Sunday, November 08, 2015

H.C. Westermann. Venus Gallery. New York City

“That’s a gorgeous piece. I wondered who the hell did it at the time I thought, Jesus Christ. It really knocked me out. It really did. It really got to me. It really felt good, as soon as I looked at it. I remember that piece. I really mean it. It was just beautiful...It’s a real pleasure meeting you. I wondered about that piece a lot of times since then. I wondered who made it. “
H.C. Westermann on my sculpture ”Box with House and 6 Trees.” That was exhibited in the Whitney sculpture annual 1970
H.C. Westermann. See America First. Venus Gallery
Sometimes I find myself thinking about Cliff Westermann, (his friends called him Cliff, which was his middle name) especially when I look for his letters to me and realize that I sold them, or when my eye wanders to the blank space on my wall where one of his small envelope prints “Norma Jean” once hung, and now hangs in a facebook friends house who bought it from me.
This is all ok and sure I miss them, but I miss Cliff more. I first met him in 1974 when I went to Connecticut with John to visit him and his wife the painter Joanna Beall. John was going to interview him, and in a rare move on his part invited me along because he knew I loved his work. That I adored Cliff the minute I met him goes without saying, but then again everyone who ever met Cliff loved him.
Over a lunch of baloney sandwiches he asked me what I did and when I told him I was an artist and described my art. He responded warmly and with great enthusiasm, and the quote used above is part of his remarks to us on that day in 1974. After that day in 1974 we became friends. I would write to him and he would write back with vivid drawings and decorated envelopes.
Once Cliff and Joanna spent a night at our loft after a Mexican dinner that my friend and one time neighbor Cynthia Carlson cooked for us at her loft which was next door to our place. After dinner we climbed the stairs to our loft where the evening progressed, and Cliff gave each of us a surprise gift one of his handmade dust pans with our initials in metal on them. That too is gone.
He was a salty dog, with a mouth on him like the old marine that he was, his language was as vivid and real as his art and life. I visited him and Joanna a few times in Connecticut where he had finally finished his studio that he built by himself and that took many years to complete. It was beautiful, all wood and it was like entering one of his works. It was superb, and then he was gone, dead from a heart attack at 58. I was heartbroken and devastated.
Happily his great art is still with us, and this brings me to the marvelous and quite remarkable survey of his art now on at the Venus Gallery on the upper Eastside of the city that I urge all to see. The show has the title of “See America First” which is the title of several beautiful drawings that he did after traveling cross country with his first wife in 1964 and 3 of these drawings are in the show, along with many of his great sculptures that are both large and small in size, that are beautifully crafted and made and tough and complex in concept.
His work is full of humor, but there are also many dark deep streaks running through them. Death and despair was sometimes very near and up close in his art that also sometimes came with an intense political and social awareness. His work is also autobiographical with many references to his time spent in the military and more obtuse signs and symbols that only he knew.
One of my favorite photos of him is his doing difficult handstands and acrobats on the deck of an aircraft carrier which can be seen memorialized and mirrored in some of his delicate twisty figurative pieces. One can and should of course admire and marvel at his great skill at carpentry and metal work and his use of exotic materials and the many kinds of woods he used. Also great are his drawings and watercolors and prints which are also plenty and aglow in the show. This exhibition is splendid in its look and installation and besides reminding me how much he is missed it also underlines the fact that I consider him one of the great artists of the last half of the 20th Century. This is one of the best exhibitions of 2015.
the first two photos are of my piece that Cliff refers to and the woodcut envelope "Norma Jean" that I once owned but sold. All the other photos are of him and his art.


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