Once dubbed “the Grandfather of L.A. Modernism,” the Chicago-born Emerson Seville Woelffer was active as an innovative painter, collagist, and educator throughout his long and prolific career. A pioneering Abstract Expressionist, Woelffer’s brightly-colored work reveals Cubist and Surrealist influences. Known for advocating a “paint first and think afterwards” approach, his seemingly simplistic abstract canvases investigate the complex relationship between the power of the human unconscious and the limits of the medium. “There is no idea to begin with,” Woelffer contended. “I just start and it works or it doesn’t. It’s not about anything like a tree or an apple.”
Coming of age in Chicago during the Great Depression, Woelffer appreciated the improvisational nature of jazz music, a sensibility he would later apply to painting through gestural variation, energetic strokes, and a rhythmic use of line. From 1935 to 1938, Woelffer, a high school dropout, studied at the Art Institute of Chicago while employed as a janitor, early evidence of his enduring work ethic. He joined the Works Progress Administration arts program in 1938 as an easel painter, followed by a two-year stint as a topographical draftsman for the United States Air Force. The director of the New Bauhaus in Chicago (later the Chicago Institute of Design), László Moholy-Nagy, invited Woelffer to join the faculty in 1942. His experiences there brought him into contact with the modernist idiom of the day, and his interactions with students caused him to re-examine his own practice. He also exhibited in group shows at the Guggenheim Museum in New York, participated in the Whitney Museum Annual (1949) and won the Pauline Palmer Prize for painting at the Art Institute of Chicago (1948).
In 1949 Emerson Woelffer and his wife Dina, a fine art photographer, visited North Carolina. At the request of Buckminster Fuller, the couple taught a two-month summer course at Black Mountain College. A last-minute invitation from Jackson Pollock and Lee Krasner then took the Woelffers to New York before they headed to Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula. Exposure to Pre-Columbian art led Woelffer to incorporate totemic figures and vibrant colors into his abstract paintings.
The Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center extended a job offer in 1950, which the Woelffers accepted. While there, Woelffer established lifelong friendships with artists-in-residence Ynez Johnston and Robert Motherwell. The Colorado period marked a critical development in Woelffer’s oeuvre as he began to embrace the accidental and the absurd through the Surrealist technique of automatic writing, or automatism. The mountain environs inspired Woelffer to shift to a cooler-toned palette as he addressed the vast openness of the landscape.
Between 1957 and 1959, Woelffer traveled in Europe and enjoyed an extended residency on the Italian island of Ischia in the Bay of Naples, where he experimented with abstract collages and paintings featuring enlarged calligraphic strokes. He returned to America in 1959 and subsequently joined the faculty at Chouinard Art Institute (later the California Institute of the Arts) in Los Angeles, where he instructed notable emerging artists until 1973. One of his Chouinard students, Ed Ruscha, later described Woelffer as “an American original, a tender tough guy who turned a lot of people on to the beauty of abstract painting.” In 1974, Woelffer was named chair of the art department at the Otis Art Institute (now the Otis School of Art and Design). His tenure lasted until his retirement in 1989, and he was widely admired for his interdisciplinary approach in the classroom. An endowed scholarship fund in his name provides support for promising young artists and designers. Suffering from macular degeneration, Woelffer switched to drawing with white crayon on black paper in his final years of artistic activity.
Having already won a prestigious Guggenheim Foundation Fellowship in 1967, Emerson Woelffer received the Guggenheim’s 1988 Francis J. Greenburger Award, “a prize that honors established artists whom the art world knows to be of extraordinary merit but who have not been fully recognized by the public.” Woelffer’s work is represented in the collections of such distinguished institutions as the Smithsonian American Art Museum, the National Gallery of Art, and the Museum of Modern Art, among others.