Force Of Nature

Elaine Kurtz: A Retrospective
Elemental: Nature as Language in the Works of Philadelphia Artists

Woodmere Art Museum
Philadelphia, Pa

February 17- April 22, 2012

One of the most intriguing images to me in this dual exhibit at the Woodmere Art Museum is a photograph of Elaine Kurtz taken in 1978 by Rosalind Solomon.  Kurtz is standing in the corner of a gallery in Washington, DC in front of two of her paintings, wearing a full length fur coat and hiding her face behind her hands as if in shame or embarrassment. The irony here is that this exhibit focuses on the work of Kurtz and twenty three other artists who share an interest in the language of art in organic forms and metaphors of nature.


Elaine Kurtz  by Rosalind Solomon (1978)


During the 1970's Kurtz was living in Washington DC while her husband Jerome worked in the Carter administration. Her works from that decade are bold and geometric, abstractions and brief experiments with Pop Art. They are meticulously crafted and show a rigid methodology bordering on perfectionism. Some of these images have been described by exhibit curator Pamela Birmingham as having an "immaculate surface"... with "no brushstrokes, no sign of the artist's hand".The lack of emotion in these early images is as anonymous as the Solomon portrait.

In the 1980's Kurtz's work began a radical shift towards the organic. She started using sand and mica as well as metals to create flowing works that eventually moved into a semi-sculptural realm. Earth Series (1985) is one of the first major works in which Kurtz used sand with paint and the hypnotic blue painting has the effect of a Mandala. (The painting is behind Kurtz in the photograph below taken by Seymour Mednick in 1984)  Later works from her Alluvial Series move deeper into spiritual and emotional levels as Kurtz, a lifelong atheist, began to investigate the subject of God. The show is a stunning example of transition and maturity in the life of a talented artist.



Elaine Kurtz by Seymour Mednick (1984)

This retrospective exhibit is beautifully and thoughtfully presented in the wonderful gallery spaces of the Woodmere. The accompanying group show, Elemental: Nature as Language in the Works of Philadelphia Artists feels a bit chummy and therefore somewhat forced. A single nod to photography, with three works by Diane Burko , seem hastily chosen. I much prefer the deliberate exclusion of photography in an exhibit than what can seem like gratuitous inclusion. A floor based sculpture by Dina Wind, Black Island (2012), while ecologically thought provoking, is absurdly out of place in this exhibit. On the other hand, there are more than enough very strong selections to maintain visual interest in this conversation between artists who were friends and colleagues of Kurtz. Look for wonderful examples from Edna Andrade (1917-2008), Thomas Chimes (1921-2009), Frank Bramblett (b. 1947), Neysa Grassi (b. 1951), and Astrid Bowlby (b 1961).

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