New Rockwell Kent exhibit shows evolution of his work
By Tim Rowland
Artist Rockwell Kent was an appropriate Adirondacker. Adventuresome, resourceful, skilled at everything he touched, his energy pulsated across the mountaintops he painted as he raised Jersey cattle in Au Sable Forks, agitated for social justice and tried to shake America from its slumber to face the approach of threats foreign and domestic.
Asked near the end of his life if he had accomplished everything he wanted, Kent basically replied, not even close.
“He learned early in life that his direction was all-encompassing,” said Kent scholar Scott Ferris, who curated the current Plattsburgh State Art Museum exhibit, “Origins: The Evolution of an Artist and His Craft.”
If “Origins” has been a long time in the making it’s partly because of the great trove of Kent artifacts resting in Plattsburgh’s drawers and containers, and partly because organizing the eclectic artist into any sort of linear storyline is a job in itself.
In the 1960s, a decade before his death, Kent struck up a friendship with SUNY Plattsburgh President George Angell, who was in the process of morphing the school from a teacher-training outpost to an outwardly looking institution of arts and sciences.
Kent was looking for a permanent home for his work. Plattsburgh seemed a logical fit, but Kent’s politics were inconvenient. Others at the school feared the effects of exposing young minds to his radical views, in particular his idea that peace and friendship with the Soviet Union were more productive than Cold War and nuclear buildups.
After Kent’s death in 1971, his wife Sally Kent Gorton persisted, writing in 1973 of her desire to see SUNY Plattsburgh as “the (primary) research collection in the country.” To that end, Plattsburgh now has 5,000 pieces of Kent art, writings and ephemera, according to Walter Early, preparator of the Plattsburgh State Art Museum.
In 1978, Ferris was an art student at Plattsburgh, who eventually put his own artistic career on the back burner to become a leading Kent authority, working for Kent’s widow to transfer the collection to the school.
“The gift was massive, and all of this flooded in here at once,” said Ferris. “This exhibit attempts to make sense of materials that have not been seen before — how did he develop his artwork, and how did he develop as an artist.”
These pieces include the building blocks and processes of Kent’s work. Included too are some of Kent’s earliest sketches as a youngster, and in college as he entered what he thought was going to be a career in architecture. “You can see how some of these drawings tie into his later work,” Ferris said.
On the walls are depictions of the same work in various stages of development, and what became a Kent hallmark of painting a flat basic background landscape and adding layers to reach the final composition.
Kent, prolific in multiple media, would use elements — a seagull, or the figure of a woman — from one sketch that would show up in later work, and would sometimes do a literal cut-and-paste for a final composition. His art extended to fabric, dishware, books and anything else that came in handy at the time. After a shipwreck destroyed his supplies on the coast of Greenland, Kent painted on bedsheets.
Kent was many things: difficult, funny, caring, provocative, naughty, restless — each side of him shines on one work or another. He searched out and enhanced the drama in desolation, painting stark scenes in frozen polar regions and rocky seacoasts, finding beauty where few others could. He was critical of capitalism, yet funded his life with advertisements for the likes of Rolls Royce — an irony that was not lost on Kent himself. Along with his art he built dwellings, gardened, performed manual labor, wrote thick descriptions of his adventures and spoiled for political fights. At times he may have slept.
Often overlooked is Kent’s humor, which materialized in satirical pieces for Vanity Fair, Puck and Life magazines. And sometimes he was the butt of a humorous cartoon himself, notably one in the exhibit by Au Sable Forks artist Bill Calhoun, depicting Kent parrying a “Greenland Monster” with a sharpened tusk. The actual tusk is part of the exhibit, too.
“Origins” travels through Kent’s phases, his experiments with darkness and light, including his early painting of Monhegan harbor in Maine with commanding strokes heavy with paint that roil like the sea and earned him the title “Athlete of the Brush.” Ever the contrarian, he may have experimented in the style because he had been taught by Monhegan Island mentor Robert Henri that this was how not to do it.
By contrast this Athlete of the Brush could work in pencil marks so fine they were indistinguishable on the finished product.
Kent likely would have been deemed a more important and recognized artist, then and now, save for his left-wing politics. He was branded a “communist sympathizer,” but “communist tolerant” may be more accurate; in fact his work demonstrates an intense patriotism and an iron belief that America could and should be better.
His powerful symbolism served as a warning of labor strife, coming wars and the evil of Hitler. He foresaw that the poor treatment of a defeated Germany after World War I would lead to greater ills, and depicted America as fat and happy and sound asleep as storm clouds gathered in Europe.
In both war and commerce, “He didn’t believe the laborer should be fodder for the wealthy,” Ferris said. The similarity is poignantly demonstrated in mountainous Adirondack scene from 1941 depicting a speck of a young man far down a dirt road as his family watches him go off to presumably be chewed up by the industrial world. His younger sister, in a white dress, happily waves goodbye, but the older and wiser relatives are far less optimistic. Following the bombing of Pearl Harbor, the theme applied equally well to war, and the painting was named “December Eighth.”
“Origins” runs through Aug. 11 on the second floor of the Feinberg Library, and is open daily from noon to 4 p.m.