Emerson Woelffer, a self-styled Abstract Expressionist painter who inspired two generations of artists with his aesthetic vitality and commitment to excellence, died Sunday. He was 88.
He had suffered from a broken hip and other maladies for several months and had been hospitalized off and on, but spent his final weeks at home in Los Angeles, where he died of pneumonia.
Known as a grandfather of L.A. Modernism, Woelffer came of age in a tumultuous period when Surrealist dreams merged with Abstract Expressionist angst and European expatriates arrived in America with loads of new ideas. Dubbing himself an Abstract Surrealist and embracing creative enterprises ranging from jazz to primitive art, he developed a distinctive expressive vocabulary of pure color, line and shape. His signature works are bold, jagged-edged abstractions that look as if they just fell into place.
“I always work first and think later,” he said, when pressed to reveal the evolution and meaning of his art. “There is no idea to begin with. I just start and it works or it doesn’t. It’s not about anything like a tree or an apple.”
A high school dropout who studied at the Art Institute of Chicago while working as a janitor, Woelffer accounted for his artistic output in terms of automatic impulses, but he adhered to a rigorous work ethic and taught at leading art schools, acquiring many admirers.
“He was an American original, a tender tough guy who turned a lot of people on to the beauty of abstract painting,” said artist Ed Ruscha, who studied with Woelffer at Chouinard Art Institute near MacArthur Park in the early 1960s and has been a fan ever since.
“What was special about Emerson was his integrity,” said artist Joe Goode, who also fell under Woelffer’s spell at Chouinard. “He never interfered with what you wanted to draw or paint. He just instilled the idea that if you are going to do it, take it seriously. And you didn’t have to take his class to benefit from his philosophy. The lesson was him.”
Woelffer “gave artists permission” to follow their convictions, said artist Roy Dowell, who studied with Woelffer at California Institute of the Arts in 1973 and later taught with him at Otis Art Institute (now Otis College of Art and Design). “He absolutely loved art and making it,” Dowell said.
Woelffer was born July 27, 1914, in Chicago, the only child of George K. Woelffer, an insurance and real estate salesman, and Marguerite Seville Woelffer. Emerson’s father wanted him to be a baseball player, but his mother encouraged his artistic talents. He was smitten with modern art at the Art Institute of Chicago, where he studied from 1935 to 1938.
After serving in the U.S. Air Force, he began teaching at Chicago’s Institute of Design, where he worked from 1942 to 1949 under the direction of constructivist Laszlo Moholy-Nagy. Woelffer married photographer Dina Anderson in 1945. Four years later, he accepted the invitation of visionary architect Buckminster Fuller to teach at Black Mountain College, an experimental art school in North Carolina. In 1954 he taught at the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center.
The couple’s life in Los Angeles began in 1959. They settled in a house in Mount Washington and filled it with paintings, photographs, books, records, African and Oceanic art, and travel mementos. Except for a sojourn in Paris financed by a Guggenheim fellowship, Woelffer taught at Chouinard from 1959 to 1973, a year after the school became CalArts. Then he went to Otis, where he taught until 1989.
Woelffer’s travels and teaching put him in contact with prominent artists, including Chilean artist Matta, who inspired him to use free association as a creative source, and Abstract Expressionists Willem de Kooning and Robert Motherwell.
“After meeting De Kooning and Motherwell, I didn’t have to ask too many questions,” he told a Times interviewer in 1998. “The sky’s the limit. That’s the feeling I got from them.”
Woelffer was “a grand person who worked to the very end,” said Henry Hopkins, retired director of the UCLA/Hammer Museum. He would be better known if he had lived in New York, but he loomed large in Southern California, Hopkins said.
“There aren’t many artists left of that generation and that caliber,” artist Renee Petropoulos said. “He was a model for me. He was totally committed regardless of his popularity at any given moment.”
Toward the end of his life macular degeneration deprived him of his ability to differentiate colors, so he drew with white crayons on black paper, she said. “He figured out a way to work that was up to his standards.”
His work has been shown in dozens of museums and galleries, including solo shows at the Santa Barbara Museum of Art, the Phillips Collection in Washington, D.C., and the New Orleans Museum of Art. Concurrent exhibitions were staged in Los Angeles in 1992, at Otis and at the Manny Silverman and James Corcoran galleries. Among upcoming exhibitions, Ruscha is organizing a show of Woelffer’s work for the inaugural season of the Red Cat Gallery at Walt Disney Concert Hall.
Woelffer’s wife, Dina, died in 1990. He married Marilu Lopez in 1996. Three years ago, as his friends became concerned about his artistic legacy, he made an unusual arrangement with Otis and his dealer, Manny Silverman. Woelffer donated a large body of his work to the college, which established an endowment that paid him a monthly stipend and funds student scholarships in his name. Sales of artworks, handled by Silverman, will continue to fund the endowment.
Woelffer is survived by his wife.
A funeral service will be at 2:30 p.m. today at the Little Church of the Flowers in Forest Lawn Memorial Park in Glendale. A memorial service is being planned.