Emerson Woelffer (1914-2003)
Known as the grandfather of Los Angeles Modernism, Emerson Woelffer (1914-2003) was an Abstract Expressionist painter who would become one of the foremost figures in artist-led education on the West Coast. Born and raised in Chicago, Woelffer was highly encouraged by his mother to pursue an artistic career as she was particularly fond of the Art Institute of Chicago, where Woelffer would later study.
During World War II, Woelffer served in the U.S. Air Force. After his time in the military, he began teaching at Chicago’s Institute of Design in a department headed by László Moholy-Nagy. From 1942 to 1949, Emerson Woelffer taught in Chicago, before accepting an invitation from legendary architect Buckminster Fuller to teach at Black Mountain College. Together with his wife Dina, Emerson relocated to North Carolina to teach alongside some of the most important artists and educators in history, including Josef and Anni Albers, Willem de Kooning, Franz Kline, and Peter Voulkos, among others.
After his time at Black Mountain College, Emerson and Dina moved to Lerma, Mexico, a small town on the Yucatan Peninsula. Surrounded by the pre-Columbian aesthetic that was a consistent source of inspiration, Woelffer fully committed to the Abstract Expressionist visual vocabulary and style. Nearly all remnants of his classical, Euro-centric education fell to the wayside in favor of almost surreal, subconscious forms. Woelffer once stated, “I always work first and think later.” This philosophy ran counter to his traditional arts education, but is ultimately what led to decades of important and exciting painting and teaching.
The Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center invited Woelffer to teach in 1954. While there, Emerson became close friends with Robert Motherwell. This friendship was based upon a shared artistic style, as well as a love of music and tribal art. The two artists remained life long friends and pushed each other to dive deeper into Abstract Expressionism. In a 1998 interview, Woelffer stated: “After meeting De Kooning and Motherwell, I didn’t have to ask too many questions. The sky’s the limit. That’s the feeling I got from them.”
In 1959 the Woelffers relocated to Los Angeles, where Emerson began teaching at the Chouinard Art Institute. His time at Chouinard Art Institute (which later became the California Institute of the Arts in Valencia) from 1959 to 1973 was particularly notable–there he fostered the artistic development of such figures as Ed Ruscha, Joe Goode, Charles Arnoldi, and Llyn Foulkes, who praised his open attitude to their artistic experiments.
Woelffer summed up his pedagogical approach as follows: “I was never that stringent. If someone wanted to do painting a little way this way or a little way that way, I would allow it. Because I felt there was a personality that has to come out also of the individual. I don’t want to stifle that in somebody. So I said, ‘Go ahead. Go ahead. I can tell if it has some quality to it. And the feeling of the paint.’ […] You don’t teach anybody to be an artist.” For these artists, Woelffer was a living example of a committed professional painter. Ruscha went on to curate an exhibition in honor of his teacher: “Emerson Woelffer: A Solo Flight,” at the Roy and Edna Disney / CalArts Theater (REDCAT) in 2003.
Woelffer was awarded the Pollock-Krasner Grant and Francis Greenburger Award, in conjunction with the Guggenheim Museum in New York. His work can be found in several prominent collections including Los Angeles County Museum of Art; MOCA Grand Avenue, Los Angeles; Norton Simon Museum of Art, Pasadena; Pomona College Museum of Art, Claremont; San Francisco Museum of Modern Art; Whitney Museum of American Art, and the Bibliothèque Nationale de France in Paris.
Woelffer spent the majority of his career at Otis College of Art and Design in Los Angeles, where he taught from 1974–1989. He was deeply attached to the college and decided to set up a scholarship fund to benefit future artists through his estate. Los Angeles Modern Auctions is in partnership with Otis and the Emerson Woelffer Estate to benefit the Otis Scholarship Fund.
Suzanne Muchnic | Times Staff Writer. “Emerson Woelffer, 88; Abstract Artist, Teacher.” Los Angeles Times, 05 Feb. 2003. Web. 24 Apr. 2017.
Karlstrom, Paul. “Archives of American Art.” Oral History Interview with Emerson Woelffer, 1999 March 26. N.p., n.d. Web. 24 Apr. 2017.
Perchuk, Andrew and Taft, Catherine. “Floating Structures: Building the Modern in Postwar Los Angeles.” Pacific Standard Time: Los Angeles Art 1945-1980. By Peabody, Rebecca and Bradnock, Lucy. Los Angeles: Getty Research Institute and the J. Paul Getty Museum, 2011. 30. Print.
Perchuk, Andrew and Taft, Catherine. “Floating Structures: Building the Modern in Postwar Los Angeles.” Pacific Standard Time: Los Angeles Art 1945-1980. By Peabody, Rebecca and Bradnock, Lucy. Los Angeles: Getty Research Institute and the J. Paul Getty Museum, 2011. 300. Print.
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