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EMERSON WOELFFER


On the cover detail from : UNTITLED, 1954-55 Oil and collage on canvas, 68 x 104 inches


EMERSON WOELFFER SELECTIONS FROM A CAREER

EXTENDED THROUGH FEBRUARY 14, 2015

MANNY SILVERMAN GALLERY LOS ANGELES, CALIFORNIA


FIGURE, 1950. Oil on canvas, 20 1/4 x 16 1/4 inches


EMERSON WOELFFER: TRUE BELIEVER Hunter Drohojowska-Philp

W

hen Emerson Woelffer came to Los Angeles in 1959, he had experienced an exemplary artist’s life. He was friends with Robert Motherwell and Buckminster Fuller, was a collector of vintage cars and tribal art. He had played drums in a Chicago jazz combo and was friendly with musicians, had lived in Mexico and Europe, most recently on an island in the Bay of Naples. His work had been the subject of several significant solo exhibitions. He was 45 when he began teaching painting at Chouinard Art Institute and his lively personal history made a significant impression on students including Ed Ruscha, Joe Goode and Larry Bell.

From the students point of view, he was a practicing artist who happened to be teaching, something of a rarity in those days in Los Angeles. Woelffer explained, “Teaching was the best way to be a painter because you only had to do it two or three days a week. When I left school each day, I went into myself. I couldn’t merge the two together.” (1) His method of teaching however was not divorced from his way of thinking about art. Ruscha put it best after curating an important survey of Woelffer’s art shortly after the artist passed away in 2003. He recalled that Woelffer taught him and others that “art was simply a thing to be practiced rather than studied. Paint a picture rather than study about the painting of a picture….He could get you to dive into the pool without ever using the word dive or the word pool or the words into the.” (2) That may have been a uniquely Ruschaean method of describing the practice but it jibed well with Woelffer’s faith in the practice of his art. He took pains to allow the art to manifest itself as though directed from a higher source. Further, as an informed admirer and collector of tribal art, he found support for his conviction that art could be driven by spiritual beliefs. “I don’t do those images in my painting, but maybe the attitude might be similar, a kind of belief. I think my stuff is very spiritual. Some people can put spirituality into words. I do it with a stick of wood with pig hair on the end and some paint.” (3) His obsession with tribal art began as a child at the Field Museum in Chicago, where he was born in 1914, named after none other than that most American of philosophers, Ralph Waldo Emerson. His father was involved in real estate and insurance but his mother took him to art classes at the Chicago Art Institute School, where he was enrolled from 1935 to 1937. He supported himself by working as a janitor part-time but his training in figurative art paid off. He was able to secure a position doing easel paintings for the Works Progress Administration for $90 a month plus supplies. Yet, he also worked part time installing exhibitions for the modern art dealer Katherine Kuh. It was there that he was exposed to the


