“Untitled," 1947, o/c.
“Untitled," 1957, o/c.
“Untitled," 1968, o/c.
“Untitled," 1978, o/c.
"Untitled," 1988, o/c.
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
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.