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Seeing Red: Rockwell Kent and the Farnsworth Art Museum
September 5 - November 28, 2004
As outspoken in politics as he was prolific in art, Kent openly fought to reform government, served as president of the International Workers Order, chairman of the National Council on American-Soviet Friendship, and member of the Executive Committee of the American Labor Party, among many other affiliations. He traveled extensively, helped organize the National Gallery of Contemporary Art, participated in many exhibitions, and published several books of his own. For better or for worse, Kent secured a reputation wherever he went. By the late 1940s, politics had all but overshadowed his recognition as a painter, stalling an otherwise lucrative career and simultaneously causing considerable anxiety to the political Establishment.
In the face of it all, on June 2, 1953, Rockwell Kent met with Farnsworth Director Wendell Hadlock to discuss the possibility of an exhibition. Surmounting Kent's public and controversial reputation, Hadlock recognized the strength and authority of Kent's work and made tentative plans for an exhibition in the summer of 1954. One month later, on July 1, 1953, Kent was subpoenaed to appear before the McCarthy House Committee for Un-American Activities. On August 8, 1953, at the annual meeting of the museum advisors, Hadlock presented the exhibitions under consideration for the upcoming year, including the Kent show. At this meeting, a representative of the Boston Safe Deposit and Trust Company (then the sole trustee of the museum) declared that the Kent exhibition be postponed for fear of "too much controversy." Records of this meeting reveal that Hadlock and other members of the board of advisors did not agree, and that the ultimate decision to delay the show caused at least one member of the advisory board to resign.
Although Hadlock had never committed to the exhibition, and in fact, had made a point of reminding Kent that all shows needed to be confirmed by the advisors, Kent considered it a breach of contract and reacted angrily and passionately. In his autobiography It's Me Oh Lord (1955), the artist presents an emotional and deeply embittered "reenactment," an imagined account, which set into motion an enduring erroneous interpretation of the actual events. Contemporaneous correspondence between Kent and Hadlock notes the August advisor's meeting, and Hadlock's daily diary suggests another scenario.
The controversy between the museum and the artist took another turn in 1960, following Kent's bequest of his paintings to the Soviet Union. At that time, Kent declared that he had offered the collection to the Farnsworth Museum in 1953 and was in fact "rejected." Farnsworth records indicate no such offer; and, tellingly, it was never mentioned in the correspondence following the cancellation of the 1954 exhibition or cited in Kent's account in his 1955 autobiography. On November 17, 1960, the Boston Herald reported both the museum's and Kent's accounts of the gift, while The New York Times and the New York Herald Tribune chose to print Kent's recollection alone, forever immortalizing the story in public memory. To this day, it is widely accepted by scholars and the general public that the Farnsworth Museum turned down a large collection of Kent's works because he had been called to testify before the McCarthy hearings in 1953.
While it is feasible that Kent may in his own mind have hoped that his collection would remain near his beloved Monhegan Island, it is also possible that his response was aimed as a public reprimand to the museum for the personal slight at the cancellation of his show. But, it is more likely that the gift of the collection to the Soviet Union is one that simply fell in line with the natural course of Kent's life and politics. At one of the most fearful and chaotic times in America's history, Kent was both a victim of his time and an instigator of his destiny.
This exhibition celebrates Rockwell Kent's complexities and accomplishments by highlighting a selection of his works from 1905 through 1953 and presents, for the first time, original correspondence documenting Kent's tenuous and often misunderstood relationship with the Farnsworth Art Museum during the peak of his political prominence. (right: Rockwell Kent, Night Watch, 1929, wood engraving. Museum purchase, the Meissner Fund for American Graphics)
The Bowdoin College Museum of Art; Colby College Museum of Art; The Monhegan Historical and Cultural Museum; The Ogunquit Museum of American Art; The Plattsburgh State Art Museum, Rockwell Kent Gallery and Collection; Mr. Remak Ramsay; and Mr. Jamie Wyeth shared their works for the exhibition. Jennifer Pye of the Monhegan Museum assisted with the contribution of photography, Catherine O'Reilly provided research assistance to the exhibition, and the Wyeth Family Foundation for American Art provided program support.
Rockwell Kent: Biography
Rockwell Kent (1882-1971) was born in Tarrytown Heights, New York, and in his lifetime lived in Maine, Newfoundland, Alaska, Vermont, visited Greenland, Puerto Rico, Brazil, parts of Europe and traveled by boat to Tierra del Fuego before finally settling in upstate New York. Born to a family of means, Kent lost his father at a young age and consequently grew up in grateful servitude, supported by his prosperous extended family while in reality having little means of his own. Nonetheless, he acquired a thorough education, first attending the Horace Mann School of Art and later, with full scholarship, studying architecture at Columbia University, attending school at Shinnecock Hills with William Merritt Chase and eventually enrolling as a student of painting under Robert Henri.