work of Spanish Surrealist Joan Miró. “I don’t know why, but it meant something to me. Sometimes, when you know the answers it kills something.” (4) He investigated the work of Wassily Kandinsky and Paul Klee, working towards an abstraction and ultimately declaring himself bored by the practice of figurative art. His training as a visual artist contributed to his placement as a topographical draftsman for the U.S. Army Air Force for a year during World War II. (5) In 1942, after he left the service, Woelffer contacted László Moholy Nagy, director of the New Bauhaus at the Institute of Design (I.D.) in Chicago. For $18 a week, he was given a teaching position that rotated through painting, photography, design and sculpture — all accomplishments of Moholy Nagy. (They even shared a studio). Woelffer’s early abstract work from these years was indebted to Constructivist ideals and he never lost his grounding in an ordered and balanced abstraction though he moved away from rigidity or predictability in composition. This was due in part to meeting Roberto Matta when the Chilean painter gave a talk at the school in 1943. Woelffer absorbed the Surrealist’s excitement over Automatism, letting the unconscious guide the execution of forms without the limitations of reason or aesthetics. He felt the impulse to be similar to the improvisational techniques used playing jazz, which he continued to play during parties at his studio on Sundays. It was there that he met a young photographer named Diana (Dina) Anderson McLean, a student of Harry Callahan, who was teaching at the I.D. They married in 1946. For the next few years, Woelffer’s abstract painting reflected his expanding awareness of the complexity and meaning of tribal art and its role in the evolution of Modernism. Buckminster Fuller was on the faculty of the I.D. and was asked to head the 1949 summer session at the progressive Black Mountain College in Ashville, North Carolina. He asked the Woelffers to teach there as well. Despite the minimal pay involved, Woelffer resigned from the I.D. to work with Fuller, Josef and Anni Albers and other important figures for a few months in Asheville. It was during this time that he painted his Bucky Fuller series. The Woelffers then went to New York City where they met fellow Abstract Expressionists including Jackson Pollock and Lee Krasner in Springs, Long Island. The Life magazine article on Pollock had just appeared and he urged Woelffer to stay in New York and have a second show at Artists Gallery. Woelffer couldn’t imagine coping with the pressures of New York City, consequently they went on to spend six months in the Yucatan visiting the pyramids and other ancient sites. They rented a house in Campeche where, “Woelffer embraced risk and chance as the primary means to carry his art to a new level, and to make objects that corresponded to his inner life.” (6) In 1950, he returned to Chicago, and the I.D. awarded him an honorary degree so he was prepared when Mitchell Wilder, director of the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center, offered him a position at the school. Ever up for adventure, the Woelffers drove to Colorado in the 1927


Rolls Royce sedan that he acquired by bartering a painting. During the six years there, away from the distractions of urban life, Woelffer came into his own as a painter incorporating the Automatism of the Abstract Surrealists, with a vocabulary of graphic gestures reminscent of pictographs. Despite not being in New York, he was given a second show at Artists Gallery in 1951. To make those paintings, he spread his canvas on the floor and worked with brushes with four-foot long handles combining oil and enamel.

UNTITLED, c.1955. Oil and collage on board, 18 1/8 x 21 1/8 inches

Similar works from this period are the earliest included in this exhibition, selected by Manny Silverman and gallery director Linda Hooper, many from works in the Woelffer estate held in trust by Otis College of Art and Design. The earliest, Untitled (1951) is acrylic on masonite and features angled and rounded slashes of red and ultramarine blue over solid shapes of pale blue and black. Woelffer often used such dynamic colors, though another work in the show, Homage to A. (1953) oil and chalk on canvas, is nearly monochromatic with circular and triangular shapes layered in shades of pale gray. Three works from 1955, all oil on board, control the bold and searing colors—crimsons, emeralds, cobalt blues, balanced with black — as though iterating a language with Xs and Os and approximations of numbers or partial letters all nestled together. Woelffer had been laying pieces of painted paper on his compositions to assess a form or color before completing a work, but liking the effect, he incorporated the collaged elements as aspects of the finished work. This is apparent in an untitled syncopated arrangement of turquoise and coral on an adobe ground from 1954-56 and a startling untitled saffron and black work from 1957 made with roof cement as well as oil and collage on canvas. Artists, of course, always assess the view from the studio window and in Colorado Springs, Woelffer took pleasure in the view of bantering crows and other birds. Young Crow (1956), oil on canvas, shows the black bird with multiple wings, as though trying to fly in a gray atmosphere. The oil and collage on masonite painting, Bird and Earthworms (1956) has a thin sliver of sky and roughly realized orange gesture of a bird above an expanse of black paint


