Midway through the captivating survey of abstract paintings by the late Emerson Woelffer (1914-2003) that on Thursday inaugurates the new REDCAT Gallery in Walt Disney Concert Hall, a modest-size canvas stands out for its eloquent simplicity. Titled "Orange Day," it fairly bursts with gladness about the wonders of making art.
A luminous field of loosely brushed blue paint covers most of the 4-foot-tall canvas. Across the top, a warm orange strip is punctuated with dots and dashes of thick green, as if some coded signal were being sent to curious eyes. A dark strip of umber runs across the bottom, weighting the picture like an anchor, but in the center of the blue field lies the main event.
And then, the final flourish: Using a stick (or more likely the stick-end of a brush), Woelffer carved a ring around the pinkish-white strokes in the center, scraping all the way down into the blue paint to expose the canvas nub. It's an insouciant but pointed gesture. Here, the drawn line says, as if inscribing a magic circle around the central brushstrokes; this is what it's all about.
Rarely is the mysterious, fundamentally primitive activity of art-making so decisively declared. As "Orange Day" dawns upon a viewer, the fractious world suddenly falls away, seeming a much more civilized and commodious place.
"Emerson Woelffer: A Solo Flight" brings together 49 paintings, drawings and collages by the Chicago-born artist, who worked in Los Angeles from 1959 to his death in January at 88. Venerable Pop artist Edward Ruscha, who was Woelffer's student at the old Chouinard Art Institute near MacArthur Park, selected the work as guest curator. The show performs homage from one artist to another and from one generation to the one before.
That's a perfect commencement for the Gallery at the Roy and Edna Disney/CalArts Theater, which is operated by the California Institute of the Arts. The interdisciplinary school in suburban Valencia itself grew out of Chouinard in 1969. The new gallery — a straightforward, unembellished, 3,000-square-foot space — is located just outside the exceptional black-box theater on Disney Concert Hall's lowest floor. (The entrance to both is on 2nd Street at the corner of Hope Street, at the opposite side from the concert hall's main entrance.) Happily, gallery admission is free. With a café and small bookstore planned for the lobby it shares with the theater, the gallery beckons as a destination for informal immersion.
Woelffer's show is a good place to start, because his work bristles with the excitement (and satisfaction) of an insistent struggle for artistic invention. His paintings are inspired by a love for traditional African and Oceanic art and for the improvisations of jazz, enthusiasms that began in his Chicago youth. They radiate the spirited blend of optimism and sobriety that marks so much American art born in the conflicted wake of World War II.
Abstract Expressionist painting, Woelffer's included, blossomed in response to inchoate postwar urges. A dire need for universal change — for starting fresh, mindful of the potentially grievous consequences — was met with a high-voltage charge of creative energy.
One of the great phony stories of modern American art is the tale that Abstract Expressionism was the product of a small group of artists working in New York in the late 1940s and early 1950s. In truth, the genre emerged simultaneously all over the country, from metropolitan centers like Chicago and San Francisco to smaller towns in places like Indiana, New Mexico and Kentucky. (Often, they were university towns.) But Woelffer, like other artists who worked outside Manhattan, came to be erroneously regarded as a second-generation derivative of the period's emergent New York School.
Despite the widespread misconception, the New York School did not represent a wholly distinctive mode of local artistic production. Instead it characterized a contemporary method of mass artistic consumption based in Manhattan — the centralized, hugely complex apparatus of dealers, galleries, museums, curators, collectors, writers, publishers and such through which art came to be given a mass-public platform. I don't say this as a negative criticism (would that such a Los Angles School — long aborning — might fully arrive). It merely illustrates why artistic merit doesn't necessarily conform to the scale of a given reputation.
Woelffer showed in New York but never lived or worked there. Yet he appears in this exhibition to be a much more densely gifted and inventive painter than, say, his good friend Robert Motherwell, an important cog in the New York School apparatus whose own repetitious paintings tend to be grandiose.
The show's earliest painting is 1947's "Inner Circle." The lively canvas depicts an elemental group of invented totems — modern equivalents to the traditional African and Oceanic sculptures Woelffer had begun to acquire. (He developed a large collection of them over his long life.) Its rows of spiky, ceremonial forms reveal an ancestry in Surrealism and an interest in the work of artists as diverse as Roberto Matta, Adolph Gottlieb and Jackson Pollock.
A totem is an object emblematic of a family or a clan, which reminds the beholder of his ancestry — and thus locates his spiritual position in an unbroken chain of humanity. The drive among young postwar American artists to make them is plain. New art was being produced between the shadow of holocaust and the prospective flash of nuclear annihilation. And the United States was poised — almost by default — to capture the fallen postwar flag of civilized Western culture.
So "Inner Circle" depicts totems. But by the time "Orange Day" was made 14 years later, the painting itself had become one. Its sophisticated primal marks identify a clan composed of artists, while a prehistoric ancestry of making cultural logotypes is evoked in thoroughly modern terms.
The REDCAT survey traces the arc of this evolution in Woelffer's art, from depiction to embodiment. It includes a magnificent mural-size canvas, circa 1953, whose brusque assortment of abstract marks — Xs, Ls, curves, clusters of fat stripes, linear traceries and more — reads as an effortless catalog to an elemental visual language. (The color harmonies are spectacularly handled.) Woelffer, who by this time had begun to teach in Colorado after a stint at North Carolina's fabled Black Mountain College and travels in the Yucatán, here created a kind of classroom blackboard. It's covered edge-to-edge with the dazzling and noble equations of art.
There are also examples of his own painterly homage to European masters, such as Joan Miró, inventor of the infinite atmospheric space of Modern abstract painting. Elsewhere, Picasso's "Girl Before a Mirror" lurks behind a nonfigurative pair of bright blue ovals on a vivid yellow-orange ground. This 1961-62 painting, titled "Artist Hand and Blue Mirror," features Woelffer's yellow handprints pressed repeatedly into the blackness in the lower register of the canvas. They seem to offer groping illumination in the dark.
Making paintings is hard, this elegant, deceptively effortless composition says. In retrospect there's a good deal of poignancy to the picture because — as a medium — painting would soon be moved into the culture's cross hairs. As the playful 1960s slid into the chaotic 1970s, painting would stand trial for the crime of representing the Establishment. Woelffer's work went from being supposedly derivative of the New York School to being ostensibly reactionary.
He, of course, simply carried on. Making art is what an artist does. The show hits a rough patch toward the end, when failing health and serious visual impairment compromised his activity. But Woelffer knew from experience the inevitability of groping in the dark if you were an artist.
Even failed pictures in the final gallery possess an obvious passionate facility, which is only possible from decades of commitment. For this reason alone, a more apposite inaugural for an exhibition hall operated by an art school would be difficult to imagine.