Emerson Woelffer was born in Chicago, and as a child travelled the Yucatan where he became fascinated with pre-Columbian art, enjoying its abstract qualities. He studied at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, where he developed this interest, and taught at the Institute of Design in Chicago alongside Lazlo Moholy-Nagy of the Bauhaus. As a painter, Woeffler described himself as an “abstract surrealist”, employing the gestural techniques of Abstract Expressionism as well as many concepts from Surrealism and Dada art, such as free association and automatism.
Woeffler taught painting at Black Mountain College for the 1949 Summer Session at the request of Buckminster Fuller, who knew Woelffler from Chicago. There, he exhibited a series of ink drawings which drew from the ‘primitive’ forms he was interested in, resembling hieroglyphics or cave paintings. While at Black Mountain he pursued similar subjects but in paint rather than ink. His wife Diana Woelffer accompanied him over the summer session.
In the 1960s, Woeffler began to simplify much of his imagery, and his work took a more minimalist turn. He also began to work more with sculpture in the 1980s, using clay and bronze as mediums. Throughout these years Woeffler continued to teach, primarily at the Otis College of Art and Design in L.A.