flicked by the white lines of the ill-fated fare. It is thought that he also was influenced by the sleek modern angles of the planes flying around the nearby Air Force academy. In 1953, Wilder left Colorado and was replaced by James Byrnes, who had previously been curator at the Los Angeles County Museum of History, Science and Art and a brave early UNTITLED, c.1955. Oil and collage on board, 20 x 24 1/2 inches advocate of the Abstract Expressionists. He had already included Woelffer’s work in his influential exhibition Contemporary Painting in the United States. He invited Robert Motherwell to teach the summer session and the two artists forged a close friendship that lasted their entire lives. Motherwell too, had been influenced by Matta and had been using collage as a painting device. Motherwell later wrote that Woelffer was “as literate about modern art as any American whom I had encountered…” (7) In 1955, Byrnes left Colorado and so did the Woelffers. They sold their house and went to New York to visit Motherwell and Helen Frankenthaler. Then they went to Europe and for the next eighteen months, lived in Forio d’Ischia, Naples. They had just about run out of money when Woelffer heard that Wilder, then director of Chouinard, was looking for a painting instructor. Woelffer sent him a note and was promptly invited to teach at the school then located near MacArthur Park, known both for training animators to work for Walt Disney and for its progressive art department. After Wilder was hired by the Amon Carter Museum, Gerald Nordland became director of Chouinard and a life-long supporter of both Woelffers and their art. The Woelffers bought a modern house on Dustin Street in Mt. Washington and arranged their collection of tribal art amongst pieces by friends and colleagues, Matta, Motherwell and Miró, described by Woelffer as the “3 Ms.” Woelffer was not the first formal abstract painter to be seduced into new ways of working upon settling in Los Angeles: Sam Francis, Richard Diebenkorn, Lee Mullican all were mature artists when they decided to settle in a city that was bursting with unrealized potential. There were not many art dealers but Paul Kantor Gallery in Beverly Hills was exhibiting the Abstract


Expressionists and Woelffer initially showed there. Eventually Woelffer felt he was being overshadowed by Kantor’s support for those who had claimed success on the East Coast and in 1961, Woelffer began showing with Ed Primus and David Stuart on La Cienega Boulevard next to Ferus. Primus also showed tribal art and Woelffer felt a personal connection there. Like Mullican, Francis and others, Woelffer felt that his dedication to discovering a spiritual dimension in his abstract art was met with less resistance in Los Angeles. Critics were less hostile to this notion, less married to the doctrine of pure form over content. Not that Woelffer abandoned his contacts in New York, Clement Greenberg included Woelffer’s paintings in his 1964 exhibition Post-Painterly Abstraction which opened at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art before traveling to two additional venues. In this exhibition, Blue Boy (1961), oil and collage on canvas, is a singular example of the shift in Woelffer’s sensibilities that had begun in Forio but matured in Los Angeles. The brilliant orange background supports a rectangle of ivory imprinted with the dark mark of Woelffer’s palm and outspread fingers. The words “Blue Boy” echo the mark of the hand of Miró and primitive cave painting but it can be seen around that time as well in the work of Jasper Johns. Woelffer’s use of language had evolved in Forio and dovetailed with the growing interest of younger artists like Johns and Ruscha. Woelffer continued to pursue working with his handprints, even painting with the tips of his fingers to make little dots. In the 1960s, a reductive, graphic direction manifested in his work in simplified compositions of fat straight strokes centered in planes of color. In 1962, the Pasadena Art Museum, the most adventuresome institution in the area at that time, mounted a survey of Woelffer’s work from 1946 to 1962. Over the course of the next decade, Woelffer thrived in Los Angeles. He was among the first to create lithographs for June Wayne, whom he had known in Chicago. She gave him a fellowship at her Tamarind Lithography Workshop in 1961 where he made dozens of print editions over the course of the next twenty years. He traveled regularly; in 1965 on a U.S State Department grant to lecture and exhibit in Turkey, and in 1967 on a John Simon Guggenheim Fellowship to travel in Europe, and in 1970 to teach at the Honolulu Academy of Arts. Chouinard merged with the Los Angeles Conservatory of Music to become California Institute of the Arts (CalArts), and the campus was moved to the suburb of Valencia in 1971. Woelffer continued to teach there until 1973 when he was hired as chair of the painting department at Otis Art Institute, as it was then called. In 1974, he received a National Endowment for the Arts grant and his ally Byrnes organized a survey of his work for the Newport Harbor Art Museum. The combination invigorated his outlook. In the early 1970s, his acrylic on canvas paintings featured spare, vertical strokes bisecting a


