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Dreaming of a Speech Without Words: the Paintings and Early Objects of H.C. Westermann
June 30 - September 16, 2007
The first in-depth examination of highly influential but often under-appreciated artist H.C. Westermann's (American, 1922-1981) early works, Dreaming of a Speech Without Words: the Paintings and Early Objects of H.C. Westermann seeks to present through his art what Westermann often struggled to verbalize. Comprising about 70 objects and curated by Michael Rooks, Curator of European and American Art, Honolulu Academy of Arts, the exhibition will be on view June 30 through September 16, 2007, in the Academy's Samuel M.V. Hamilton Building.
"H.C. Westermann, who has received much critical attention in the past few years but is still relatively unknown has had an major influence on many young artists working today," says Alex Baker, Curator of Contemporary Art at the Academy, who will be installing the exhibition. "With wide-ranging associations, such as Surrealism, the Monster Roster (the first generation of Chicago postwar artists), Pop, Conceptual, and Folk art fused with his individual approach, Westermann often defies historical classification as an artist. His personal experiences in war, from which he drew heavily for his art, create a visual language that can be seen as dark and pessimistic, but it is immediately bolstered by the biting humor found throughout his work."
Despite his original ambition to become a painter, Westermann is best recognized for his sculptures, prints, and drawings. In his paintings, however, Westermann exhibits extraordinary technical skill gleaned from his occupation as a carpenter and a variety of artistic styles, including portraits, landscapes, still-lifes, and even religious and historical paintings. The artist's paintings herald many of the central themes in his work, which explore the foolishness of war, his misanthropic view of man as myopic brute, and his claustrophobic view of urban life.
The paintings included in the exhibition also trace the relationship between Westermann's formal training at the Art Institute of Chicago, the importance of Modernism in the city, and the evolution of the sculptures he would produce later in life. The last exhibition of these early paintings was in 1954 at the defunct Mandel Brothers department store in Chicago. The drawings, prints, and sculptures included in Dreaming of a Speech Without Words have rarely been exhibited. Together with the paintings, they create a dialogue surrounding the implications that led him as an artist to the wooden sculptures he is best known for.
About H.C. Westermann
Born and raised in Hollywood, California, Horace Clifford Westermann began creating imaginative objects from scavenged materials when he was young. Before enlisting in the U.S. Marine Corps in 1942 and again in 1950, serving first as a gunner aboard the aircraft carrier U.S.S. Enterprise during World War II in the Pacific Theater and then as an infantryman in the Korean War, Westermann pursued a wide range of activities, including masonry, woodcutting, and acrobatics (he served as an acrobat in the United States Organization after World War II).
Between the two wars, Westermann studied at the Art Institute on the G.I. Bill upon the recommendation of an Enterprise shipmate. During this time, he studied applied arts such as drafting, composition, and graphic design. His education was interrupted by the Korean War, but upon his return to the Art Institute, Westermann changed his field of study from applied to fine art. Older than many of his fellow students and profoundly affected by the horrors he had witnessed during his military service (including the devastation in 1944 of the U.S.S. Franklin by Japanese suicide aircraft or kamikazes), Westermann's artwork revealed a mind's eye that set him apart from his peers by its intense connection with the psychological exigencies of post-war life in the United States. Westermann was a truly unique American artist and a bit of an oxymoron - both a tough talking tattooed veteran and deeply sensitive man who used art as a release valve to confront the horrors of his time. Like no other American artist, his work is defined and shaped by the greatest event of his generation, World War II.
Westermann earned the respect of his fellow artists through his innovative works along with the tough persona he created for himself. His love of carpentry and workmanship lead him to invent a new genre of sculpture during a fruitful career, that Americanized Surrealism and presaged Pop and Conceptual art. Interestingly enough, Westermann's early praise came from the Minimalist camp. Minimalist artist Donald Judd viewed Westermann's work as highly novel and among the best examples of what Judd called "specific objects," Judd's admiring term for art that rejects both painting and traditional sculpture. While Westermann is often associated with the postwar Chicago art scene, he left Chicago for Connecticut in the early 1960s, where he undertook the most ambitious art project of his career: building entirely by hand, with little assistance, his home and studio. Unfortunately, Westermann died in 1981 before fully completing it.
Dreaming of a Speech Without Words: The Paintings and Early Objects of H. C. Westermann was organized by the The Contemporary Museum, Honolulu and curated by Michael Rooks. Support for this exhibition has been generously provided by Mary and Roy Cullen, Ruth P. Horwich, and Sharon and Thurston Twigg-Smith.
The exhibition is accompanied by a full-color catalog with essays by Michael Rooks, Dennis Adrian, and David McCarthy, and contemporary artist postscripts by Mark Booth, Aaron Curry, Chris Johanson, Ryan Johnson, John Koga, Jason Meadows, Jim Nutt, Erik Parker, Ruth Root, and Ed Ruscha.
(above: H.C. Westermann, Battle of Little Big Horn, 1959, Oil on panel, 15 x 15 inches. Collection of Ann Janss, Los Angeles, CA)
(above: H.C. Westermann, Destructive Machine from Under the Sea, 1959, Oil on canvas, 22 x 28 inches. Collection of Ann Janss, Los Angeles, CA)
(above: H.C. Westermann, Mad House, 1958, Pine, plywood, glass, brass, galvanized sheet metal, enamel, tin toy, lead soldier, paper decoupage, mirror and U.S. penny, 38 1/8 x 17 1/2 x 21 inches. Collection of Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago, Gift of Joseph and Jory)
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