April 7, 2009

Student-curated Cliff proves Westermann was a real Pal

The Smart Museum of Art is known for offering University of Chicago students, and the larger community, the opportunity to explore art with creative and unusual curatorial approaches. Its new exhibit, Your Pal, Cliff, is no exception. Cliff is a unique retrospective of the art of H.C. Westermann—a renowned carpenter and artist—who often incorporated an existential commentary on 20th-century American society into his work.

Rachel Furnari and Michael Tymkiw, both Ph.D. candidates at the University and curatorial interns at the museum, put together the exhibit. Rather than focus on the development of Westermann’s works chronologically, they opted to depict Westermann as someone devoted to his work and personal relationships. In order to achieve this ambitious goal, Furnari and Tymkiw drew materials from his depository of private letters, sketchbooks, gifts, and tools. What was once reserved solely for Westermann’s friends and family is now available to the public, allowing for an investigation of his personal life.

To Furnari, the highlight of the project was the chance to dig through Westermann’s private collection and introduce materials to scholars for the first time, allowing them to study Westermann with a more personal focus.

“I was excited by the prospect to shed light on Westermann’s extraordinary artistic approach to not only his works but also his personal life,” she said. “We had so much freedom to go into his private archive and create a checklist, or more like a wish list, and every piece from this personal collection that we chose had some connection to the broader themes apparent in his work.”

One notable component of the exhibit is the letters between Westermann and his peers. Because Westermann lived in isolation, many assume that he was also separated from the artistic world. However, the letters prove that Westermann was conversant with his artistic contemporaries.

The letters are not the only personal artifacts on display at this exhibit. Westermann’s incorporation of found objects into his work was a technique that distinguished him from his peers. The inclusion of Westermann’s personal handicrafts throughout the exhibit reveals the ways he applied this same technique to everyday objects.

“There is an axe in the exhibit that was originally an antique found by Westermann while building his house, but Westermann replaced the handle with one that he had made himself,” Furnari said. “He was constantly taking objects and altering them for his own purpose, even outside of his work.”

While many exhibits focus on the aesthetic value of artistic works, they often overlook the master behind the work. But Your Pal, Cliff is an exceptional experience for those interested in Westermann and the idea of the artist. The collection shows the way artists apply their artistic instincts outside of the studio. Cliff is a rare opportunity to enjoy not only works of art never before shown, but to better understand the way Westermann viewed the world.