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January 3 - March 27, 2009 at Tobey C. Moss Gallery, West Hollywood

by Elenore Welles

The engaging prints of Emerson Woelffer and Leonard Edmondson serve as a reminder how influential early Southern California artists have been to the field of Modern art. Starting in the 1940s and ‘50s Woelffer and Edmonson were among the West’s pioneers of abstraction. Though they brought ideas and influences of European modernism to Los Angeles, their location excluded them from recognition in standard surveys of American Modernism. However, as educators, they were influential in the broad appeal of future generations of artists.

For both artists, conceptual innovations were arrived at through a variety of printing techniques and the influence of artistic predecessors who searched beyond Western cultures as sources for inspiration. Much of their aesthetic vocabularies are due, in large part, to ideas gleaned from Surrealism, Cubism and Abstract Expressionism. Each managed to wed some of the contradictory impulses of those movements by blending formal compositions with spontaneity and intuition.

Similar to the Cubists, Edmondson uses flat areas of color to create shapes and space. They evolve as a series of organic forms, geared toward creating a frisson, a reflection, he noted, of the sensory bombardment of the world.
While the techniques of artists such as Kandinsky, Picasso, and Max Ernst were inspiration to him, he was more interested in the art of discovery, referring to his artistic vocabulary as subjective. In fact, his eclectic blend of biomorphic and geometric forms, mythic symbols, and hybrid shapes evolved solely from his imagination.

Edmondson is renowned as a master etcher, particularly in the technique of viscosity etching learned from British scientist and printmaker Stanley William Hayter. It was a method that allowed three colors to be rolled through the press at one time. He employed the technique to achieve denser textural effects and a bold range of tonalities.

Leonard Edmondson, "Mutual
Time," 1953, color etching
and aquatint, 14 3/8 x 10 3/4".

Leonard Edmondson, “Signs and
Manifestations," 1953, color etching
and aquatint, 6 7/8 x 13 1/2”.

Leonard Edmondson, “Letters
Toward Experience," 1955,
color etching, 14 1/2 x 17 3/4".

The viscous layering lead, at times, to elusive atmospheric shapes. Like some of his mystical predecessors, he spoke of his compositions as reflecting dreams “almost remembered.”  The idea of symbols buried in the subconscious is borrowed from Surrealism, and indeed, intentional or otherwise, his forms do seem to dissolve and reappear.  They bear resemblances to the works of Ashile Gorky and Adoph Gottlieb, artists who also employed Surrealist techniques to create fantasy worlds.

Much of Edmondson’s textural dynamism also comes from intriguing strokes, stabs and gestures.  In “Curiouser and Curiouser,” for example, a hole punch and a sharp stylus have been dragged across the sheet.  Distinctive, also, is   “Surreal Mosaic,” where mosaic patterned shapes appear to bounce off their solid background. His forms are somewhat reined in by spatial manipulation, but if his intention is to evoke chaos, then he succeeds.

Emerson Woelffer, "Venice I," 1992,
color lithograph, 31 3/4 x 24".

Emerson Woelffer, “Figure”, 1970,
color lithograph, 24 x 18”.

Emerson Woelffer, “Untitled”,
1989, collage and paint on sheets
to tan paper, 38 3/4 x 29 1/2”.
Woelffer’s emotional resonance was derived from an approach that was decidedly more Zen. His concentration was geared more toward the expression of inner harmony. He referred to himself as an Abstract Surrealist, an apt description since he culled freely from relationships with European Modernists, particularly Yves Tanguy, Salvador Dali and Marcel Duchamp. He gleaned much, also, from teaching under Lazlo Moholy-Nagy at the Institute of Design in Chicago, and under Buckminster Fuller at Black Mountain College. He worked, also, with Robert Motherwell at the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center. Time spent time in the Yucatan and on an island in the Bay of Naples were further influences.
Woelffer’s aesthetics also reflect his keen appreciation for the syncopated rhythms of jazz and for the spiritual aspects of African, pre-Columbian and Oceanic art, which he collected. Inspired by Surrealist automatism and Jackson Pollock’s gestural freedom, he was drawn to processes aimed at revealing the undercurrents of the representational. Through the immediacy of swift, intuitive gestures he hoped to tap into the unconscious.

In pictographs produced during the 1950s symbols, hieroglyphic strokes, letters and numbers were executed in rapid, rhythmic movements. The result is an elegant dance of line and form. The same holds true for his collages on paper from the 1970s and ‘80s. He achieved a wide range of effects from torn bits of paper, pencil, charcoal, crayon and oil stick. Some spaces are minimal and Zen-like. Others evoke his iconic strokes, squiggles, and calligraphy. Though process over conception remained paramount, his early formal training allowed him to reconcile intuitive impulses with pictorial structure.

In the 1990s, due to failing eyesight, Woelffer could only see white on black. His white brush strokes on black paper bring him full circle to the calligraphy of the ‘50s. Though influences such as Franz Kline or Motherwell may seep through, it is Woelffer’s own magical blend of lyricism, ambiguity and spiritualism that prevails.

That both artists embraced mystery and transcendence is testament to the fact that each saw himself as a romantic, a point conveyed by the intaglios and lithographs selected for this exhibition.