At 83, Emerson Woelffer may be the last local survivor of the original Abstract Expressionist generation. For decades he was regarded as taking second place to such luminaries as Sam Francis and Richard Diebenkorn.
The perception is disproved by an exhibition of recent work at the Silverman Gallery. Titled "Emerson Woelffer: In the Studio," it shows the artist always was the equal of his peers and much better than many of the New York School.
The show consists of some 70 medium-size paintings. Most are hung salon-style nearly filling two big walls. All are untitled. This arrangement may be a nuisance for viewers who like things neatly separated; otherwise, the installation makes a perceptive point.
All the acrylic compositions are painted in white, blue and red on black grounds. (You can't say "backgrounds" because black shapes often function on the frontal plane.) Colors appear to have come unmixed from can or tube. Each composition could very well be part of the same painting. Indeed, in an expressive sense, Woelffer's entire oeuvre might be imagined as one huge composition.
Individual works often have the curious property of simultaneously looking like details, while remaining complete in themselves. Woelffer has an inexplicable knack for making the eye zoom back and forth between these polarities. Pieces are essentially borderless, seeming to continue beyond the framing edge like the electronic field of a computer monitor.
Woelffer employs an alphabet of calligraphic shapes. It's so simple as to permit variation that appears endless and spontaneity that goes unchecked. He's very fond of an incomplete doughnut circle that mutates into figure eights and shapes suggesting everything from freeway interchanges to skulls and cosmic eyes. Always classically abstract, his work nonetheless contains a lot of latent imagery. Woelffer likes drawing with a line of red paint squeezed from the tube. Witty and erotic, it calls up various body parts.
Compositions suggest everything from Navajo textiles to gaggles of giggling amoebas. Spookily suggested hieratic figure compositions constitute a kind of abstract portraiture. The impression is reinforced by several pieces with the scratched letters "M.C."--his mother's initials.
All the same, literal interpretation of this art is off the mark. Woelffer's real magic comes from his painterly gesture. It's so sure and clear as to impart the feeling that we're watching the artist at work. His mood has changed. Still clearly reveling in what he does, his brush is rougher, almost as if informed by contemporary street graffiti. There's a kind of high-spirited ferocity here that's like the pleasure of a Zen fencing master who's suddenly discovered he can wield a broadsword as if it were a rapier.
* "Emerson Woelffer: In the Studio," Manny Silverman Gallery, 619 Almont Drive; through June 27, closed Mondays, (310) 659-8256.