Untitled - Woelffer, Emerson S.

Fine Art

Woelffer, Emerson S.

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 with jagged forms reveals Cubist and Surrealist influences.

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 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, were invited by Jackson Pollock and Lee Krasner 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.

In 1959 Woelffer joined the faculty at the Chouinard Art Institute (later the California Institute of the Arts) in Los Angeles, where he instructed notable emerging artists until 1973 and where he was instrumental in bringing Modernism to LA. Ed Ruscha was one of his students. 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.

Emerson won a prestigious Guggenheim Foundation Fellowship in 1967 and then went to work in Europe. 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.