Historical Journal


The Painting of Elaine Kurtz

June 1, 1978
Judith Stein

A writer and curator, studied at Barnard College, and has a Ph.D. in art history from the University of Pennsylvania. She is the author of Eye of the Sixties, Richard Bellamy and the Transformation of Modern Art, (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2016). Her curatorial projects include Red Grooms, A Retrospective, for the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, and The Figurative Fifties, New York School Figurative Expressionism, co-curated with Paul Schimmel. Her exhibition, I Tell My Heart: The Art of Horace Pippin, traveled to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1995, and earned a best catalogue award from AICA/USA. Her articles, interviews and reviews have appeared in Art in America, Art News, and The New York Times Book Review, as well as on National Public Radio’s Fresh Air and Morning Edition. Among her honors is a Creative Capital/Andy Warhol Foundation Arts Writers Grant; a Pew Fellowship for literary non-fiction; and a Lannan Foundation writing residency in Marfa, Texas.

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Published by Martha Jackson Gallery, New York
in cooperation with Marian Locks Gallery, Philadelphia
Historically, academic doctrine regarded the element of color as fickle and inherently irrational. Only the less volatile element of line had the potential to be lawful, universal and rational. In the twentieth century this polarity has been reversed as much as it has been upturned. For example, reasoned color predominates in the work of precisionists and constructivists. It is this modernist mode which is the antecedent for the canny color of Elaine Kurtz, nurtured by the artistic currents of Washington, D.C.
Much of the work of the past 12 years shares in the concerns of her contemporaries: the immaculate surfaces and field/ground avoidance of the Hard-Edge school; the bright hues of the Color Field artists; and the formal geometric control of serialized diamonds, chevrons, and stripes of the Systemic painters. Yet her sustained fascination with illusions of color as a primary subject matter marks her apart from such categorization.
Unlike her fellow color-field painters who tend to focus on relationships of hue and saturation, Kurtz investigates the optical effect of differences in value. A brilliant legerdemain, Kurtz tames, controls, and structures color. Many of her canvases evoke the spell of Reinhardt, primarily in respect to their temporal quality — not only does it literally take time to see them, but lingering ambiguities of perception detain the viewer. Hard edges leave an impression of softness, grids appear where no lines have been drawn, and intimations of reflected gallery light occur which are planned in the paint. These large, smooth paintings evolve from small, drawn studies, used as preparation for each series. Smudged and erased to approximate illusory effects, they have the gestural appeal of all painterly sketches, conveying the immediacy of execution and the excitement of experiment.
An important early work which explores both the field and the edge or shape is Diamond Diptych of 1972. The line of the joined canvases separates the warm and cool halves, all painted in grey, black, and white. Orderly waves of color flank a central lozenge in each art. As the ripples step lower in value, they appear to darken along the upper edge.
The illusions produced by these undulating lines continue in the series X and X Extended. In this latter format, the now up-ended X aligns with a vertical axis and is framed by the intimation of a diamond within the square canvas. The extended color ripples form four sections of wavy nested squares, and each quadrant is “cancelled” by an illusory X.
Stepped bands of color also surround the field in the large triptychs Up to Yellow and Earth to Sky. The central space appears to grow bigger and less definite as one reads upward, implying a spatial expansion as each painting pushes lighter in three stages.
With the Floating Diamond series, a simplification begins. The stepped waves disappear and a diamond of one brushed color inhabits a sprayed field of softly shifting value. Magically, the vertical points of the central shape are seen to darken and the horizontal ones lighten. It was the sorcery of the background blend, the seemingly inexplicable and extraordinary power it exerted over all that was tangent to it, that led Kurtz to relinquish the spare, non-referential forms of the preceding work and to turn her attention to parallel bands as the sole vehicle for color illusion. Now, without a literal distinction between field and shape, the potential for perceptual mystery spread out to include the entire canvas.
If her first work focused on delicate, almost unnameable hues, then her next flashed with a brilliant palette of red, green, yellow, and blue. In the large scale Warm Spectrum and Cool Spectrum, its pendant, she steps five hues across a series of value changes while holding tight control over a uniform, rich saturation. In this Spectrum series, and the related Primary Illusions, areas of constant, brushed hue lie adjacent to those of close yet shifting values. The sprayed blend is spellbinding: the solid bands of color fluctuate as much as the variable ones. A vertical shimmer insinuates itself in the center of each segment. Elegant and dazzling, color in these paintings becomes light.
Each hue, despite its normative designation as either warm or cool, is made to move through a changing range of thermal readings. Kurtz’s earlier formal interest in the lozenge returns in Yellow Diamond Illusion. Yet instead of an articulated shape, a vapory form now pushes through to perception as the color seems to bleach out in a diamond pattern. The last paintings of this series, worked in black and white, reveal her sophisticated skills at coaxing rich personalities from the traditional spectral nonentities. The work which follows is black, white and brown.
There is a surprising textural opulence in their immaculate surfaces, with hints of sleek fur in the browns, and suggestions of damask fabric (with woven alternatives of matte and gloss) in the whites. Kurtz manipulates acrylics, mixed with plant casein, to obtain as matte a black as possible. In fact ordinary black is her middle value in these dark paintings. The range of effects she achieves in paint closely approximates the rich velvety textures of aquatints and mezzotints.
In Chevron Illusion, a white painting of vertical bands, there is a horizontal temperature change from cool to warm (blue to yellow) as the solid areas gradually shift in hue. By maintaining crucial value control in the variable bands, she creates a diagonal series of points of disappearance in the pattern of a chevron, hovering in front of the pristine stripes. This illusive space and controlled blend carry into her most recent series, Bordered Illusions.
