Thursday, June 24, 2010

The Plattsburgh State Art Museum: A Little Jewel in the Adirondacks


I'm just returned from a painting trip to the Adirondack Mountains in the northernmost corner of New York State. I go there for the unrivaled wild terrain.

One of the key functions of art is it shows us how to see the world. As a painter I've learned enormous lessons from the artists who've trodden the path before me. No one has taught me more than Rockwell Kent, the American artist who lived from 1882-1971. I believe he is our finest printmaker, bar none. The biggest single influence on my own painting of the last 15 years is Kent's wood engravings.

One of my favorite small art museums, the Plattsburgh State Art Museum, has the above Kent wood engraving hanging now in its Rockwell Kent Gallery. It's always worth the drive up to Plattsburgh, NY to visit it on the shore of Lake Champlain just a couple of miles this side of the Canadian border. This wood engraving by Rockwell Kent captures the spirit of the man as well as of the Adirondacks in general. Plattsburgh has the largest Collection of Rockwell Kent's art and memorabilia.

A major body of Kent's work was originally destined for the Farnsworth Art Museum's Collection in Maine which was planning a major exhibition of Kent's work during the Cold War with the Soviet Union. Kent had planned the donation with the then Director of the Farnsworth. Some right wing members of the Farnsworth's Board pulled the plug on the Kent exhibition as Kent was an outspoken socialist. So the donation didn't happen. Kent later became friendly with the then President of Plattsburgh State University and donated a large body of work to them. It was later augmented by a second bequest from Sally Kent, the artist's third wife. I've always suspected the Farnsworth Museum has been kicking itself ever since as they lost out on a national treasure.

In his print above the artist portrays himself holding a pack against an intricately designed background of pine boughs and mountain peaks. Unlike the nearby and much better known rounded Green Mountains across Lake Champlain in Vermont, the Adirondacks are full of sharply pointed peaks and startling silhouettes. They actually look something like what Kent found earlier in his career in Greenland before eventually settling in Ausable Forks, NY near Plattsburgh.



Above is an early oil self portrait by Kent hanging in the Rockwell Kent Gallery. Kent studied with the famous American Impressionist William Merritt Chase and the leader of the Ashcan School Robert Henri, who persuaded him to go to paint on Monhegan Island off the coast of Maine. Kent did, fell in love with the place, and lived there a couple of years, building the house that the painter Jamie Wyeth lived in for years (until Wyeth bough his own island).

Kent also worked briefly as a studio assistant for the wonderful American painter Abbott Henderson Thayer (the fellow who painted his daughters as completely believable angels) and lived with the Thayer familiy up in Cornish, NH. Thayer to his credit realized the soaring talent in his assistant and urged young Kent to devote himself to his own painting. Below is an outstanding oil Kent painted during those early years, Late Afternoon in New Hampshire Field from 1905. I love the way he squeezes the sky into a vertical sliver of creamy yellow between the imposingly erect trees. Typical of Kent, the painting is forceful and subtle. He also shows us how many different kinds of green he can get to work together.



And here below is me in front of a giant billboard the Museum installed in an adjoining building. Kent had designed it to aid the Christmas Seals campaign. His angel is a powerful woman indeed but completely graceful as she sails over a winter field. Notice the wonderful way Kent again squeezes the empty space of the sky between her white wing and the uppermost fold of her dress. He then repeats the same diagonal in the angel's extended forearm. I love this poster.



The Plattsburgh State Art Museum publishes a three-times-a-year journal, The Kent Collector. I've been a subscriber to for years. It's full of both well and little known Kent images and articles about his life, his work, and his controversies. It's a bargain and I'd urge any Kent fan to subscribe.

While we were visiting the museum my wife Alice and I got to meet and talk with Marguerite Eisinger, an art historian who edits the journal and who has worked at the museum for a long time. I've been corresponding with Marguerite for some time as I had bought a Kent wood engraving (printed after the artist's death) through her from the Museum as a present for my wife Alice. The Museum sells them to raise money for their programs. It now hangs proudly next to our bed where we look at it daily. It's a gem and was a bargain. Anyway it was fun to finally meet Marguerite in person after all these years.

I'll show a few more of the works the Plattsburgh State Art Museum has up right now in my next post.

2 comments:

  1. Philip, Thank you for this great information. I love Kent and didn't know about this collection. I lived for 3 years across the lake in Burlington. If only I had known.

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  2. Hi Mary,

    That's a shame. It's often the case that small regional art museums lack the budget to advertise themselves widely. Plattsburgh's Museum is non exception. I'm glad to toot its horn though any chance I get. I'll be doing a second post about the museum in a day or two.

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