Monday, July 26, 2010

Dead Artists' Homes, Ethics, and Museums: Westermann's House For Sale

It was with great surprise that I received an email this morning from a Connecticut realtor notifying me of the presence of the late H.C. Westermann's house on the market. The current status of the house had been the subject of questioning recently; although there has been scholarship published about the house, what happened to it after Westermann's wife Joanna Beale Westermann passed away some years ago was unclear to myself and others. Westermann's house was, perhaps, the culminating work of his extremely productive and storied career as an artist. Having braved difficult living conditions for nearly his entire life, he put his all into crafting the home that was the stuff of dreams for himself and his wife, as it was literally dreamed up by the two of them. Westermann painstakingly built the home from foundation to ceiling, all by hand and with very little assistance, using the most exacting standards of craftsmanship at great physical and financial cost. He was so dedicated to old-world methods of working that he refused to use Philips-head screws in constructing his house and used the finest wood he could find. Attached to the living space was a combination artist studio and gym, making the property place where he could both work and live with his wife in the relative seclusion they had so long desired. Hand-carved detailing throughout the home and studio mark the house as being Westermann's creation and reflect some of his life experiences. Sadly, Westermann passed away before he was able to move into the house. His beloved wife Joanna Beale Westermann lived there until her death.

So that brings us up to speed. The elephant in the living room is, who should have Westermann's house now that himself and his wife are gone? It is unclear whether it was in private hands after Joanna's passing but before right now, but it seems to me that it would be a travesty and perhaps an ethical issue to allow this incredible place to become a private residence. Does one person or family deserve to privately own what could be an incredible opportunity to educate the public about a very important American artist? On a very human note, is it ethical for someone to live in a house that someone labored so incredibly hard to build but passed away before being able to enjoy? The best answer is that a museum or cultural non-profit foundation should acquire the house, preserve it, curate it, and open it to the public. The artist's house as museum is a concept well-articulated by now; School of the Art Institute of Chicago does a fabulous job curating and maintaining the home of the late Roger Brown. To cite an architectural example, people travel from around the world to visit the home and studio of Frank Lloyd Wright. Perhaps it is a bit idealistic to propose such a scenario as the only option; especially in current economic times it would be assuredly difficult for most institutions to take on such a large project as this. Another scenario would be a private collector or group of collectors purchasing the house; this could still yield some scholarship and hopefully occasional public access to the space.

Westermann's example is important to the discussion on artist house museums for two reasons. First of all, in a general sense the preservation, curation, and opening to the public of the homes of prominent deceased artists is a profound educational opportunity for generations to come. There is still an overriding general sentiment out there that art and artists remain an esoteric and pompous corner of culture, and what better way to help the public learn about and begin to understand an artist and his or her work than allowing them to visit their home? There is so much that one's residence says about them and their lifestyle that a painting or sculpture could never begin to capture. Secondly, in this case the artist's home is a work of art in and of itself. Idiosyncrasy, superior craftsmanship, and an appreciation for woodworking are apparent throughout most of the art Westermann created during his life. All of this is perfectly embodied in his home. Additionally, houses were one of the main themes that Westermann esoterically brought into play throughout his ouevre. All of this renders his home extremely important as a potential public treasure and as a scholarly opportunity for the art and museum world.

As Westermann continues to secure his place within the canon of postwar American art, I sincerely hope that this incredible opportunity for scholarship and the appreciation of his life and work is not lost due to the house being sold into disinterested private hands. It seems to me that The Smart Museum would be the ideal candidate to acquire the house; they have contributed much to the scholarship on and appreciation of Westermann through exhibitions and writings. Westermann's wife Joanna left many of his personal affects and much of his art to The Smart Museum when she passed away, so The Smart Museum is more or less the possessor of the world's strongest Westermann collection and the foremost authority on his life and art. If it cannot be The Smart Museum or another institution, I certainly hope whichever individual or individuals that purchase the house respect it for what it is and treat it as such. Only time will tell what happens, but hopefully it will be the right thing.

**Update, 8-30-10**
The price has been reduced to $425,000

**Update, 7-28-2010**

-I contacted the staff of The Smart Museum about this opportunity, and they stated in response:
"The Smart Museum had also been alerted to the fact that H.C. Westermann's home was on the market. The Museum's leadership is evaluating the opportunity that this might present."

-Patty McManus, the Connecticut realtor who is in charge of selling Westermann's house, provided me with the following additional details:
"The wood studio is almost exactly as Westermann left it. It has been kept like a museum. The home also contains some of the shipping crates from his artwork, his lathe and a number of other items. The art studio still has his chin up bar, tools, etc. My client is willing to transfer the property with all of his items." She is contactable at

-Fellow Westermann appreciator and artist R.L. Croft brought up a very plausible scenario that would be a great answer to the financial strife facing many museums at this time:
"It would be a shame for it to end up being changed or lived in without complete museum-like care. Someone wealthy needs to buy it, donate it, and provide funds for its upkeep. I certainly agree that the Smart Museum sounds like a logical choice, but any museum with money ought to be salivating to add it to a collection.

