Published: May 1, 2018
By Kate Eagen Johnson
GLENS FALLS, N.Y. – “Today we hear a lot about America being divided, with the urban centers and rural America separate. Rockwell Kent enjoyed both worlds and was successful in both…. He moved from the art and intellectual scene of New York City to the wilderness of the Adirondacks, where he was very creative.” Jonathan P. Canning, director of curatorial affairs and programs at the Hyde Collection sees Kent (1882-1971) as a resourceful, optimistic artist whose choices in life and art make him a useful model. The Hyde Collection remembers this versatile yet controversial inhabitant of New York State’s North Country via companion exhibitions open through July 22.
“Kent; A Life and Art of His Own: Paintings from North Country Collections,” guest-curated by Adirondack Experience curator emerita Caroline Welsh, showcases 37 works borrowed from private collections and SUNY Plattsburgh Art Museum. The complementary “Rockwell Kent: Prints from the Ralf C. Nemec Collection” includes some 50 works on paper selected by Nemec and Canning. The print exhibition, organized for circulation by Landau Traveling Exhibitions, is enhanced especially at this venue by tableware Kent designed for Vernon Kilns during the late 1930s. The visually arresting commercial pottery – including prototypes and examples of rare colors – has also been loaned by Nemec. To be clear, the Hyde presents an array of Kent’s paintings, prints and ceramics rather than focusing solely on his Adirondack-inspired creations.
Himself a force of nature, Kent was a painter, muralist, printmaker, book and magazine illustrator, cartoonist, draughtsman, architect, carpenter, mariner, lobsterman, dairy farmer, art magazine editor, writer and political and labor activist. Born in Tarrytown, N.Y., Kent studied architecture at Columbia University and received instruction in painting from William Merritt Chase, Robert Henri and Kenneth Hayes Miller. He also apprenticed with Abbott H. Thayer before striking out on his own.
Acting upon the suggestion of Robert Henri, Kent moved to Monhegan Island, off the Maine coast, in 1905. During the next five years, he supported himself as a builder while developing the stark style of landscape painting that would win him recognition. On Monhegan, he experienced the kind of barren, wintry, wilderness landscape he returned to repeatedly in life and art. The creative release the artist-adventurer felt in rugged, gelid environments propelled him to make extended sojourns to Newfoundland, Alaska, Tierra del Fuego and Greenland during the 1910s, 1920s and 1930s. While many of his Social Realist contemporaries delved into “the urban jungle” for subject matter, Kent preferred to meditate upon the individual’s relationship to the monumental, the sublime and the eternal as found in earthly nature and in the cosmos.
In addition to the landscape paintings that resulted from these challenging trips, Kent also crafted travelogs, memoirs and autobiographies for which he provided words and images: Wilderness: A Journal of Quiet Adventure in Alaska (1920), Voyaging Southward from the Strait of Magellan (1924), N by E (1929), Salamina (1934), This is My Own (1940) and It’s Me, O Lord (1955).
Rockwell Kent’s lengthy travels were made possible by his connections to the New York art world. He visited the city regularly, sometimes residing there, to pursue and promote his fine and commercial art projects. The latter included the striking and unforgettable illustrations he contributed to The Memoirs of Casanova (1925), Candide (1928), Moby-Dick (1930), Beowulf (1932), Canterbury Tales (1934), Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass (1936) and other volumes.
On a personal level, the charming “man-about-town” Kent occasionally became a bit too involved in Manhattan’s social circles, and he and his second wife, Frances Lee Higgins, thought it a good idea to seek distance from the city when they wed in 1926. The following year, they moved to a dairy farm near Au Sable Forks in the northern Adirondacks. Kent named the place Asgaard Farm in honor of the home of the Norse gods. It served as his base of operations until the house was destroyed by a lightning-induced fire in 1969. He died two years later, before he could rebuild it.
A story for another time is how the left-of-center politics of the iron-willed humanist sometimes caused him trouble. Canning observed, “Kent was very progressive and some people here still remember his political views, and not always fondly. I imagine he would be making Bernie Sanders posters today.”
Over the last 15 years, there has been a resurgence of interest in Rockwell Kent as evidenced by numerous exhibitions and publications. But for Hyde curator Canning, the aim of this project was to get the spotlight back on the artist locally, noting, “The Hyde has a long record of celebrating Kent’s art. It was the first museum to mount a retrospective after his death in 1971 and has mounted other shows as well.”
Canning considers Kent a relevant figure for artists and graphic and web designers working in the North Country. “As we think about today’s ‘creative economy,’ here is an example of an artist who could be at the top of his game and enjoy national and international fame and live deep in the Adirondacks.”
Ralf C. Nemec counts himself among the devotees of Kent. His firstname.lastname@example.org address, which he happily shares with readers, says it all. Nemec described how he was introduced to Kent’s prints in the 1980s, although his fascination with prints in general goes back to childhood, having acquired his first at age 9. Through a friend in publishing, he became aware of Kent and Monhegan Island, and began to buy Kent prints. When Nemec encountered the Kent catalogue raisonné, his horizons expanded. (The volume, originally published in 1975, has since been updated as The Prints of Rockwell Kent: A Catalogue Raisonné by Dan Burne Jones, revised by Robert Rightmire. San Francisco: Alan Wofsy Fine Arts, 2002.) Through it, Nemec learned about prints he had no idea existed. “I worked to collect them and I got most of them.” Nemec likens his own collecting spirit to Kent’s sense of determinism.
Nemec thrills not only in the hunt, but also in the emotional reward that comes from sharing his collection with the public. He excitedly talked about a scarce, possibly singular print by Kent that he recently acquired called “Asgaard Dairy Milk.” “It is an image of a little girl reaching up to a big brown Jersey cow. It is beautiful and it’s one of his rare prints in color. I will be including it as a bonus to the Hyde exhibition…. Now thousands of people will enjoy it.”
To say that Rockwell Kent was complex is an understatement. He applied a Modernist aesthetic to his realistic landscape paintings while, for his prints and book illustrations, he combined Symbolism’s idealistic themes and heroic iconography with the historical wood engraving styles of Thomas Bewick and others. Was there another outdoorsman-philosopher-Socialist who produced ads for Rolls-Royce automobiles and humorous cartoons for Vanity Fair?
Toward the end of his career, the once-celebrated Kent was villainized for his Leftist beliefs and dismissed by those interested in Abstraction. But time marches on, the wheels of taste turn and art makers and lovers now find much moving and pertinent in the idealist’s work and personal philosophy. The Hyde Collection’s dual exhibitions will undoubtedly expand Rockwell Kent’s legion of admirers, whether they hail from the city or the country.
“Rockwell Kent: Prints from the Ralf C. Nemec Collection” was organized by Landau Traveling Exhibitions, Los Angeles.
The Hyde Collection is at 161 Warren Street. For more information, 518-792-1761 or www.hydecollection.org.
Kate Eagen Johnson is an expert in American decorative arts and an independent museum consultant, historian, lecturer and author.
All works pictured are by Rockwell Kent.
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