LAMA BLOG

Emerson Woelffer, Postwar Renaissance Man

April 26, 2016

A self-described “abstract surrealist,” the painter, collagist, and teacher Emerson Woelffer (1914–2003) was in many ways the very ideal of a postwar American artist. His distinctive style of Abstract Expressionism was inflected by his many and varied interests and experiences. He was a student at the Art Institute of Chicago before becoming employed in the WPA artist’s program and then as a teacher at László Moholy-Nagy’s Institute of Design in Chicago. Woelffer also lived and worked for a period in Mexico and in Italy; played jazz drums; and collected ethnographic art as well as cars. A close friend of Robert Motherwell and Buckminster Fuller, he was invited to teach at the storied Black Mountain College in North Carolina in 1949. Woelffer came to Los Angeles a decade later and, upon taking a position as an instructor at the Chouinard Art Institute, became mentor to an impressive roster of devoted students that included Larry Bell, Ed Ruscha, Joe Goode, and Charles Arnoldi.

Lot 275, Emerson Woelffer, Cook and Fish (1943)
Lot 275, Emerson Woelffer, Cook and Fish (1943)
May 22, 2016 Modern Art & Design Auction

Emerson Woelffer’s work is both erudite and intuitive; his personal style cosmopolitan, cool, and casual. He was inspired by the Surrealists’ notion of “automatism”—painting unconsciously and without intention—and by free-form jazz improvisation. Marked by runes and ciphers—X’s, O’s, and seeming proto-numbers and -letters many of his canvases suggest primitive pictographs. His work was shaped, too, by the environments which surrounded him, and his move to Southern California prompted a discernable shift to bolder, brighter colors in his paintings.

Lot 276, Emerson Woelffer, Untitled (1950)
Lot 276, Emerson Woelffer, Untitled (c. 1950)
May 22, 2016 Modern Art & Design Auction

Certainly one of Woelffer’s most enduring legacies is the inspiration he gave his students. Not long after Woelffer’s death, Ed Ruscha curated a survey of his work at the California Institute of the Arts’s REDCAT Gallery. Woelffer taught that “art was simply a thing to be practiced rather than studied. Paint a picture rather than study about the painting of a picture,” Ruscha wrote for the catalogue to that exhibit. “He could get you to dive into the pool without ever using the word dive or the word pool or the words into the.”

Lot 277, Emerson Woelffer, Forio #5 (1957)
Lot 277, Emerson Woelffer, Forio #5 (1957)
May 22, 2016 Modern Art & Design Auction

Lot 280, Emerson Woelffer, Forio d’Ischia (1958)
Lot 280, Emerson Woelffer, Forio d’Ischia (1958)
May 22, 2016 Modern Art & Design Auction

Ruscha, Ed, and Gerald Nordland. Emerson Woelffer: A Solo Flight. Valencia, CA: REDCAT, California Institute of the Arts, 2003. Print. Drohojowska-Philp, Hunter. Emerson Woelffer: Selections from a Career. Manny Silverman Gallery. Los Angeles. 2014. Print.

Lot Information:

Lot 275
Emerson Woelffer
Cook and Fish
1943
Oil on canvas
Signed lower left; signed, dated, and retains Chicago and Vicinity 47th Annual exhibition label verso
Canvas (vis.): 29.5″ x 39.5″
Frame: 39.125″ x 49.25″

Exhibited: “Chicago and Vicinity 47th Annual,” the Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago, March 11-April 25, 1943

Estimate: $8,000–$12,000
May 22, 2016 Modern Art & Design Auction

Lot 276
Emerson Woelffer
Untitled
c. 1950
Casein on board
Signed lower right
Retains Manny Silverman Gallery label verso
Board: 26.75″ x 19″
Frame: 29.75″ x 21.75″

Estimate: $3,000–$5,000
May 22, 2016 Modern Art & Design Auction

Lot 277
Emerson Woelffer
Forio #5
1957
Oil and enamel on canvas
Signed upper left; signed, titled, and dated verso; inscribed “Forio d’Ischia/ITALIA” verso; retains Manny Silverman Gallery, Hackett-Freedman Gallery, and Vanderwoude Tananbaum Gallery labels verso Together with two exhibition catalogues (one signed) and copy of invoice from Hackett-Freedman Gallery
Canvas: 27.375″ x 19.875″
Frame: 29.5″ x 22″

Provenance: Hackett-Freedman Gallery, San Francisco, California; Private Collection, Los Angeles, California (acquired directly from the above, March 2006)

Exhibited: “Emerson Woelffer: A Survey Exhibition-The Years 1947-1974,” Newport Harbor Art Museum, Newport Beach, April 27-June 2, 1974

Illustrated: Emerson Woelffer: A Survey Exhibition-The Years 1947-1974. Newport Harbor Art Museum exh. cat., 1974. #13.; Emerson Woelffer: A Solo Flight. G. Nordland. 2003. 10.

Estimate: $6,000–$9,000
May 22, 2016 Modern Art & Design Auction

Lot 278
Emerson Woelffer
Madrid; Forio (2)
1959
Oil and mixed media on paper
Each signed and dated in graphite lower left; each titled lower right
Madrid: Sheet: 26.75″ x 20.375″
Frame: 33.25″ x 26.75″
Forio: Sheet: 25.75″ x 18.875″
Frame: 33.25″ x 26.25″

Estimate: $4,000–$6,000
May 22, 2016 Modern Art & Design Auction

Lot 279
Emerson Woelffer
Forio d’Ischia Napoli Italia: Italian Facade
1959
Gouache on paperboard
Signed and dated in graphite lower left; signed, dated, and inscribed “Forio d’Ischia Napoli Italia/Italian Facade” verso
Board: 27.75″ x 21″
Frame: 30.75″ x 24.25″

Estimate: $4,000–$6,000
May 22, 2016 Modern Art & Design Auction

Lot 280
Emerson Woelffer
Forio d’Ischia
1958
Mixed-media collage on paper
Signed, dated, and inscribed “For Ray Dec 8, 1958 Forio d’Ischia Woelffer 58”
Sheet: 9″ x 6.75″
Frame: 14.75″ x 12.5″

Estimate: $2,500–$3,500
May 22, 2016 Modern Art & Design Auction

Lot 281
Emerson Woelffer
Untitled
1954
Woodblock print with gouache
Signed and dated
Sheet: 22.25″ x 17″
Frame: 27.125″ x 21.875″

Estimate: $1,500–$2,000
May 22, 2016 Modern Art & Design Auction

Lot 282
Emerson Woelffer
Summer Poet #3
c. 1975
Machine-woven wool rug
Woven signature lower right
83″ x 63″

Estimate: $2,000–$3,000
May 22, 2016 Modern Art & Design Auction

Leave a Reply

BID AND FOLLOW ON THE LAMA APP