May 22, 2016


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Lot 279: Emerson Woelffer

Lot 279: Emerson Woelffer

Forio d'Ischia Napoli Italia: Italian Facade

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
Price Realized: $5,937
Inventory Id: 22278

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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 Chuck Arnoldi.

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.

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."

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.