Rockwell Kent arrived on Monhegan Island, Maine, in the summer of 1905. Intended as an artistic sojourn, this visit instead marked the beginning of a long, meaningful and deeply personal relationship with the island landscape and community. Kent had unexpectedly found more than a destination for his art; he had discovered a way of life. He left Monhegan in 1910 a changed man, returning briefly in 1917 and again in the late 1940s to resume his ties to the island, which culminated in the early 1950s. Kent's first substantial body of work, paintings inspired by Monhegan and exhibited in New York in 1907, founded the young artist's early recognition as an American landscape painter.
Between 1910 and 1935, Kent juxtaposed a lucrative career as illustrator and commercial artist with the life of an adventurous traveler and painter. His insatiable propensity for exploration inspired trips to extreme, remote and sometimes dangerous locations where he often lived in complete isolation. In the 1920s and 1930s, he gained national standing as an illustrator and graphic artist and financially prospered through a myriad of book sales, including several that he authored on his own. Also in the 1930s, Kent generated an equally pervasive reputation as an outspoken advocate for the Socialist party, which he had joined in 1904 at the age of 22. While 1935 is considered the apex of his artistic career, Kent's consistent support of radical causes and affiliations with numerous left wing organizations greatly affected his artistic popularity in the 1940s and 50s.
Following the publication of his first autobiography, This is My Own (1940), in which Kent praised the Soviet Union and sharply criticized the United States, positioning himself in full support of progressive causes, his popularity took a decline, even within certain liberal circles. In July 1953, Kent was subpoenaed by the McCarthy House Committee for Un-American Activities, based on fears generated by his written works. Kent did appear before the committee, but standing on principle, took the Fifth Amendment when challenged on his political position. Kent's art was now almost entirely eclipsed by his politics; and steeped in the sentiment of the times, his paintings became barely visible on the market, his exhibitions deferred, his business ventures boycotted, and upon his return to Maine, he was even shunned by a few that he knew and loved.
Through all of this Kent daringly threw himself deeper into his causes and turned to the Soviet Union. In 1958, he had a one-man show at the Hermitage Museum in Leningrad. In 1959, Kent traveled to the Soviet Union as a guest of the country, and in 1960 had another major exhibition in Moscow. Feeling scorned by his own country, yet embraced and validated by the Soviet Union, Rockwell Kent gifted 80 paintings and approximately 800 works on paper, known as "the Kent Collection," to the Soviet Union in 1960. Kent and was named to the Academy of the Arts of the U.S.S.R. in 1966 and received the Lenin Peace prize in 1967.
Although Rockwell Kent did live to see a retrospective of his work in the state of Maine, organized in 1969 by the Bowdoin College Museum of Art, he remained until his death in 1971 somewhat ostracized in this country for his political rather than artistic ideals. Still, his obituary commanded front-page recognition in the New York Times, and today Kent's reputation continues to escalate as one of America's most celebrated painters. Once described as the art world's "stormy Petrel," Rockwell Kent rode out one of the most turbulent times in American history.
Rockwell Kent: Printer
As early as 1910, Rockwell Kent learned the basics of intaglio printmaking from his friend and neighbor John Sloan and soon after experimented in a number of print mediums. Although he initially gravitated toward lithography, Kent considered the advise of a good friend, Carl Zigrosser, and began working with wood engravings in 1918. From that time on, and for many years forward, wood engraving, according to Kent, was "to be second only to painting in the arts."
No doubt, the steel tools of the engraver found a home in the hands of Kent the laborer and carpenter, the resultant clear sharp lines making use of his early education in drawing and architecture and easily fitting his style of painting. With a fully developed personal style and the perfected draftsmanship of an illustrator, Kent easily and adeptly projected his pictorial ideas into the printmaking process. In his lifetime he completed innumerable etchings, lithographs, woodcuts and wood engravings. Printed editions were small, and few trial states of his prints exist, as a printer's proof was hardly needed.
Through his printmaking, Kent commands attention for his use of symbolism, something he once admitted to "borrowing" from William Blake but later renounced. His mastery of the medium resulted in his own recognizable style, attributed to being America's earliest precursor to the Art Deco Style of the 1920s-30s. Regardless, it is in Kent's prints that the human form takes a prominent role over his traditional depiction of nature. He renders central figures positioned on low horizons, almost viewed from below and in a somewhat monumental stance. Men and women often gaze upward, are involved in heroic acts, or describe the basic impasse of everyday life. They are the heroes of his pictures and impart Kent's strong social concerns, that of the common man. The early prints depicting man and the sea, such as Boatman, 1939, came directly from his experiences on Monhegan Island, and later works closely link to his visits in Alaska and Greenland.
Throughout the 1920s and 1930s, Kent's reputation as a printmaker escalated and in 1936, after conducting a practitioner's survey of graphic art in the United States, Prints magazine declared Kent "the most widely known and successful printmaker in the country." Unfortunately, this regard waned in the 1940s due to the advent of modern art coupled with Kent's declining reputation, attributed to his political standings. Today, Rockwell Kent's high esteem in the field once again goes unchallenged.
