Emerson Woelffer

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Emerson Woelffer

Untitled - 1950
Oil on canvas

Emerson Woelffer Artist Biography

Emerson Woelffer (1914 – 2003)

In the history of Abstract Expressionism, Emerson Woelffer paintings flow like an undercurrent through the movement. Artist Emerson Woelffer is not as well known as artists like Willem De Kooning and Robert Motherwell, but his contribution to Abstract Expressionism and teaching art is very important. In short, Emerson Woelffer was very important to Abstract Expressionism.

Art Education

Born on the 27th of July, 1914, in Chicago, Illinois, Emerson was encouraged from a young age by his mother, who had a deep appreciation for art. Between 1935 and 1937, Emerson studied at the Art Institute of Chicago, which he left in 1938 to join the WPA Arts Program. During World War II, he served in the Air Force and when his part in the conflict was over, he taught under László Moholy-Nagy at the Chicago Institute of Design. This is when he met his wife Dina.

In 1949, he went on to Black Mountain College in North Carolina. It was the great architect Buckminster Fuller who asked Woelffer to join Black Mountain. Here, Emerson taught with some of the most talented artists and educators of the time. Including, Willem de Kooning, Peter Voulkos, and the two Albers. For the next decade, Emerson taught and lived in Yucatan, Mexico and in Naples, Italy, at Forio d’Ischia. His experience in Lerma, Mexico caused him to commit to the ideals of Abstract Expressionism. This was a mode of thinking that he never gave up. Emerson Woelffer’s dedication to Abstract Expressionism painting sets him apart from other artists. Because, many great Abstract Expressionists gave up the movement for further experimentation.

In Mexico, he was surrounded by Pre-Columbian art and culture. This allowed him to shed the shackles of figurative and European art and Emerson soon shredded the remnants of his traditional arts aesthetic, leaving a surrealistic and subconscious form of expression. As he said himself, “I always work first and think later”. Like most of the artists of this era, Emerson couldn’t fund his art without a regular job, so he worked as a teacher most of his life. This suited him and he was very serious about his role as a pedagogue. Never a dictator or a tyrant in the classroom, he tried to push his students to be true to themselves and to express themselves. In his own words: “… 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”.

Teaching Career

From 1954, Emerson Woelffer taught at the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center. There he met Willem de Kooning and Robert Motherwell, both of whom would remain friends with Emerson for the rest of their lives. Motherwell was a particular influence on Emerson Woelffer’s painting. Because, both of them found in each other freedom to explore abstraction to its furthest extents.

In 1959, Emerson Woelffer moved to Los Angeles, California. He took a teaching position at Chouinard Art Institute (later the California Institute of Art) in Valencia, California. He taught there until 1973, educating the next generation of expressionists, surrealists, and abstract artists. His students included Joe Goode, Ed Ruscha, and, and Llyn Foulkes. His simple approach to teaching was widely admired and he was very popular with his students. During 1970, Emerson was an artist in house at the Honolulu Museum of Art. In 1974, he took the position of Chair of the Painting Department at the Otis Art Institute in LA, which he held until 1978.

Emerson Woelffer’s career is typical of the abstract and surrealist artists of his day. He was well known in his field but not so much further afield. He avoided becoming a household name like de Kooning and Pollock, which suited him fine. Yet, he was lauded, winning a grant from the Pollock-Krasner Foundation in 1984 and the Francis J. Greenburger Award in 1988. Otis College gave him an Honorary Doctorate Degree, Emerson being without an official degree until this time. He loved Otis College and when he died in 2003, he left his estate to Otis to set up a scholarship fund for up and coming artists.

Emerson Woelffer Paintings

Emerson Woelffer paintings are distinctive and recognizable. They have has bold colors, abstraction, and collages, particularly torn paper collage. A multi-talented artist, Emerson also created sculptures and lithographs. Towards the end of his life, his eyesight began to fail due to macular degeneration. Like Manet, he adapted his art using high contrast white crayon and chalk on black paper.

When he died in 2003, a retrospective was held at CalArts under the title “Emerson Woelffer, a Solo Flight.” He was honored by his students and those who knew him as an important figure his field.