Death Ships and Love Notes: H.C. Westerman’s life and work on display at the Smart Museum

"Study for the Connecticut Ballroom: Dance of Death" by H.C. Westerman; courtesy of the Smart Museum of Art

"Study for the Connecticut Ballroom: Dance of Death" by H.C. Westerman; courtesy of the Smart Museum of Art

Walking through the H. C. Westermann exhibit now showing at the David and Alfred Smart Museum of Art means embracing a certain degree of sensory overload. Its title “Your Pal, Cliff,” references the artist’s prolific letter writing, and the exhibit features an enormous collection of his personal and professional correspondence along with sculptures, prints, drawings, sketchbooks, tools, and printing blocks. The extensive presentation of Westermann’s artwork and paraphernalia gives the exhibit a circus atmosphere, which makes for a frenetic viewing experience. To their credit, the curators structure the exhibit around persistent motifs in his work. Despite this, and Westermann’s bawdy, morbid humor, it’s a challenging exhibit.
Horace Clifford Westermann–known to friends, family and the art world as Cliff–was born in Los Angeles in 1922. Between two wartime stints in the Marines he attended the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, graduating in 1954 with a Bachelor’s in Fine Arts. Though his desire to be an artist began in childhood, it was his military experiences that most informed his work. One such military-influenced motif highlighted in the exhibit is the “Death Ship,” a hulking, deserted vessel that alternately lurks in the background or acts as the focus of a piece. Inspired by a childhood fascination with ships and wartime memories aboard the aircraft carrier USS Enterprise, the Death Ship is prominent in Westermann’s work. Realized in a variety of forms, it can be seen as a sculpture or carved into other sculptures, traced onto letters, and as the subject of large woodcuts. One print (“Untitled #16,” 1968) from a series of eighteen lithographs titled “See America First” depicts the Death Ship immobilized in a pack of ice. This desolate scene recalling Caspar Friedrich’s “The Sea of Ice” is labeled with the slogan “See America First,” a phrase originally conceived to promote tourism in the western United States.
Sweet, playful words (like those found in love notes to his wife Joanna, another prominent theme in the exhibit) often accompany violent or menacing imagery. Westermann often crafted pieces whose constituent parts juxtapose one another. This is the case in “The Connecticut Ballroom: Dance of Death,” a carefully but playfully carved woodcut from a series made in 1975-76. In it, two ghastly figures dance on a dock, oblivious to the Death Ship in the distance. One, a man with slicked-back hair and dressed in an old-fashioned tuxedo, represents Westermann’s alter ego.
The exhibit was conceived, in the words of co-curator Michael Tymkiw, as a “celebration” of a generous gift from the estate of Westermann’s widow. This gift, along with other donations, established the Smart Museum’s permanent H. C. Westermann Study Collection. While the collection is obviously a tremendous asset to the museum, the exhibit feels at times a bit bloated–as though the goal was to display as many pieces from the collection as possible, whatever the cost to clarity. The sketches, fan letters, and related works (including a few by his wife Joanna) succeed at illuminating his psyche and provide additional context in which to view his own works. Though their quantity at times obscures, Westermann’s meticulous craftsmanship and unconventional artistic vision manages to shine through.


Smart Museum of Art, 5550 S. Greenwood Ave. Through September 6. Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday, 10am-4pm, Thursday, 10am-8pm, weekends 11am-5pm. (773)702-0200. Free. smartmuseum.uchicago.edu

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