Rockwell Kent: Illustrator
Rockwell Kent's involvement with illustration started as early as 1914 when a colleague, Frederick Squires, convinced Kent to illustrate Architectonics: The Tales of Tom Thumtack, Architect (1914). Soon thereafter, Kent rendered several illustrations for humorous pieces written by George Chappell for Vanity Fair under the pseudonym "Hogarth, Jr." Although Kent often mocked illustration as "frivolous," the reality of his financial difficulties forced the painter to accept alternate means of income. His notoriety as an illustrator escalated when, in 1926, Lakeside Press of Chicago commissioned Kent for a new edition of Herman Melville's classic novel Moby Dick (1930). Taking four years to complete, the book was a huge commercial and artistic success when published as an edition of one thousand three-volume sets boxed in aluminum slipcases. Keenly aware of author Herman Melville's contempt for inaccuracy in past illustrative rendering of the whaling industry (Melville allocated an entire chapter of the book to the subject), Kent thoroughly researched and for accuracy relied upon the first hand experience he acquired while living and working on Monhegan Island. Done in the style of a woodcut, Kent's ink drawings for Moby Dick are now celebrated as his best.
Contracts soon followed for works such as Voltaire's Candide, The Complete Works of William Shakespeare, Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass, and Esther Shepherd's Paul Bunyan. The Canterbury Tales of Geoffry Chaucer, commissioned in 1928, and N by E, Kent's journal of his Greenland travels, were both published in 1930 in limited and trade editions. In 1930 alone, Kent made jackets, frontis pieces and illustrations for over 20 books and attracted numerous assignments for future projects. A prolific writer, Kent both authored and illustrated Wilderness: A Journal of Quiet Adventure in Alaska (1920); Voyaging Southward from the Strait of Magellan (1924); N by E (1930); Salamina (1935) and two autobiographies, This is my Own (1955) and It's me Oh Lord (1955). (right: Rockwell Kent, Blue Bird, 1919, wood engraving)
Between 1910 and 1968, Rockwell Kent designed over 160 bookplates. Commissioned by factory workers and millionaires alike, he did not discern between his clients, believing that the bookplate itself should reflect its owner and was purely "a personal matter." Although the first bookplates were gifts, his growing popularity and prestige instigated commissions that he came to rely on for financial income.
Although Rockwell Kent thought of himself as first a painter and second an engraver, his accomplishments in illustration ultimately achieved greater prominence in the public eye; and, in fact, many now remember him for his literary achievements alone. Kent renewed lost traditions in illustration by designing books as complete entities: a singular style with typeface, chapter decoration and binding design. The work itself, with thorough fine rendering and diligent attention to detail, merits no slighter rank than his paintings, and indeed came from no lesser a creative genius.
Also on exhibit in September is Un/Coverings: Contemporary Maine Fiber Art on view from September 19, 2004 to February 20, 2005.
The exhibition examines the ways in which fiber can protect, conceal, but also reveal the physical and spiritual self. Conceived and executed for the most part without a direct functional intention, the innovative works in this exhibition were specifically chosen for the way that they challenge traditional ideas and preconceptions about the very nature and possibilities of fiber in particular and craft in general. The show includes works by 14 of Maine's leading fiber artists; Allison Cooke Brown, Katharine Cobey, Catherine Draper, Emily Freeman, Richard Lee, Susan Barrett Merrill, Jeannie Mooney, Arlene Morris, Ann Nemrow, Mary Ann McKellar Schwarcz, Cat Schwenk, Donald Talbot, Patricia Wheeler and Susan Winn. (right: Eve Peri, Untitled, c. 1940s, Embroidery on linen)
Rose Slivka observes that the contemporary craftsman is "less directly designing for function-the reality of machine-made commodities-as he is obsessed by the nature of his materials, the interaction of the materials and himself..." She maintains that crafts that functioned historically in the context of a rural, agrarian society do not have the same meaning in the internationalized culture of today's industrial society.
The works in this exhibition speak to these ideas. We see these concepts at work in Katharine Cobey's monumental installation, "Boat With Four Figures", 2001, and in Allison Cooke Brown's thoughtful and compelling sculptures, Donald Talbot's whimsical creations and Jeannie Mooney's referential installations. They all, quite simply, utilize fiber to communicate deeper realities about the self, life and art.
Many of the works in the exhibition include hand-made or commercially produced paper, also made from fiber. In acknowledgement of this important connection, the exhibition also features a selection of one-of-a-kind books made by artist's like Arlene Morris, Richard Lee, Mary Ann Schwarcz.
The exhibition is a collaborative undertaking between the Farnsworth Art Museum and Maine Fiberarts, a non-profit, membership organization based in Topsham, Maine. The exhibition will be part of the year-long Maine Fiberarts: State of Fiber 2004 celebration which includes exhibitions, events, lectures, panel discussions and workshops throughout the State.(right: Donald Talbot, Honey, have you seen my Irish linen pullover?, 2002, Knitted linen on wood)
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