“Automat”, 1952 | 52”x44” - oil painting
Woelffer played jazz drums and had a significant jazz record collection. In his work, this spirit of jazz improvisation influences his use of Surrealist automatism, a method of art making in which the artist suppresses conscious control over the making process, allowing the unconscious mind to have considerable sway. Exploring the boundaries of intention under these dual practices, Woelffer improvises symbols on canvas. Here, we see numbers, letters and bird shapes richly varied across the surface of the painting. His forms are simple, but his vibrant color combinations are complex and visually original. Woelffer once said, “I paint first and think afterwards.” It is in his automatic paintings that he manifests this concept completely.
Painter, printmaker and sculptor, Emerson Woelffer was a prominent Abstract Expressionist working outside New York and widely regarded as the “grandfather of L.A. Modernism.” Educated at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago (1935-37), he studied with Boris Anisfeld, Francis Chapin, Albin Polasek and Louis Ritman. In 1938 he participated in the WPA arts program as an easel painter, followed by a two-year stint as a topographical draftsman for the U.S. Army Air Force.
In 1942 Laszlo Moholy-Nagy invited him to teach at the Institute of Design in Chicago (initially known as the New Bauhaus). While there he met Fernand Léger, Roberto Matta and Man Ray when they stopped in Chicago. 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 first prize for painting at the Art Institute of Chicago (1948).
At the recommendation of Buckminster Fuller, Woelffer and his wife taught in the summer of 1949 at Black Mountain College in North Carolina. An experimental school fostering extreme experimentation through creativity and interdisciplinary coordination, the work of its faculty and students revolutionized the arts and sciences scenes in the second half of the twentieth century. Among its best-known associates were Josef and Anni Albers, John Cage, Merce Cunningham, Robert Rauschenberg, Buckminster Fuller, Willem de Kooning, Cy Twombly, Robert Motherwell, Franz Kline and Jacob Lawrence.
When the Woelffers’ summer course ended at the college, they traveled to Campeche in the Yucutan where Emerson spent six months painting and collecting Mayan artifacts. In 1950 Mitchell Wilder, director of the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center, invited him to teach at its arts school where he spent the next six years, attracted by the city’s appeal as a summer resort. Head of the school’s painting department, his national reputation as an abstract artist created an awareness and appreciation of modern art in Colorado Springs. In 1952 he welcomed abstract painters, Vaclav Vytlacil and Ludwig Sander, to teach at the Center. Two years later he developed a friendship with Robert Motherwell, invited for the summer by the Center’s new director, James B. Byrnes, formerly of the Los Angeles County Museum. That same summer Woelffer met Mark Rothko, who was teaching a summer course at the University of Colorado in Boulder, and also visited former Bauhaus artist Herbert Bayer in Aspen.
In Colorado Springs Woelffer’s palette gradually changed from hot vivid colors to more muted tones of grey, ochre, orange turquoise, black and white. He began working on larger canvases laid on his studio floor. Collectively titled the Number Series, he used brushes with four-foot long handles to apply the paint improvising with an automatist technique. Collage also became an important component of his work, pasting papers on his canvases to provide a dry surface on which to test a new idea. He likewise incorporated aspects of daily life into his imagery, such as birds, and jets or arrows, highly abstracted yet still recognizable as objects.
While teaching at the Colorado Spring Fine Arts Center, he created Abstract (1954), a three-color lithograph (edition of 150) that was the annual print given that year to the institution’s supporting members. Two years earlier he had a solo exhibition of lithographs at the Art Institute of Chicago. In the early 1950s, too, he participated in the Carnegie International in Pittsburgh and the Corcoran Biennial in Washington, DC. His work also was included in Contemporary Painting in the United States held at the Los Angeles County Museum (1951).
In 1956 Woelffer and his wife traveled to Europe, based for some eighteen months on the island of Ischia in the Bay of Naples. Upon returning to the United States in 1959, they relocated to Los Angeles where Mitchell Wilder invited Emerson to head the arts department at the Chouinard Art Institute. He taught there for a decade and then for several years when the Institute moved to Valencia becoming the California Institute of the Arts (CalArts). Among his notable students were Larry Bell, Joe Goode and Ed Ruscha. As in Colorado Springs and elsewhere, he brought a flair and interdisciplinarity to his teaching as an impassioned jazz drummer, African art enthusiast and automobile aficionado. He also was artist in residence (1970) at the Honolulu Academy of Arts, and during the balance of his career he chaired the painting department at the Otis Art Institute in Los Angeles from which he retired in 1989.
In addition to showing at galleries in Graz, Austria, New York, Chicago, San Francisco and Los Angeles, Woelffer had one-man shows/retrospectives at the Pasadena Art Museum (1962), Santa Barbara Museum of Art (1964), Phillips Collection, Washington DC (1975), Newport Harbor Museum (1974), Art Gallery - California State University at Fullerton (1982), Otis Gallery (Otis College of Art & Design, 1992) and REDCAT Gallery - California Institute of the Arts (2003).
He received a Tamarind Lithography Workshop Fellowship through the Ford Foundation (1961), a Guggenheim Fellowship (1967-68), a National Endowment for the Arts grant (1974), a Pollock-Krasner grant for outstanding achievement (1984), and a Francis Greenburger Award from the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum (1988).
Woelffer’s work is found in a number of public collections, including the Whitney Museum of American Art, Museum of Modern Art-New York, Art Institute of Chicago, Milwaukee Art Museum, North Carolina Museum of Art-Raleigh; Isaac Delgado Museum of Art-New Orleans, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Pasadena Museum of Modern Art, San Francisco Museum of Art, University of Iowa Museum-Iowa City, Amon Carter Museum of Western Art, Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center, and the Honolulu Academy of Arts.