop item, a Claes Oldenburg maximization of the humdrum, until one realizes that in shape and form it resembles the ever-present death ships that lurked always at the edge of Westermann’s vision and, in this show, the viewer’s own. Some kind of fucking nut indeed.