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May 28, 2003

The Arts Litany Redux

Friedrich von Blowhard writes:

Dear Blowhards --

Your recent posting, The Arts Litany, got me to thinking of two individuals I knew as teachers. Both were lifetime participants in the art world. One was Emerson Woelffer, a painter and a maker of Dada collages; the other I'll call Painter X. I knew both these men as teachers of life drawing. I ran into Emerson Wolfer at art school in the early 1980s, and encountered Painter X at a university extension course in the late 1980s. Both have now passed away: Emerson Woelffer only a few months ago, and Painter X nearly a decade ago.

Emerson, who appeared to be in his 70s at the time I knew him, was very relaxed and low key kind of guy. Despite his personal adherence to High Modernist art-making approaches (in his own work at the time, he was tearing up colored paper and let pieces fall at random on another sheet, gluing them down where they fell), he was pretty much a traditionalist regarding life drawing. He expected a likeness, and would encourage you to work at getting one. He himself, if his stories were accurate, had received a pretty traditional art education at the Art Institute of Chicago many years before; and he clearly thought that the "up-to-date" curriculum of my art school, in which students were rotated (rapidly) through classes in color, sculpture, photography, video production, art theory, etc., etc., was far too fragmented. His own art education had apparently consisted of three hours of life drawing in charcoal every morning, and three hours of figure painting in oils every afternoon, producing five drawings and one painting per week, week after week, year after year. As he admitted, when he was a student (in the 1930s?) the only safe way to make a good living at fine art was to paint portraits, and you had to be able to render very professionally to pull that off. Perhaps it was the natural conservatism of age, but Emerson seemed to get a kick out of telling us stories of his days at Black Mountain College where Willem de Kooning had shocked his students (who were expecting an initiation into wild man action painting) by making them create the most meticulous kind of still-life drawings in his class.

E. Woelffer, Rush Street, 1951

Whatever mischief Emerson could get up to, however (which I suspect in his youth was considerable), he was very gentlemanly and polite to everyone, and absolutely didn't ram his ideas down your throat; he simply offered his observations and let you accept them or not. And he seemed to have relatively little ego about his own work; when he discussed his own career -- which had been quite successful, placing pictures in many, many museum collections around the country -- he did so only to give us novices some slight clue as to how one builds a career so that it might last decades, and not months. (Remember, at the time, the art world was in the midst of 1980s "art star" frenzy.) He also would make gentle remarks on how the reputations of various artists had waxed and waned over his lifetime, I suspect in order to prepare us children for the vicissitudes of the art market -- and life.

Painter X, on the other hand, was a much more flamboyant individual, at some pains to appear larger than life. Although roughly the same age as Emerson, he seemed to have carefully dressed in order to make a high bohemian impression. In our first class he brought up, rather suavely, that as a young man he had been judged the most promising art student of a given year, which he admitted was a fairly ludicrous distinction. (But, of course, not so ludicrous as to avoid mentioning it to us.) He was eager to gain adherents to his style of painting, which seemed to involve painting the "interior reality" of the subject as well as its exterior appearance: "Yes, yes, you've got the anatomy correct, but now you need to go inside!" he used to say to me. (I'm sure my facial expression conveyed my anxiety at this prospect; over time he abandoned these exhortations to me.)

Painter X also would bring in a copy of his favorite book, the letters of Vincent Van Gogh, and read selections to us during class. He would fairly weep at the unfair neglect of poor Van Gogh a hundred years previous. This kind of got on my nerves, as I thought he was romanticizing the ugly and painful realities of Van Gogh's mental illness, to say nothing of the immense egotism implicit in Van Gogh's choosing to play the role of social outcast and then expecting other people (chiefly his brother) to foot his bills.

I don't want to paint with too broad a brush of my own here; I learned a thing or two and made some brush drawings I recall fondly in that class. And I'll never forget Painter X's theory about how all works of art go through three stages: the first statement, the destruction of the first statement, and the gradual re-integration of the work around an emerging second statement. It's not the most practical piece of art advice I ever received, but there's something to it, and it may well be relevant to more than just art.

None the less, my memories of Painter X will always be colored by how I learned of his death. A few years later, I was taking another studio class from yet another teacher when I mentioned Painter X in a conversation. The teacher immediately informed me that Painter X had recently died. And despite the fact that this teacher was a fairly gentle soul himself, he didn't disguise that he seemed rather happy about the news. My teacher went on to explain that Painter X had been a notorious womanizer for decades, and despite his advanced age, he had come on to my teacher's wife at a party shortly before his death. I think the expression "Good riddance to bad rubbish" pretty well summed up my teacher's feelings about dear departed Painter X.

One conversation also sticks in my mind when I remember Emerson Woelffer. One day he pulled me aside to ask if I would look after the class for him for the last hour or so; he had an important appointment to make. I agreed, and asked him where he was going. He replied that he was a great fan of "The Dukes of Hazard" and was particularly eager to see the episode running that day in reruns.

Catherine Bach as The Muse

Hey, anybody who's that much a fan of Daisy Duke is okay in my book.



P.S. An obituary of Emerson Woelffer which describes his career in far greater detail can be read here.

posted by Friedrich at May 28, 2003


Wonderful post! I think back to my art teachers and realize that I can't even remember their names. But I certainly got a kick out of Mr. Neuman, my art history teacher at Parsons. He really turned me on to the subject. Perhaps if I had had more flamboyant artists as teachers, I would have chosen a different career?

Posted by: Alexandra on May 28, 2003 9:48 AM

They both seem like wonderful characters. But I'm wondering why the third art teacher was so annoyed by Painter X (who had to be a relatively old man by then) and his come-on to the teacher's wife. Seems like a harmless enough compliment...unless his wife said yes!! Which opens up a WHOLE 'nother can of worms.

Posted by: annette on May 29, 2003 12:20 PM

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