GLENS FALLS — Although he was born in the late 1800s, Rockwell Kent was a true renaissance man.
He was an explorer, artist, author, architect, printmaker and a social activist.
Works from renowned Adirondack artist are coming to The Hyde Collection this weekend, with two exhibitions: “Rockwell Kent: Prints from the Ralf C. Nemec Collection” and “A Life and Art of His Own: Paintings from North Country Collections,” from the Plattsburgh State University Art Museum and private collections.
“We have a bit of a history of presenting Kent,” said Jonathan Canning, the director of curatorial affairs and programming at the Hyde Collection.
Shortly after Kent, who lived in Au Sable Forks, passed away, the Hyde exhibited the first retrospective of Kent’s works. But these new exhibitions reveal a different aspect of Kent’s work.
“We are going to show the sweep of his paintings, but with a focus on his North Country works,” Canning said.
His paintings of desolate and remote environments reveal an optimism, usually done in bright colors and with a focus on stunning sunlight or moonlight. While Kent’s black and white prints (often depicting athletic figures with well-defined muscles) also reveal a certain sort of idealistic view of what people could be and transform themselves into.
“He was born into the middle class in Tarrytown and there was an expectation that he would lead a ‘normal life,’” Canning said.
Despite his upbringing, Kent led anything but a ‘normal life.’
He studied architecture at Columbia University, before moving on to study art with classmates like George Bellows and Edward Hopper. Kent ventured to some of the world’s most remote areas – Tierra del Fuego, Newfoundland, Alaska, etc. – to get inspiration for his early works. While there, he also wrote and became known for his wilderness adventures.
“He was incredibly fit. He chiseled his own body [as well as his work],” Canning said.
Over the years, Kent’s popularity in the art world has only seemed to grow.
The “Rockwell Kent: Prints from the Ralf C. Nemec Collection,” exhibition has been curated and amassed by one of the most dedicated Kentophiles.
Ralf Nemec has the largest collection of Kent’s prints in the world. The Deer Park resident has been collecting them for years.
“The only regrets I have are not getting something when I had the opportunity,” Nemec said.
He’s been an art collector most of his life, collecting works from Andy Warhol, Peter Mars and many others. But Kent has taken top priority and has become something of an obsession.
“I never thought it was going to grow to what it became,” Nemec, “I’ve become known as a Rockwell Kent collector and people reach out to me.”
His collection encompasses Kent’s most popular works as well as some of his lesser-known pieces.
A few years ago, he began to feel a need to share the works with others.
“I felt like it was time to get it out into the public,” Kent said.
Nemec’s collection includes several rare works from Kent, including a few pieces of ceramics.
“Kent worked with Vernon Kilns and he created a piece called ‘Our America,’” Nemec said, “He designed complete sets of dishes for different parts of the country.”
Later in his career, Kent illustrated classic literature, like “Moby Dick,” and “The Complete Works of William Shakespeare,” some of which are in Nemec’s collection.
While the prints and ceramics in Nemec’s collection give a sweeping view of Kent’s work, the other exhibition at The Hyde, “A Life and Art of His Own: Paintings from the North Country Collection,” delves into another side of his career.
“Over his lifetime, he created in almost every medium,” said Caroline Welsh, the director emerita of Adirondack Experience and guest curator for the exhibition.
Kent was also known for his political activism and it was not always welcome with his neighbors, especially during the McCarthy era. Although he never declared himself a socialist, he was a vocal supporter of social rights and labor rights.
“Some of his political works speak to the times we’re living in,” Nemec said.
According to Canning, Kent really celebrated his right to express his beliefs and it shines through in his works.
“I hope people come ready to see an artist who reveled in his right to free speech,” Canning said.
“Rockwell Kent: Prints from the Ralf C. Nemec Collection” and “A Life and Art of His Own: Paintings from North Country Collections,” will be on exhibit from Sunday through July 22. For more information on programming and events surrounding the exhibit, visit hydecollection.org.
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