hill country observerThe independent newspaper of eastern New York, southwestern Vermont and the Berkshires


Arts & Culture May 2018


Rockwell Kent returns home

Twin shows at The Hyde explore two sides of artist’s work


Rockwell Kent "And this my Child" paintingRockwell Kent’s painting “And This My Child, Is Where Your Mother Was Born” (1930, reworked 1950) is among the paintings now on view at The Hyde Collection in Glens Falls in one of two complementary exhibitions of Kent’s work. Courtesy Plattsburgh State Art Museum


Contributing writer


It’s often been said that coming home is a difficult proposition, both metaphorically and in reality: After a long absence, returning to one’s native area, or to a place that meant a lot to one’s development, can be daunting.
This doesn’t seem to have deterred the staff of The Hyde Collection in Glens Falls, which recently opened two complementary exhibitions on Rockwell Kent, the deeply influential 20th century American painter and all-around Renaissance man.

Kent (1882-1971) traveled widely and painted landscapes from Greenland to the tip of South America, but he also lived and worked in the Adirondacks from the 1920s until his death.
The two shows -- “The Prints of Rockwell Kent: Selections from the Ralf C. Nemec Collection” and “A Life and Art of His Own: The Paintings of Rockwell Kent from North Country Collections” -- will be shown through July 22. (The exhibit drawn from the Nemec collection was organized by Landau Traveling Exhibitions; the other was assembled by Caroline Welsh, director emerita of Adirondack Experience, the former Adirondack Museum in Blue Mountain Lake.)

Jonathan Canning, the Hyde’s director of curatorial affairs and services, said Kent’s work was grounded in optimism and confidence through meticulously prepared images of man and nature.
“His renderings of the human form, animals, and wildernesses are infused with the style and spirit of early 20th century Modernism,” Canning said. “Americans were simultaneously in awe of nature’s power and confident of their ability to harness it to build a better future.”

The clarity of Kent’s Modernist vision, Canning said, is evident in Ralf Nemec’s collection, which is the largest assemblage anywhere of the artist’s prints.

Canning said the two exhibits both offer a sampling of Kent’s works that have not often been seen by the public.

“Some of the paintings Caroline Welsh brought together for this exhibition are privately owned,” Canning said. “She has dedicated a considerable amount of her career to the public appreciation of significant figures such as Rockwell Kent, who worked extensively from his Adirondack farm for many years.”

Kent’s work today is recognized for his trademark style of landscape painting, influenced by ideas and musings in the works of transcendentalist writers such as Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau.

In his travels, Kent drew inspiration from the vast wildernesses of Greenland, Tierra del Fuego and Alaska. He also worked extensively in Newfoundland, at Monhegan Island, Maine, and in southern Vermont.

Trained as an architect at Columbia University, he also studied at the Art Students League. He then illustrated books, built furniture, and worked as a graphic artist and illustrator.
Kent, whose art became well known internationally during his life, completed a significant portion of his work at Asgaard, his farm in the Essex County town of Au Sable Forks, though he continued to travel throughout his life.


Road trip leads to exhibit
The exhibition of works from the Ralf Nemec collection was set in motion two years ago when Nemec, a retired phone company engineer from Long Island, pulled off the Northway at Glens Falls while vacationing in the area, walked into The Hyde Collection, and asked to see the resident curator. At the time, Canning had been newly hired for the position.

Nemec recalled that his proposition was simple: He owns the largest collection of Rockwell Kent prints in the world and wanted to know if the museum would be amenable to having an exhibition dedicated to showing a portion of that collection, as well as sme other Kent ephemera, to the public.

“I realize it may have seemed somewhat impulsive at the time, but everyone at the Hyde was welcoming and open to discussing my idea,” Nemec said. “Parts of my collection have been shown in institutional exhibitions 11 times, and I can’t be happier that these important works of Rockwell Kent can be seen in Glans Falls.”

The idea turned out to be a boon for all involved, and Canning’s research subsequent to his meeting with Nemec showed that the collection was unique in its size, consisting of 146 of the 155 documented Kent prints.