Emerson and Dina Woelffer, Dustin Street, Mt. Washington, early 1960s

plane of solid color. There are several in this exhibition. Though still “Untitled”, he sometimes parenthetically added the word “Poet” to the title. In this exhibition, Red Poet (1977) is an acrylic on canvas of vibrant red vertical strokes against black and cobalt blue with a lilac edge along the left side. A vertical painting of chlorinated blue with markings of black oil stick is titled Italian Poem (1977), a reminscence of his time in Forio, perhaps. In 1978, Woelffer resigned his position as chair to work as a painting instructor at Otis, where he continued until 1992, though the last three years he worked only with graduate students. His long interest in collage had achieved scale and drama as he used Color-Aid papers, coated in brilliant tones but when torn, the white edge read as a line in the composition. This exhibition includes A Bird for John (1981), the angular dark birds familiar from his Colorado Springs paintings rendered as torn sheets of black paper against sky blue paper ground. Not as baroque as the late cut-outs of Henri Matisse but similarly sophisticated. On a personal level, thinking of the time that he met the great artists at their home, he was honored to receive a Pollock-Krasner Grant in 1984. He further reduced his paintings to simple arabesques made with oil stick, along with small patches of torn Color-Aid paper arranged sparingly on smooth painted backgrounds. Visible Escape (1984) is an entirely black canvas with white and blue calligraphic marks and patches of blue and red paper collage. It anticipated the


work of the next two decades that he made with bold white paint on a black background. Woelffer was by then losing his eyesight to macular degeneration. He could see at an angle but not straight ahead. He did not give up but rather experimented until he discovered that if he painted in thick white strokes on black backgrounds, he could see the results. It was an especially difficult time since he could not drive and Dina had passed away in 1990. He married Marilu Lopez in 1996. In 1998, Manny Silverman exhibited 70 of these works hung in a salon style from floor to ceiling, illustrating the point that at 83, Woelffer still had some rhythmic chops. His Xs and Os filled the gallery with a dramatic impact that was not lost on William Wilson, then art critic for the Los Angeles Times. In his review of the exhibition, Wilson said that “the works had the quality of contemporary street graffiti,” (8) a comment that delighted Woelffer. Woelffer was the epitome of mid-century modern art in practice and outlook, an artist who believed in the utopian ideals of his predecessors and who was willing to share his insights with his students and over the course of many decades, and left a considerable legacy to Southern California. He was a formalist, an intuitive, an artist who believed that abstract painting could be made with a spiritual drive that could be found easily in tribal art if not so much in the intellectualized art of the developed Western world. He wondered why one kind of knowledge should be used to obliterate another higher form of knowledge. Woelffer remained steadfast in his dedication to his art as a calling. Ruscha and CalArts published a catalogue to accompany Emerson Woelffer: A Solo Flight, the 2003 retrospective exhibition at Redcat Gallery. In addition to the comprehensive essay by Gerald Nordland, it included remarks and remembrances by twenty-two major artists including the veteran Ynez Johnston, who had known him since 1954. According to her, Woelffer’s parting words were simply, “Keep Painting.” Hunter Drohojowska-Philp, California Collector, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, is KCRW art critic and author of several books on modern and contemporary art. 1. 2. 3. 4. 5.

6. 7. 8.

Hunter Drohojowska-Philp, The Master of Modernism, Los Angeles Times, May 31, 1998. Ed Ruscha, Emerson Woelffer: A Solo Flight (Redcat, California Institute of the Arts, 2003) pg 9. Drohojowska-Philp, op. cit. Ibid. When Lee Mullican was assigned a similar position, it reinforced his committment to a non-objective art. Both Mullican and Woelffer were admirers of Paul Klee and his use of line as well as tribal art. Both wound up in L.A. where their pursuit of spiritual meaning found an easier acceptance. Gerald Nordland, Emerson Woelffer: A Solo Flight (Redcat, California Institute of the Arts, 2003) pg 14. Ibid. pg 17. Wilson, William, “ ‘Studio’ shows Woelffer’s Place in History,” Los Angeles Times, June 15, 1998.


