Horace Clifford Westermann (Los Angeles, 1922-Danbury, 1981) participated as a Marine in two wars: World War II and Korea. Between the first and the second he studied Art at the Institute of Chicago, where he learned the new materials that would characterize the constructions of the first half of the 20th century (glass, metal, enamel) and, above all, learned to work wood to the point to become a virtuous cabinetmaker. His work, as unclassifiable as unknown, is inextricably linked to his biography, the life of an average American who suffered at the front and who lived scared by the Cold War and the discoveries of his time. With origins in painting and drawing, he entered sculpture from the age of 30. He died at 58. He Reina Sofia Museum Madrid dedicates its first major exhibition of the year to this unique creator with a retrospective, first in Europe, of 130 works made between 1954 and 1981 from public and private institutions around the world. The exhibition, sponsored by Terra Foundation, can be seen until May 6.
Narrative until bordering on figuration in the years when abstract expressionism prevailed, Westermann's work has two constant themes: house and death. Beatriz Velázquez, curator of the exhibition together with the director of the museum, Manuel Borja-Villel, He explains that for the American artist he is a person to the extent that one can build a place of shelter. "The house is for him an impregnable place or a mausoleum. And in many of his works we see that the house marks the definitive moment of death. "
Although the exhibition responds to a chronological order, it starts with an amazing room full of boats, an issue that responds to his experience as a marine on the verge of death. Always in perfectly worked wood, there are sailboats, warships, steamers or merchants that in the form of floating coffins seem to be trapped in seas of tar full of sharks. Borja-Villel points to the artist's own experience who from the aircraft carrier Enterprise of the Second World War, witnessed the sinking of ships loaded with companions. "Working again and again the same reason," adds the director of the museum, tells us of his tenacity to return to bounce boats again and again to return home.
The space dedicated to Boxes, houses and bodies It forms a forest of objects, with pieces signed from the second half of the fifties and speaks of the failure of the house and the body as a refuge. On the pedestals there are boxes that could be seen as mausoleums. One of the most representative and known carries the impossible title of Monument to the idea of man if he were an idea (1958). It is a closet statue whose mouth shows a tiny man asking for help. The trunk part is a kind of open cupboard adorned with sheets of bottles of soft drinks that in its upper part has two human figures hung upside down. The set, surrealist, draws attention for its bright color and because despite the harshness of the subject, Westermann does not renounce beauty.
The figures with robotic forms and work utensils converted into artistic pieces appear in the sixties as a reflection of the Cold War and the overwhelming consumer society. A clear example is the work entitled Risk calculating machine (1962), in which a little man throws a disc on a candle that is mounted on a pedestal in the form of a colored stove. Another example is the cross in the form of a vertical sarcophagus of Human condition (1964).
As an example of useless tool, the police station indicates a work in which a long hammer with two heads is seen. Titled I'm going home on the midnight train (1974) places his home as the milestone at the end of his existence. Beatriz Velázquez remembers that Westermann joined that work at the end of his life. "He went through a serious convalescence, on the verge of death. The artist suggests that he is about to arrive home, he feels he is about to die. "
A respite in the midst of so much drama is found in the space dedicated to his most famous serigraphy: See America First, a set of 18 prints with which he satirizes the campaign to promote domestic tourism that was broadcast in the United States in the early 1960s so that US citizens could travel their country instead of traveling abroad. Westermann uses images of popular culture and underground to show his own version of a patriotic campaign that President Trump has put on so well.
An artist of great influence among the creators after him, Westermann had intense relations with his colleagues. Resident in a small town Connecticut, compensated for the distance by writing long letters to his friends in which included delicious drawings. Participating in numerous groups with artists of his generation, his relationship with many of them was so close that his first client was the architect Mies van der Rohe, who in 1955 bought him one of his first figures.