If the earlier work investigated the powerful effect on adjacent areas of a band sprayed to a blend, then this last work elucidates its potential to influence the entire field. Two significant changes mark these paintings. First, the now coarsened spray breaks down the color into components which mix optically at a distance and enliven the surface at close range. Secondly, the band now functions as a frame. As such it defines not only the surface area but also marks the limits of the space, like a proscenium opening. Surface excitement and ambiguous depth occur on and in the field, controlled by the blended borders.
In several paintings she works with paired canvases, juxtaposing the pot-mixed color with the sprayed components which read the same when the viewer steps back. Both more obvious and more dramatic than the earlier hues, the highly charged blacks, blues and purples rumble in the space as so much thunder following lightning.
The use of color in Kurtz’s work is, ultimately, ironic. She has taken charge of that artistic wild child and carefully trained it to behave in fickle and irrational ways.
Philadelphia, June, 1978
Elaine Kurtz was born in Philadelphia in 1928 and has spent most of her life with art. By the age of seven she had shown more than the usual talent for drawing. She excelled in her art classes and became a Saturday student in the school of the Fleisher Art Memorial and the YMHA. She was graduated with honors from the Philadelphia College of Art, at the same time taking evening courses wherever and whenever they were available.
In the years following graduation, Kurtz earned her living as a free lance illustrator, working successfully for magazines, advertising agencies and individual clients. These years of illustration earned her admiration and distinction in the field. Twice the Philadelphia Art Directors Club awarded her their gold medal and three times Certificates of Merit for illustration. For four years she taught drawing at the Philadelphia College of Art.
She married Jerome Kurtz in 1956 and they spent the next 18 months in Europe while he completed his military service. This was a period of intense exposure to the art and architecture of France and Italy.
Upon their return to the United States Kurtz resumed her career as an illustrator, with time out to start a family. Their first daughter, Madeleine was born in 1958 and their second, Anne Nettie, in 1961.
Kurtz painted occasionally, but essentially in a figurative style and with little satisfaction. “I had great difficulty separating my painting from my illustration,” she says. The “perception that I could be a painter” she dates from her studies of art history and aesthetics at the Barnes Foundation in Merion, Pennsylvania (1963-65), a period of systematic thought about the aesthetic problems of painting, but her personal viewpoint had yet to emerge.
In 1966 Kurtz and her family moved to Washington, D.C. where the most exciting work with color was being done. She enrolled in a class taught by painter Tom Downing and, in the very first session, recognized the direction she wanted her work to take.
Elaine Kurtz became a fulltime working painter, concentrating on color, light, space, and the perception of color illusions. By eliminating known objects she was able to break with her past and concentrate wholly on the subtle relationships of color and illusion which were her primary interest. Her work has explored with increasing inventiveness and subtlety the effect of color on its environment and of one color on another. “I constantly want to show myself something new … and to treat my own eyes and yours to something they didn’t see before,” she says.
After her return to Philadelphia in 1968 Edna Andrade, an artist friend, admired her work and brought her to the attention of gallery owner Marian Locks. A short time later Locks included Kurtz in a group show.
Kurtz’ first one-man exhibition came in 1970 at the Philadelphia Art Alliance where her work was well received. She won her first painting award the same year in the Annual Painting Show of the Cheltenham Art Center, a distinguished regional exhibition juried by Stephen Prokopoff, currently Director of the Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston.
Her early work employed some definite shapes — flat, with hard edges-but by the time of her first one-man show at Marian Locks Gallery (1972) Kurtz had softened the edges of her diamonds, x’s and bands of color, allowing the interaction of shape, color and space to create what she now sees as “cautious illusion”.
It was at this time she made further exploration of the silkscreen process. Although she had produced earlier (with John Bolles) a portfolio of prints in flat colors she believed illusion could be created by blended colors. Luitpold Domberger saw and liked her work and was confident he could achieve her aims. She went to Stuttgart and completed a successful portfolio with Domberger, who included one of her prints in his Editions Domberger Calendar 1974, produced in West Germany.
By 1974 — and her second one-man show at Marion Locks Gallery-Kurtz — had brought further simplification to her forms and was now using vertical and horizontal bands to create more and more illusion. Her first one man show in New York (1976) brought a reduction in the number of bands of color on the canvas and an expansion of the size of the illusion. One canvas in this exhibition (an untitled black painting divided in half) predicted the step taken in her current Bordered Illusions … where narrow, changing bands frame the interior space, controlling and giving the illusion of change in the entire canvas. Now, too, came the experiments with tiny dots of color mixed by the viewer’s eye to create the illusion of color painted flat.
Since 1970 Kurtz’ paintings and prints have been shown in rnore than 50 group exhibitions throughout the United States and Europe. In 1973 she was one of eight artists who contributed original prints to the publication of Poems by Lynn Honickman, with an introduction by Anais Nin, published by Oser Press, Philadelphia. In 1974 one of her large paintings Warm Spectrum was purchased for the foyer of the last residence designed by noted architect Louis Kahn prior to his death. Since that time she has completed more than 10 commissions for private and public collections.
In granting Elaine Kurtz the Silver Star Alumni Award of the Philadelphia College of Art in 1977, Morris Berd, professor in drawing and painting, said “It is most gratifying and uplifting to find an artist who is a meticulous worker and deeply concerned with the quality of ideas and the execution of product — in this case paintmgs and prints. In the last few years Elaine has matured and perfected her ideas, both optical and poetic.”
She has recently returned to Washington, D.C. where, in addition to painting, she is preparing a book entitled Color Illusion designed to broaden understanding of color and its relationships for the beginning artist and the layman.
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