Nemec, a lifelong art lover, said he acquired his first print when he was 9 years old. He spent his early adult years in the New York City show business scene, working as a disc jockey, producing concerts, acting and directing.

During that time, he met and befriended artists including Andy Warhol, Ellsworth Kelly, Helen Frankenthaler, Robert Rauschenberg, James Rosenquist, Tom Wesselmann and the composers John Cage and Philip Glass, among others.
Nemec’s habit of collecting art continued through his transition to a career in engineering. But once he had been introduced to the art of Kent, Nemec said he knew he had found his “life’s mission.”
“I’ve been collecting Rockwell Kent prints for approximately 35 years,” Nemec said. “I liked what I saw of his art and just started collecting casually. As I would find a piece that would appeal to me, if I could afford it I bought it. Eventually, I had quite a few pieces.”

Early on in his captivation with Kent, Nemec discovered the “Catalogue Raisonne,” which is considered the definitive documentation of all of Kent’s prints. Reading through it with great interest, Nemec realized that with patience and diligence, he “might be able to put together a full collection.” He nearly has.

The Hyde exhibition features about 60 Kent prints belonging to Nemec, Canning said.
“Ralf Nemec’s passion was unmistakable from our first, quite unexpected encounter,” Canning said. “He literally came in from the road while driving by, and introduced himself as having the largest collection of Rockwell Kent prints.”

Still, Canning explained that while he was excited about the prospect of a show with Nemec’s prints, he felt “it was still important to balance these prints with paintings.”


From private hands
Canning’s curatorial instincts led to the second exhibition, “A Life and Art of His Own: The Paintings of Rockwell Kent from North Country Collections.”

“Kent was primarily a painter, and that’s where his critical reputation was first built, on his paintings,” Canning said. “His popular reputation was built on the prints, illustrations for advertising, and the book design work that he did. So I thought it would be interesting to have both sides of the man.”

In his research, Canning discovered that in 1974, The Hyde Collection had held the first retrospective of Kent’s work after the artist’s death in 1971. In that exhibition, paintings had been balanced with prints and ceramics – as they are in the current show.

In the new exhibitions, Canning said, 26 of the 37 paintings are on loan from the Plattsburgh State Art Museum.

“They are closed for renovations right now, so we were able to get a good number from them on loan,” he explained. “The rest are from private collections, and we are fortunate to have Caroline Welsh organize this show.”

Welsh is no stranger to the North Country, or to Rockwell Kent’s art, thanks to her long career as curator and later director of the former Adirondack Museum.

Amid her decades of bringing the region’s creative aesthetic alive for locals and visitors, in 1999 Welsh organized and curated “The View from Asgaard,” the only exhibition to date dedicated entirely to Kent’s Adirondack-themed works.

“Kent’s work is singularly distinguishable,” Welsh said. “While he shares the subject matter of the Adirondack landscape with other artists who painted the region’s scenery, his art is completely his own.”

Welsh, who was able to secure a number of Kent’s paintings from private collectors for this exhibition, said she considered it “a treat” to be able to bring privately held art into the public view.

“Practically speaking, we had a relatively short period of time to organize a painting exhibit,” Welsh said. “We were very lucky to have one private collector from the region, who had an excellent eye for Rockwell Kent, loan us eight of his paintings. He was very gracious and gave us these works for a good period of time.”

Welsh added that the loan of paintings from Plattsburg State Art Museum was unusually large, but the museum’s renovations helped make that possible.

“All in all, it was a wonderful confluence of generosity and luck,” she said.
And as luck would have it, through The Hyde Collection’s two exhibits, Rockwell Kent, if only now in the metaphorical sense, is able to come home to the North Country and be seen for who he was.

“This was a very complex, fascinating and interesting man, who believed intensely what he wanted to communicate through his art,” Welsh said. “Kent was more than an artist. He was a Renaissance man in an age of specialists.”


For more information about the twin Rockwell Kent exhibits, visit www.hydecollection.org