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Art: Elaine Kurtz's explorations of nature

Woodmere pairs a wel- come retrospective of the artist with a com- panion abstract show.

Elaine Kurtz came to William R. Valerio's attention about a year ago when he saw one of her paintings in the home of Nancy Posel, a longtime friend of the artist's and a supporter of Woodmere Art Museum.

The recently appointed Woodmere director was so intrigued by the work that he decided that Kurtz, who died in 2003 at 75, was an artist deserving of a major exhibition.

Although represented in the collections of four Washington museums (Corcoran, Hirshhorn, National Gallery, National Museum of American Art) and the Philadelphia Museum of Art, Kurtz is probably less well-known here, her hometown, than other prominent local painters of her generation.

The exhibition Valerio organized to remedy that situation proves that his instinct was true. The retrospective of 76 paintings and mixed-media works on canvas and paper reveals an artist of exquisite sensitivity to natural phenomena and a career that evolved as a journey of discovery.

Valerio has paired the Kurtz exhibition with a closely related companion show by other local artists, including some of her contemporaries, who, like her, responded to stimuli in the natural world.

The art in this show, titled "Elemental," is, like the retrospective, abstract or abstracted. Kurtz enjoys a strong presence in it, and the two are linked under an umbrella title, "Force of Nature."

Many of the 22 other artists in "Elemental" are more familiar names then hers, at least to me - Edna Andrade, Thomas Chimes, Murray Dessner, Elizabeth Osborne, and Warren Rohrer being typical examples.

The companion exhibition enables viewers to see Kurtz within the context of what other Philadelphia abstract painters were doing through the 1970s, '80s, and '90s, when she was active.

Viewers also can sense how she might have been influenced by artists, Andrade and Rohrer in particular - or they by her.

For initiates like myself, two things about Kurtz stand out. First, as a fine-art easel painter she began relatively late, in middle age. Second, once she began to paint in earnest in the mid-1960s, her career unfolded in two dramatically distinct phases.

Kurtz, then Elaine Kahn, graduated from Philadelphia Museum School of Industrial Art (now University of the Arts) in the late 1940s as a commercial artist. That's how she made her living initially, doing freelance advertising commissions.

In 1955 she married another Philadelphia native, lawyer Jerome Kurtz, who would become commissioner of the Internal Revenue Service in the Carter administration. They subsequently had two daughters, in 1958 and 1961.

At the Barnes Foundation from 1963 to 1965, Kurtz became immersed in principles of modernism, an interest she pursued at the school of the Corcoran Gallery in Washington, where she and her husband moved in 1966.

Exposure to the Washington color-field painters and the theories of Bauhaus master Josef Albers nudged Kurtz into Phase 1 - paintings that examined, exploited, and amplified the phenomena of color interactions and light generated by pigments.

In his famous Homage to the Square series, Albers demonstrated how perceptions shifted according to how colors were juxtaposed.

Kurtz worked through her ruminations in this area in a series of delicious stripe paintings such as Yellow Spectrum, which, as the title indicates, juggles various hues of yellow, and the monumental Cool Spectrum, which begins with a yellow-green interaction at one end and proceeds to purple-mauve at the other.

The examples of her color work at Woodmere deal mostly in cool colors, from green and blue into black. However, Yellow Spectrum is a marvel not only of chromatic ambiguity but also of shifting light.

At one point the stripes become blurry and nearly disappear, even though, like all the images in this phase, they're precisely described.

Aside from playing with dissolving boundaries and chromatic relativity, Kurtz also ventured into op painting, which her friend Andrade made a specialty for a while.

Op pictures like X Extended, Floating Diamond, and Circle of Diamonds suggest shimmering motion, but also produce in-out spatial ambiguity. They can be luminously beautiful, yet at heart they're primarily grounded in geometric logic and optical illusion, a predictable and somewhat dispassionate kind of nature.

In the mid-to-late 1980s, Kurtz began to shift to a more organic interpretation of nature. These paintings, many of which don't use conventional pigments, are generally darker, more textural, and more variegated on the surface because of materials such as sand, mica, pebbles, and metallic powders, mixed usually with acrylic.

In one group of so-called Alluvial studies, the primary material is red clay from Alabama fixed to paper. Pale striations within the body of these "alluvial fans" suggest that gravity played a role in their composition.

The transition from vivid color and shimmering light to sedimentary evocations of primeval geology is striking, obviously, but also leaves one speculating about a conceptual link between the two.

The Phase 1 paintings are striking, but essentially demonstrative; the Phase 2 "alluvials" are more soulful, less intellectual, and less dependent on optical stimulation. They're visceral and powerful.

In both cases, though, she succeeded in extracting natural truth, as much in the brooding, almost ominous Alluvial Series #9 (Celadon) as in the incandescent Yellow Spectrum. One is moon, the other, sun.

The "Elemental" half of this double bill is more formally thematic. One section focuses on the materiality that characterizes Kurtz's late work, with paintings by Rohrer, Frank Bramblett, and a large floor assemblage by Dina Wind.

The gallery labeled "Thresholds" offers illusions of "space that is contemplative and weightless." Here we find Osborne's ethereal oil White Pond, the epitome of a gorgeous abstracted landscape.

In the room devoted to "Perception," one finds Andrade's Emergence II, the quintessence of op, playing against Kurtz's Albersian Cool Spectrum - two types of visual illusions that continually delight and confound the eye.

The ultimate pleasure, though, is the opportunity to engage an artist who put not only her heart into her pictures but her mind as well. Kurtz's legacy is intelligent speculation not just about physical phenomena but also about the essence of reality.

Art: A Force of Nature

The Elaine Kurtz retrospective and "Elemental" continue at Woodmere Art Museum, 9201 Germantown Ave., Chestnut Hill, through April 22. Hours are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesdays through Thursdays and Sundays, 10 to 8:45 Fridays, and 10 to 6 Saturdays. Admission to special exhibitions is $10 general and $7 for seniors; free to students and children. Information: 215-247-0476 or