by William R. Valerio

If you don’t know Elaine Kurtz’ work, you’ll be immediately struck by her meticulous sense of craft; all of her paintings declare their palpable solidity as objects that demand attention. They bring to mind contemporary resonances, as well; many Philadelphia artists employ similar rigor in their approach and dedication to varied kinds of nature-based pictorial form and abstraction.

Elaine Kurtz is seen in her studio in 1984. (Photo by Seymour Mednick; all photos used with permission from Woodmere Art Museum)

This dialogue between Kurtz’ art and that of her peers is the organizing principle behind the exhibition, “Elemental: Nature as Language in the Works of Philadelphia Artists,” currently on view at Woodmere Art Museum through April 22. The assembled works, presented alongside a Kurtz retrospective at the museum, share a deference or willful manipulation of the many guises of nature’s elemental materiality, illusiveness and dominating force.

Kurtz was a great colorist, yet one whose approach was restrictive; there is no decorative impulse, but rather a use of color for its power to generate visual effect. In her work of the 1970s, Kurtz experimented with color on a grand scale, juxtaposing warm and cool hues that produce illusions of shifting form and light.

For Kurtz, the experiments with color and line in her earliest paintings evolved into atmospheric constructions in which cool and warm veils of overlapping speckles, as if from a sprayer, interact as active pictorial zones. The overall effect is that of a field of color.

The rich possibilities of creating ambiguity through painterly “atmosphere” were a consistent fascination for Kurtz’s peers. Murray Dessner creates a perfect marriage of luminous color and soft cloud-like form in “Café au Lait” (2010), which offers the viewer an ongoing perceptual enigma, an ambiguous figure-ground relationship in warm gold tones.

Neysa Grassi pushes atmospheric painting to its organic limit, building layers of paint that are materially dense, sometimes seeming to adhere into a skin, but which appear to dematerialize when the viewer steps back. Grassi’s “Underbelly” (2008) places the viewer in a kind of figurative realm. Meanwhile Diane Burko’s photographs walk the delicate line between nature and abstraction, setting the bar high for recording the sublime beauty of natural forms.

For Kurtz and for many artists, there is joy in the density, elegance, crudity and infinite variety of natural materials and the treatment of paint as a natural substance (mineral mixed with a medium). Keith Ragone applies oil paint like thick, beautiful mud or makes it akin to viscous, black tar that has so much presence as to suggest the acrid smell of a petroleum-based substance.

In a work like “Wolf Lichen” (1997), with its green and gray slathers and accretions, Ragone provides hints of an ordered pattern in ochre stripes. In “Kristie” (2003), Kevin Strickland combines acrylic paint and sawdust to make a dense, material substance with depth and weight.

An artist’s legacy can be measured by its continuing relevance to subsequent generations of artists and their ongoing conversations about the nature of art. These interrelationships are the very substance that sustains our city’s vibrant artistic culture. “Elemental” is not only a tribute to Elaine Kurtz, but also an opportunity to tell the stories of artists who share her fascination with incorporating natural substances as elements in the arts.

William R. Valerio is the Patricia Van Burgh Allison Director and CEO of Woodmere Art Museum. This article is excerpted from the exhibition catalogue for “Elaine Kurtz: A Retrospective and Elemental: Nature as Language in the Works of Philadelphia Artists,” on view through April 22, $10 ($7 for seniors), Woodmere Art Museum, 9201 Germantown Ave., 215-247-0476,