When Ernst Wille was alive, his former student, Rolf Goellnitz, bought several of his paintings — partly because he admired the German artist's work, partly because he wanted to help Wille fund his latest artistic endeavors.
Now, the owner of OMC Gallery for Contemporary Art is paying tribute to his mentor in another way. "Couples and Pairs," a collection of paintings, silk-screen prints and gouashes that Wille produced before his death in 2005, went on display at the Old World Village gallery last weekend.
Goellnitz hopes the show, which marks the first time Wille's work has been displayed at the German-themed shopping center, will give exposure to an artist little-known in the United States.
"Nobody knows him here," Goellnitz said. "He's known in Germany, the Netherlands, Belgium, but he's totally new to California."
Wille did, though, make at least one significant mark on American art: When he was a prisoner of war during World War II at Fort Niagara in New York, he painted a large mural depicting American history. Wille was sent home in 1946 before he could finish the mural, and he and Goellnitz returned in 1999 to complete the image.
The historical side of Wille, though, isn't on display in "Couples and Pairs," which consists of abstract images that represent different kinds of dualities. Most of the images, created between 1973 and 2003, depict men and women in various positions — making love, facing each other, huddling under a dark cloud and more.
Wille's love of contrast, Goellnitz said, also manifested itself in his vivid use of colors.
"His main fascination was what he called the phenomenon of the potential of colors," Goellnitz said. "For him, the challenge was applying color in a way that he would never mix colors. He would use the color the way it came out of the tube, and the layering would be in the way it appeared on the canvas."
Goellnitz's relationship with the artist began in 1978, when he took conceptual design classes under Wille at the Aachen University of Applied Sciences. Even though Goellnitz was more interested in photography than painting, Wille's tutelage inspired him to think more about the presentation of his art.
"He always said, 'Art has no purpose, and design has a purpose,'" Goellnitz said. "Design has to serve, while art is fine with itself."
The show also depicts the fondness Wille had for his former student in a subtler way: While Goellnitz bought a few of the images on display, many others were given to him as gifts.
While the large paintings of couples dominate the show, two smaller pieces offer glimpses into Wille's creative process. One is a chart outlining the colors Wille used in the six silk-screen prints on view, while a small section at the back of the gallery displays a series of paintings, using contrasting colors rather than human subjects, that Wille painted in his final years.
"He was a very dedicated person and passionate person — passionate especially when it came to his art," Goellnitz said. "That's what drove him, and that's what he sacrificed a lot of things for."
If You Go
If You Go
What: "Couples and Pairs" by Ernst Wille
Where: OMC Gallery for Contemporary Art, Old World Village, 7561 Center Ave. No. 32, Huntington Beach
When: 2 to 6 p.m. Wednesdays through Saturdays and by appointment through Aug. 31
Contact: (714) 421-0476