J.T. Kirkland: "White: Part 2"

Last week, the second half of J.T. Kirkland's White exhibition opened at Christopher West Presents. The Virginia-based artist has produced a spectacular ending to an already strong beginning with the addition of color to his repertoire. "I strive to find clarity and resolution in line, color, and form, while challenging viewers' perceptions of surface and space through simple, precise gestures on wood," Kirkland states, and he has certainly achieved his objective here. The 24 works exhibited, titled Subspace_001 - Subspace_024, are all acrylic and polyacrylic on maple plywood and sized 12x12x1. They conjure Ellsworth Kelly's Panel series due to their shape, scale, monochromatic opacity, and choice of color, but the fact that they are painted on plywood makes them seem more painterly than Kelly's aforementioned works. This in turn brings some of Barnett Newman's genre-busting experiments to mind; it is difficult to say whether Kirkland's Subspace series is painting or sculpture. True to Newman, it seems most accurate and least confining to simply classify them as objects rather than paintings or sculptures.
This objectivity (in the sense of having the status of an object) is furthered by the way that the works in Subspace break the proverbial frame. The painted portions of the works do not stop in the conventional space of the picture plane but spill over onto the sides of the plywood. This results in a series of juxtapositions; the Subspace series seems at once to embody motion and stillness as well as flatness and space. Careful viewing of these works and looking at them from different angles is rewarding. It is also interesting to note the colors Kirkland selected; each piece only has one color besides the white pinstripes that carried over from the first half of the exhibition. The range includes white, black, most of the basic colors, and also some surprising choices such as pastels. All in all, there are some unexpected choices thrown in the mix and the total palate in addition to the arrangement of the works is quite satisfying.

The maple plywood Kirkland chose is certainly a good example of the artist's keen appreciation for the natural beauty of wood. The multiplicity of works in White: Part 2, all of the same size and media, have the added value of showcasing the various patterns that naturally appear in maple wood. The sharp lines and beautifully opaque colors painted onto the wood contrast nicely with the unique patterns of the plywood in each piece.

Kirkland is an artist who has an admirable clarity of vision and purpose in his recent work, and White has been a great opportunity for him to explore pursue that vision. It will be exciting to track his progress in the future, and if White is any indication it will be nothing but bright.

Friday, July 16, 2010

J.T. Kirkland: "White: Part 1"

J.T. Kirkland currently has the first half of what will be a two-part show up at Christopher West Presents in Indianapolis. White: Part 1 is a strong, focused grouping of neo-minimalist wood sculptures, all of which hang on the wall. Elegant and understated yet also bold in their execution, the work in this show channels minimal art pioneers such as Robert Morris and Dan Flavin because of the way the art is so responsive to and derived from the physical gallery space that it occupies. Kirkland says he is especially influenced by the art of Robert Irwin in this regard.
Fortress, 2008

One piece, Dormer, was actually created specifically for the show with the Christopher West Presents gallery space in mind. Its dimensions are one fourth of the size of the windows that it hangs between. This piece was created after Kirkland began looking into Irwin's work, and is designed to be able to function on its own in any space, not just on the specific gallery wall it was created for.
Dormer, 2010

The only media Kirkland employs in White: Part 1 are Wenge wood and a shade of white paint specifically chosen to blend in with the gallery walls. Thus, the work succeeds at times in obscuring the boundary between artwork and gallery wall. In each piece, it is interesting where and how Kirkland utilizes the white paint. He says that he chooses titles reluctantly, sometimes waiting years to assign a title to a piece. His inspiration from and emphasis on the inherent beauty of wood recalls H.C. Westermann, although it is manifested quite differently in the end result. Slope, 2008

Only once in White: Part 1 does Kirkland really jump into the third dimension with a piece that juts out into the space rather than sitting flat on the wall, but the result is remarkable. Elbow Afloat is easily the strongest piece in the show, and a refreshing example of how very alive minimal art is today. Recalling Sol LeWitt's sculptural explorations of the broken cube, Elbow Afloat seems like it could function with various installation configurations. The shadows that it casts on the gallery walls are incredible. Elbow Afloat, 2008

The next half of the show will feature all-new work, in which Kirkland will be painting on plywood and exploring color. White: Part 2 opens at Christopher West Presents on July 22, 2010. In the meantime, check out a conversation I had with J.T:

Conversation with JT Kirkland from Charles Fox on Vimeo.