Los Angeles

Emerson Woelffer

Pasadena Art Museum, Pasadena

This large retrospective shows Woelffer’s work from 1946 to the pres­ent. In it he comes off as an artist who has devoted his career to the expression of a visual, non-verbal kind of poetry and as a master of collage. A conscious attempt at the poetic transcendence of one’s materials places the artist in a tenuous position of having no middle­ground to which he can safely fall back. Thus, Woelffer’s paintings exist indi­vidually as either complete successes or total failures. And, in an age that seems to value the painter more than the painting, Woelffer has been sadly neglected. 

In general, the show follows Woelf­fer’s development from an early 1946 figurative painting which relates, in a way, to the work of Wilfredo Lam, through some small sculptures done be­tween 1946 and 1948—some of which have an Ernst-like look and others, ab­stract, that have a strange surreal qual­ity of surface that interestingly predates most abstract expressionist sculpture’s concern with surface. This seems to have been his only involvement with sculpture. A 1950 painting entitled Day is Orange is the first one in this show that is concerned primarily with the po­etics of paint and action, and seems a forerunner of his action-oriented paint­ings. From this point, his work seems to run parallel to that of his contempo­rary, Robert Motherwell, not so much in terms of influence, but of a simultane­ous involvement with collage and automatism as a means of realizing a poetic statement. This period evolved, in 1956, into a series of paintings of birds in which the beginnings of his present ma­ture style can be seen. The first pictures in which his familiar emblematic structures appear are the small, beautiful Italian Collages of 1958. These pictures state the structure of all the work to come. They involve a flat, non-illusion­istic space incorporating an emblematic device of placing space within space, culminating in the central portion of the picture with free caligraphic strokes or heavy action painted masses. (In the case of the Italian Collages, the central image is torn paper.) Across the top of each painting is a row of small abstract calligraphs that seem to represent ab­stract “titles” for the picture-poems. When they succeed, as in some of the Kiss paintings, Homage to Miró and Peppermint Lounge––one of a new series that involves a large vertically divided apple-like shape which engages the larger part of the canvas and elimi­nates some of the “space-within-space” dimensions of his other paintings––they achieve a kind of metaphysical intensity that can be compared only to Mother­well at his poetic best. When they fail, they become simply emblems that in­volve an always interesting juxtaposition of painterly and collage effects.

Don Factor