UNTITLED, 1954-55. Oil and collage on canvas, 68 x 104 inches


HOMAGE TO A, 1953. Oil and chalk on canvas, 37 x 41 inches


UNTITLED, 1957. Roof cement, oil and collage on canvas, 39 x 36 inches


BIRD AND EARTHWORMS, 1956. Oil and collage on masonite, 38 x 26 inches


YOUNG CROW, 1956. Oil on canvas, 22 x 18 inches


BIRD, 1956. Ink on paper, 11 x 15 inches

UNTITLED, 1956. Ink on paper, 11 x 15 inches


UNTITLED, 1956. Charcoal and pastel on paper, 19 x 25 inches


FORIO, 1958. Collage, 16 7/8 x 13 3/4 inches


UNTITLED, 1958. Collage on envelope, 9 3/8 x 7 1/8 inches


FORIO D’ISCHIA NAPOLI ITALIA, 1959. Oil on canvas, 19 1/2 x 15 1/2 inches


BLUE BOY, 1961. Oil and collage on canvas, 23 3/4 x 17 3/4 inches


UNTITLED (POET), c 1972-73. Acrylic on canvas, 15 7/8 x 12 inches


UNTITLED (POET), c 1973. Acrylic on canvas, 16 x 12 inches


UNTITLED, 1961. Oil on canvasboard, 15 7/8 x 19 7/8 inches


RED POET, 1977. Acrylic on canvas, 30 x 24 inches


UNTITLED, 1969. Color-Aid paper collage, 24 x 18 inches


UNTITLED, 1969. Color-Aid paper collage, 24 x 18 inches


A BIRD FOR JOHN, 1981. Torn paper collage, 45 1/2 x 32 1/4 inches


VISIBLE ESCAPE, 1984. Oil, acrylic, oil stick and collage on canvas, 30 x 24 inches


UNTITLED, 1996, Oil and acrylic on canvas, 48 x 36 inches


SELECTED PUBLIC COLLECTIONS: Arkansas Art Center, Little Rock, AK Amon Carter Museum, Fort Worth, TX Asheville Art Museum, Asheville, NC Baltimore Art Museum, Baltimore, MD Bauhaus Archives, Berlin, Germany Bibliotheque Nationale, Paris, France Black Mountain College Museum + Art Center, Asheville, NC City of Santa Monica, CA Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center, Colorado Springs, CO Fogg Museum, Harvard University, Cambridge, MA Fresno Art Museum, Fresno, CA Honolulu Academy of Arts, Honolulu, HI Illinois State Museum, Chicago Gallery, Chicago, IL Indianapolis Museum of Art, Indianapolis, IN Israel Museum, Jerusalem, Israel Kansas City Museum, Kansas City, MO Krannert Art Museum, University of Illinois, Champaign, IL La Jolla Museum of Contemporary Art, La Jolla, CA Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Los Angeles, CA The Museum of Modern Art, New York, NY Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, CA Museum of New Mexico, Santa Fe, NM Milwaukee Art Museum, Milwaukee, WI New Orleans Museum, New Orleans, LO Newport Harbor Art Museum, Newport Beach, CA (now Orange County Museum of Art) Nora Eccles Harrison Museum of Art, Utah State University, Logan, UT North Carolina Museum of Art, Raleigh, NC Pasadena Museum of Modern Art, Pasadena, CA (now Norton Simon Museum) Portland Art Museum, Portland, OR San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, San Francisco, CA Seattle Art Museum, Seattle, WA Smithsonian Archives of American Art, Washington, DC The Frederick S. Wight Art Gallery, University of California, Los Angeles, CA University Art Museum, California State University at Long Beach, CA University Art Museum, University of California, Berkeley, CA University of Iowa Museum of Art, Iowa City, IA Washington Gallery of Modern Art, Washington, DC Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, NY Wooster Art Museum, Wooster, MA Yellowstone Art Museum, Billings, MT

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CREDITS

Catalogue Essay Hunter Drohojowska-Philp Los Angeles, CA Design Suzanne Bernstein Design, Inc. Miami, FL Catalogue Coordinator Linda Hooper, Director Manny Silverman Gallery Edition 1000

Manny Silverman Gallery 619 North Almont Drive Los Angeles, CA 90069 T: 310 659 8256 F: 310 659 1001 www.mannysilvermangallery.com


MANNY SILVERMAN GALLERY LOS ANGELES, CALIFORNIA

Emerson Woelffer  

Manny Silverman Gallery Exhibition Catalogue

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