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Robert McChesney & Emerson Woelffer: 1959-1964

April 7 - May 12, 2018

The Landing is pleased to present Robert McChesney & Emerson Woelffer, 1959-1964, a survey of works by California-based painters Robert McChesney and Emerson Woelffer made during a five-year period that was a pivotal moment for both artists. During that timeframe, both men were working in the realm of pure abstraction; McChesney, who was based in Northern California, was creating the works in his Arena series, which came to be his best-known and most celebrated paintings—a series of works that incorporated sand on wet enamel. Simultaneously, Woelffer, based in Southern California, was making expressionistic and graphic abstractions that incorporated experimental motifs, collaged elements and quick, intuitive brushstrokes. Both Woelffer and McChesney were using intuitive means to make their abstractions, and both were deeply influenced by indigenous art, especially works from Africa and the Americas, as well as improv-based musical forms, especially jazz—both men were drummers. In addition, both were integral parts of important historical moments. McChesney is one of the fathers of Bay Area Abstract Expressionism—he had two influential solo shows at the San Francisco Museum of Art, in 1949 and 1953; Alfred Frankenstein of the San Francisco Chronicle considered him “one of the old masters of modern painting in the Bay Region.” Woelffer taught at CalArts (then called Chouinard) and Otis, and was a deeply influential instructor to students including Llyn Foulkes, Larry Bell, and Ed Ruscha; at the time of Woelffer’s death, Ruscha curated a show of his works at REDCAT. Before moving to Los Angeles, Woelffer taught at the New Bauhaus with Maholy-Nagy, and also at Black Mountain College. Though both McChesney and Woelffer were integral figures in mid-twentieth century Californian abstraction, the two men did not know each other personally.

Emerson Woelffer (1914-2003) studied academic painting at the Art Institute of Chicago, and immediately afterwards got a job as an easel painter for the Works Progress Administration. Woelffer next served in World War II, and in 1942, upon his return, was hired by László Moholy-Nagy to teach fine art at the New Bauhaus at the Institute of Design in Chicago. Woelffer and Moholy-Nagy spent the next eight years teaching alongside each other—they even shared a studio space. When Surrealist painter Roberto Matta gave a talk at the New Bauhaus about Automatism—the practice of letting one’s subconscious direct his work—Woelffer was deeply affected, and began to experiment with non-objective painting in the studio. Both Kandinsky’s and Mondrian’s ideas became very influential for Woellfer; he eventually began calling himself a Surrealist Expressionist. Woelffer was already a great admirer of jazz and its techniques of musical improvisation, and was himself a jazz drummer, so Automatism allowed him to transition a naturalness into his painting technique as well. The intuitive gesture—the gesture directed by something beyond oneself—became central to Woelffer’s work. He later said, “I think my stuff is very spiritual. Some people can put spirituality into words. I do it with a stick of wood with pig hair on the end and some paint.”

Eventually, Buckminster Fuller invited Woelffer to teach at Black Mountain College, and Woelffer left the New Bauhaus to do so. Soon after, Woelffer had a show at Artists Gallery in New York, but rather than stay in New York and become a permanent part of the movement there, Woelffer left to live abroad for a decade—first in the Yucatán, and then in Naples, Italy. New York never felt like a fit for Woelffer; he greatly preferred the inspiration he derived from the indigenous art he observed while abroad, works which he felt were—like his own art—intuitively directed, whereas the New York art scene was about the idea. 

Woelffer returned to the states to teach art at the Colorado Springs Fine Art Center, where he worked alongside Robert Motherwell, and the two men became lifelong friends. Woelffer began using symbols in his work—numbers and birds marked in gesturally and repeated across many paintings. In 1959, Woelffer relocated to Los Angeles so he could teach at CalArts, then called Chouinard. From then on, Woelffer was based in Los Angeles—he later headed the painting department at Otis—and was a hugely influential teacher to a generation of Los Angeles artists. This period—the start of Woelffer’s time in Los Angeles—was an important one for the artist; he had a solo show at the Pasadena Museum of Art in 1962, and in 1964, was included in the hugely influential Clement Greenberg-curated show at LACMA, Post-Painterly Abstraction. Woelffer liked living in Los Angeles because he felt it was acceptable to be making spiritual art there, whereas in New York it was not. His house in Mt. Washington was filled with his collection of African art, as well as works by friends like Motherwell.

