It's fitting, I suppose, that Dreaming of a Speech Without Words: The Paintings and Early Objects of H.C. Westermann should be tucked away in a dark upstairs gallery at the Iris & B. Gerald Cantor Center for Visual Arts at Stanford University. The show, which runs through March 8, 2008, is first and foremost an academic exercise, filled with lots of ah-hah moments for fans of one of the 20th century's most inventive and influential artists, and just as many opportunities for shoulder shrugs by those who are encountering Westermann for the first time.
I'm probably not the first to suggest that H.C. Westermann was the Neal Cassady of the art world. Like Cassady, Westermann was a child of the 1920s, although his early influences were the fantasies churned out by the neighboring dream factories of Hollywood (he grew up in Los Angeles) rather than the derelicts that hung around with his alcoholic father on Denver's skid row. Also like Cassady, Cliff, as Westermann was known to his friends, was a larger-than-life character, a six-pack-abs badass with a heart of gold, whose reputation for wartime heroics (he shot down kamikaze planes during World War II) and as an artist's artist was enough to land him on the cover of The Beatles' Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band.
Today, the impact on his peers is easy to see. After an on-and-off stint at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago between 1947 and 1954, his subsequent exhibitions at the Allan Frumkin Gallery created such a stir that more than a few art historians credit Westermann with being the father of that city's Imagist School, which flowered in the late 1960s. Even artists up and down the West Coast, many of them a generation or more behind him, found Westermann's easy use of non-traditional art materials, from plywood to found objects, to be perfectly in sync with their Assemblage and Funk explorations.
What we get at the Cantor, alas, is mostly work that predates Westermann's glory days from the late 1950s until his death in 1981. Which is fine inasmuch as it's always interesting to see where someone comes from, and the focus of this show is, after all, Westermann's early work. If only Westermann's mature work weren't so arresting, I might not have left this show longing for more of the good stuff, art history be damned.
Happily, a glorious gem greets viewers upon entering the red- and gray-walled gallery. Titled Mad House, this sculpture from 1958 consists of a plywood structure, resembling a one-room schoolhouse or maybe a small church, sitting atop a plain plywood base. One moves around the sculpture not quite knowing where to look first. On the metal front door, which is strategically placed between a wooden relief of a woman's legs, are the words "Keep Out." Stamped into the wood around the door are the words "Through this door pass the..." a phrase that is deliberately left unfinished. On another side of the house there's a little window offering a view into the house -- inside is a three-eyed devil. A lovely little ladder climbs the house. And on and on. These rich details aside, one could spend the better part of an hour just drinking in Westermann's craftsmanship, which was never as polished as, say, a furniture maker's, but was always clean, simple, and, in its own way, perfect.
A few other sculptures of note are on view, including my favorite piece in the show, Plains Indian from 1957 and Dismasted Ship from 1956. Another called Ensor's Mother (1956) is nothing more (or less) than a wooden box built to enclose and protect an actual James Ensor drawing. Robert Rauschenberg had erased a Willem de Kooning a few years earlier, but it's doubtful that a down-to-earth iconoclast like Westermann, despite all his formal art training, would make a piece like Ensor's Mother merely as a response to the antics of a showier contemporary in New York.
Despite my preoccupation with the show's sculptures, the heart of the show is really the works on paper and the paintings, many of which were created while Westermann was in school and look, not surprisingly, like the work of a student. The Reluctant Acrobat from 1949 has a sort of early-Picasso vibe to it, while My Madonna (In the Style of the Early Russians Work), also from 1949, is unabashed about its influences. In 1953, Westermann seemed to go through a Saul Steinberg period, producing such lovely, if inconsequential, paintings as Man Animal and Beautiful Isle of Somewhere.
Things get much better, though, in 1959, when Westermann gives in to the cartoony, angled-feature figuration that would serve him so well in the 1960s and 1970s, with paintings like Destructive Machine from Under the Sea and Battle of Little Big Horn. Even if these glimpses of Westermann Becoming H.C. Westermann, as David McCarthy puts it in one of the handsome catalog's essays, are few, they are well worth a trip to the Cantor.
Dreaming of a Speech Without Words: The Paintings and Early Objects of H.C. Westermann is on view at the Iris & B. Gerald Cantor Center for Visual Arts, Stanford University, through March 8, 2008.