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H. C. Westermann at Fondazione Prada, Milan

Text by Antonio Scoccimarro

 

Fondazione Prada simultaneously presents three projects that broaden the revision process of the historical-artistic narratives of the American post-war period—a trend that has been underway for some years now, with the progressive rediscovery of figures that have remained partially and temporarily in the sidelines, such as Jim Nutt (1938) and Kerry James Marshall (1955), the latter protagonist of a major cycle of shows staged over the last two years between the MCA Chicago, the Met Breuer, New York and the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles shifting the focus onto Chicago, the third largest driving force of wealth and culture in modern America.

In the exhibition spaces of the Fondazione, Germano Celant has devised a project split into three independent chapters: a group show, Famous Artists from Chicago. 1965-1975—an exhibition that features works, among others, by Nutt, Ed Paschke (1939–2004) and Christina Ramberg (1946–1995)— and two solo shows dedicated to the works of Leon Golub (1922–2004) and Horace Clifford Westermann (1922–1981), transversally dissecting three decades of this “alternative” parable, rooted in the urban fabric of the Midwest yet applicable on a global scale. As a final chapter to an articulated and multi-faceted itinerary, the exhibition dedicated to the work of H. C. Westermann features a selection of some fifty items, laid out rhythmically in the single architectural volume housing them: sculptures of small to medium format—in wood, metal and glass, painted, carved and inlaid with the formal light-handedness of the DIY aficionado—and a group of works on paper that determine what is shown to the visitor almost as a martial gathering of somewhat tattered soldiers (with the artist as the “general” of this motley crew, as if hinting at the work Strong Man’s Chair, 1970: the “throne” that remains empty and that dominates by virtue of its centrality, dictating the symmetry around which the exhibition itinerary unfolds) headed by two anthropomorphic figures à la Lewis Carroll: that of Silver Queen, 1960, and the Swinging Red King, 1961. A group of works which are the upshot of the craftsmanship of an editor sensitive to the American vernacular: war and warships, the sea and its sharks are just some of the recurrent elements in the iconography in this field.

Born in Los Angeles in 1922, over the first thirty years of his life, Westermann alternates his studies and artistic practices with the profession of carpenter, as well as his time on the frontline of the American military campaigns in Korea and Japan on the Marine ships: “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.” This is how Westermann himself sums up the vectors underpinning his artistic practices.  The hallucinatory experience of sea battles, the horror felt in the face of the sacrifice of the Japanese kamikazes, launched on a suicide attack used as an “incomprehensible” weapon of destruction on the US frigates in service in the Pacific, and the instrumentalization and manipulation of public opinion by US policy at that time placed Westermann before a concentrate of the innate destructive forces of man and society (but also of their fragility), translating it into poetics that seems dictated by the profound mistrust of a man—the artist—with regard to the fruits of modernity, and more in general of civilization. Produced as if it were the work of a veteran struggling with paranoia and psychic regression, the consequence of a post-traumatic stress disturbance, Westermann’s art thus appears to seek mental refuge in a homely, crafts space, made up of modestly sized sculpture (often taking on the aspect of creepy gifts or homages: such as to some of his closest companions—Ed Ruscha as in the case of the sculpture Ed’s Varnish, 1976 or Billy Al Bengston in Billy AI &7X, 1970) modeled in warm and reassuring wood: an element of nature standing in contrast to the general “betrayal” of the Anthropocene.

A graphic and visual translation of the life of a member of a generation deluded by ideological constructs, Westermann seems to share with Ferdinand Bardamu—the protagonist of Journey to the End of the Night by Louis-Ferdinand Céline—an almost inconsolable pessimism concerning human nature and its institutions: “I tell you, little man, life’s fall guys, beaten, fleeced to the bone, sweated from time immemorial, I warn you, that when the princes of this world start loving you, it means they’re going to grind you up into battle sausage… That’s the sign… It’s infallible. It starts with affection.”

On the flat sides at the ends of Negate, 1965—one of the works on show—a sculpture made up of two parts chained to one another, modeled from a single piece of wood, Westermann carves out in capital letters: “WOOD IS A FINE RESOURCE BUT MISUSED & BECOMING XTINCT UNLIKE PEOPLE”. Why waste time with and for people, such an “overrated” commodity, when an ever scarcer and more precious resource such as wood may be so enthusiastically rewarding and time-consuming?

Westermann’s delusion in the society he lived in, shaped by his war years and those of social and political unrest both in the US and on the world stage, is thus comprehensible both in terms of the individual scarred by the war years and as a reflection of his generation: forced to come face to face with the brutal reality of the post-war modernist promises. His art of disillusionment still resounds ever more strongly today.

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at Fondazione Prada, Milan
until 15 January 2018

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