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Indiana University Art Museum

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H. C. Westermann, Cliff (1971)

Horace Clifford Westermann (1922–1981) worked as a logger and rail worker in the Pacific Northwest. When World War II intensified, he enlisted in the Marines, serving as a gunner in the Pacific from 1942 to 1946. Westermann toured the region as an acrobat with the United Service Organization, and, following his discharge, he enrolled at the Art Institute of Chicago. His education was cut short, however, and he re-enlisted in the Korean War from 1951 until 1953. Following this war, Westermann returned to Chicago, completed his art education, and worked in a carnival as a trapeze artist, acrobat, and contractor. In time, Westermann drew from his diverse past and became one of the most famous American sculptors in his day.

Taking pride in his hand-made carpentry, Westermann worked in diverse media and art forms, from wooden boxes to metal machines, tableaux, model houses, and a wide variety of figural sculptures. Up until his death in 1981, Westermann incorporated his carpentry skills into his sculpture, constantly shifting and challenging his viewers' expectations of both his style and art in general.

H. C. Westermann was wildly original, working in a broad range of scale, materials, and symbolic vocabularies, alternating between naiveté, sharp wit, complexity, austerity, cliché, and vivid originality. An eternal wisecracker, he lampooned American materialism, war, and artistic sensibilities. He greatly valued physical fitness, independence, and hard work, as well as a wry sense of humor.

Cliff is both an example of a vitrine, a box with glass sides, and Westermann's visual-verbal punning, here a play on his middle name, Clifford. Westermann is a master of the corny, the comic, and the ironic, creating capricious and complex artworks that consistently display both wit and whimsy. Whether as a printmaker or a sculptor, Westermann was particularly interested in warfare and visual humor, mingling the brutal with the delightful, and frequently drawing imagery from popular culture.

In Cliff, Westermann creates a dramatic, technically complex scene, incorporating borrowed elements and humor. Westermann presents an iconic image of American popular culture, a cowboy on a horse rearing back from a plunging cliff, pursued by savage Indians. The tableau seems straightforward, communicating Westermann's ideals of manliness and self-reliance in a thoroughly American setting. The pun involving his name associates these traits with himself.