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October 4 - November 15, 2003 at College of the Canyons Art Gallery, the Valley

by Betty Ann Brown

“Untitled," 1947, o/c.

“Untitled," 1957, o/c.

“Untitled," 1968, o/c.

“Untitled," 1978, o/c.

"Untitled," 1988, o/c.
Abstract Expressionism (AbEx) was the first great American avant-garde art movement. Reductive art historical narratives geographically situate AbEx in New York, chronologically place it in the 1950s, and present action painter Jackson Pollock as AbEx’s archetypal practitioner. In fact, AbEx crossed the continent, was a viable and variable style throughout the second half of the twentieth century, and proved a masterful creative mode for many painters. A leader among these was long-time California resident Emerson Woelffer.

Robert Motherwell, himself an outstanding AbEx painter, wrote in 1978, “Emerson Woelffer has never wavered in his commitment to Abstract Expressionism, which. . . .was (apart from its originators in New York) mostly flirted with by other painters. . . .Woelffer alone out there persevered, not only because he is faithful by nature, but perhaps because he alone had the depth of culture along with painterly instincts that made no other choice viable for him.”

Woelffer was born in Chicago in 1914 and died earlier this year. Although he had little formal art education (he spent only a brief time at the Art Institute of Chicago), Woelffer made significant contributions as a teacher, offering classes at Laszlo Moholy-Nagy’s new Bauhaus in Chicago, then at Black Mountain College in North Carolina, and later at Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center. He moved to Los Angeles in the 1960s, and taught at Chouinard Art Institute (now CalArts), then at Otis College.

Woelffer’s oeuvre consists of several bodies of work; one could say he spoke many dialects of the AbEx language. Inspired by the Surrealists, as were many of the New York Abstract Expressionists, Woelffer created many automatic drawings, that is, drawings that proceeded as directly as possible from the unconscious. Personal and intimate, the drawings are characterized by fragile squiggles that recall the early “automatist” works of Andre Masson.

Other translations of Surrealist sources are seen in Woelffer’s torn paper collages. Like Hans/Jean Arp and Marcel Duchamp (the latter an acquaintance of Woelffer’s), who created compositions “arranged according to the laws of chance,” Woelffer worked with randomly positioned fragments to construct spare and often poetic patterns.

Surrealism echoes in Woelffer’s Lips Paintings, a series of images reminiscent of Max Ernst’s portrayal of Lee Miller’s lips hovering in the sky like an immense red cloud. (Woelffer always acknowledged his debt to Surrealism, and asserted that “Surrealism was a state of mind, not a style.”)

When Surrealism’s primary theorist André Breton moved to New York during World War II, he began to write of mythic beings he called the Great Invisibles. Many American artists--among them Woelffer acquaintance Jackson Pollock--began to depict abstracted ritual figures that were cubist in configuration and chimerical in character. Woelffer, too, did a series of brilliantly-hued mythic personages marching in rhythmic parade across the canvas.

More soft-spoken are his works that relate to Asian prototypes. Some have white calligraphic marks, elegantly arrayed over velvety black backgrounds. Others are based on Zen-like splatters precariously balanced on minimalist fields.

Rich, sophisticated, risky, Woelffer’s art demonstrates the range and enduring validity of the Abstract Expressionist mode. Southern California benefited greatly that Woelffer brought his commitment to art, life, and teaching here for so may decades.

Emerson Woelffer: Seven Decades is a finely curated survey of representative examples from these bodies of work by artist and former Woelffer student Joanne Julian. Related exhibitions will open in mid-November at the new Gallery at REDCAT in the Walt Disney Concert Hall as well as Manny Silverman Gallery.