Woelffer’s paintings from this period began using invented symbolism, motifs such as handprints, flag-like stripes, and a shape he called a “mirror”—two convex curves reflecting across a central axis. The mirror shape appears in blues and teals, expressionistically brushed across entire surfaces or appearing more conservatively as a paper cutout or covertly on a painting on paper buried beneath the surface, as in his painting Peppermint Lounge, 1962. Even the works without collage elements from this time have a feeling of paper cutouts, the paint laid on thickly and in blocks across the surface. In many, the solid background serves to set off the improvised stroke—the artist’s spiritually-led flourish. In all of Woelffer’s work, paint has been applied with strokes that feel natural, quick, and improvisational, and which seem to carry great energy—an energy that suggests movement, or flight.

Robert McChesney (1913-2008) was raised in Missouri and had a wild childhood building rafts, hunting for food, and riding horseback; this immersion in nature would stay with him, infusing his life and his work. McChesney studied art at Washington University School of Fine Arts and at Otis before—like Woelffer—working for the Works Progress Administration; he was hired as a mural painter. Also like Woelffer, McChesney fought in World War II, and returned to the states to teach art—he eventually taught at Cal State Hayward and the San Francisco Art Institute (then called the California School of Fine Arts). Like Woelffer, McChesney became an integral part of a movement—in McChesney’s case, Bay Area Abstract Expressionism—while also maintaining a certain distance from it.  Said McChesney, “I was part of the scene in San Francisco right after World War II when the California School of Fine Arts was booming and there were very many interesting artists around. I was influenced by those artists a great deal but I worked out a method and a direction in my painting which is my own.” McChesney had two solo shows at the San Francisco Museum of Art in 1949 and 1953. During this period, he settled in the Sonoma Mountains in Petaluma, California, about an hour north of San Francisco; from this distance, he was able to participate in his historical moment, but still live in nature, and maintain a kind of creative distance. And yet, even outside the city, McChesney was able to participate in artistic community. McChesney and his wife Mary, who was also a painter, lived for a time with Hassel Smith, and McChesney and Smith began an open-air painting school together. 

Nature is the true subject matter for McChesney’s abstractions. He explained, “The expression is an abstraction of the experiences, visual and psychological, of being in the deserts, mountains, and valleys, beside and on the oceans, rivers, lakes, streams and creeks, in the forest, woods, fields, meadows and the canyons, gulches, washes and coulees.” Like Woelffer, McChesney created his abstractions with intuition and improvisation as their driving force, and thought of them as felt rather than cerebral expressions. Like Woelffer’s, McChesney’s home was filled with indigenous art, and McChesney drew great inspiration from native artisans. 

McChesney began his Arena series—his most celebrated group of paintings—in 1959. Arena is the Spanish word for sand, and all the paintings in this series combine sand with enamel paint. Sand was also spread on the ground in the arenas of Rome; McChesney saw the surface of a painting as a place where opposing forces do battle. Said the artist, “I began to introduce sand onto the wet enamel and after that setup, I applied very thin paint. It flowed through the sand instead of over it so that the cover came from below, rather than on top. Then using a fairly dry brush, I worked over the top of the sand lightly. The paint was picked up by the sand tips. With pressure I got a solid color and with pressure variations I got beautiful gradations of color, tone and depth.” The Arena abstractions sometimes feel celestial in nature; in them, expanding forms are shot through with line-like markings or shapes reminiscent of clouds. Some shapes have cilia-like markings rising from them, and at other times they feature a delicate, curved linework that feels almost lace-like. All forms included feel absolutely natural, whether they appear amoeba-shaped or more like puzzle pieces—no straight lines or clean forms appear in the series. The shapes somehow echo natural formations, like riverbeds, valleys and mountain ranges, without ever suggesting these as figurative subject matter. Nature can be felt in the works, if not seen, and they contain the energy of organic rhythms. McChesney’s palette, too, is a natural one—favoring olive and forest green, burnt sienna, black, white and dark blue. Alfred Frankenstein, writing for the San Francisco Chronicle, wrote of McChesney’s first exhibition of the Arena series, “The sense of process, which plays so significant a role in all modern painting, is strong here, but McChesney does not let it run away with him; the process is superbly controlled, the craftsmanship is high, the total effect is mature and considered. Robert McChesney, in short, is one of the men in whom Bay Region modernism has come of age.”