Friday, February 25, 2011

Baltimore Museum of Art Newsletter- My Article on Rockwell Kent

As a long time admirer of the 20th century American artist Rockwell Kent, I wrote an appreciation of his wood engravings. The article appears in the just published Spring 2011 issue of the Baltimore Museum of Art's Newsletter, published by the BMA's support group,       the Prints, Drawings, and Photographs Society.


An Artist Looks at Rockwell Kent



Rockwell Kent (American 1882-1971)
    The Bowsprit
    (c. 1926)
   Woodcut
   139 x 178 mm.
   Gift of  Blanche Adler
   1928.30.219






The End
(n.d.)
Woodcut
Sheet: 125 x 180 mm. (4 15/16 x 7 1/16 in.)
Gift of Blanche Adler
1928.30.3

Why do any of us look at the work of artists, especially ones no longer living? Well for most of us we do it because we find little hints of ourselves there, memories, feelings or maybe even a clue about where we ought to head next.

As a painter of many years myself I had a personal epiphany some fifteen years ago standing in the BMA's Museum Shop one afternoon.  Picking up a copy of a book written and illustrated by the American artist Rockwell Kent, N by E, I feel into it had to buy a copy. I had known of Kent since my early days as an art student but had pretty much forgotten about him. The wood engravings in his book felt as if he had made them for me. He didn't of course. But the experience highlights how profoundly personal is connection an artist can forge with the viewer when the art is strong.

Many visitors to the BMA are familiar with the artist's signature oils Artist in Greenland  and his chilling Heavy, Heavy Hangs Over Thy Head. I'd like to say a few things about two of Kent's prints we're lucky to have in our Permanent Collection, The Bowsprit and The End. Better than almost any other artist I can think of, Kent found a language to speak about the drama and romance of the natural world at night. Wood engraving, with its preponderance of black, was perfect for his vision.
The Bowsprit  shows a naked sailor gazing foreward under the most wonderfully delicate sprinkling of stars. My family when I was four, settled on the rocky shore of Lake Ontario, outside Rochester, NY. Back then it was very rural and on a clear night the sky was ablaze with thousands of stars. Once I was old enough to "camp out" with my childhood friends, one of my absolute favorite things to do was to lie on my back and gaze at the heavens, sometimes for hours before our chatter would die down and we'd eventually drift off to sleep. Occasionally we'd be treated to showers of shooting stars.
Looking at Kent's print now, images of those special nights rush back to me

I don't know how many of you have taken off all your clothes and clung to a wooden pole suspended over the waves at night, but Kent's sailor seems to take the precarious and turn it into a voyage of discovery. The artist gives us a vision of humankind exposed but at peace out in nature. What a gift from Kent's imagination to see anyone could experience such feeling in such a vulnerable situation.

The Bowsprit uses a few tricks of the trade to make its emotional impact on the viewer.
First, realize how selectively Kent imagines the light falling from what must be a full moon. It rakes across the forms but highlights just the ones the artist wants you to notice. There's an old saying that art is about what you leave out. In Kent's case he leave out a whole lot yet his print still seems ample and full.

The sailor's forms are fascinating- broad and generalized in the thighs and arm, but then intricately patterned in other places such as the hands, the lower knee and the hair. Kent's ability lay in giving us just the right visual balance between busy patterns and empty areas. A lesser artist probably would have overpopulated his sky with stars everywhere. Kent instead corrals his fewer stars to suggest a shape that moves diagonally behind our mariner from the upper left corner of the print to half way down the right hand side of image. He is able to set up a countermotion to the leaning chest of the sailor, suggesting that the movements of this man's life and that of the cosmos are not always one.

Artists often use the sense of leaning or falling to give a feeling of motion to their works. Kent's work was particularly fond of dramatic diagonals like the figure's brilliantly lighted torso. Yet Kent makes the action seem entirely plausible and even just right. Notice the  diagonal lean of the torso and then compare it to the dark waves in the print's lower right corner. They, you discover, run exactly parallel with the man's diagonal pose. To me this is Kent's way of saying the human and the seas are working, or dancing, together. It gives a feeling of dynamism and I believe optimism to the world Kent is describing here.

Far less cozy is the other Kent print, The End. While in The Bowsprit Kent focuses the light on the figure, here the real actor is the angry sea. Notice how the bright whites are reserved for the foreground wave and the sky at the horizon. Nature is bigger and stronger than we Kent is saying, and in this print he puts the spotlight on her dark beauty.
The sailor, no longer the muscular young man in the first print, now huddles in his rowboat and watches the water pouring in that will soon sink him.

I find the print chilling, but to make us feel for the sailor, Kent had to come up with visual means to first pull in our eye to his world. Notice again how the artist creates a foreground completely filled with active, curving waves. Then just behind the boat Kent places a long dark band of water that stretches all the way from the left to the right sides of the picture. The contrast between the heavily patterned waves and the smoothed down waves is critical to make your eye want to explore the water. I think it is only later that the view realizes the water is swamping the boat and the sailor is doomed.

When I first started looking at Kent's work seriously, inspired by that little book from the Museum Shop, I was struck by how dramatic he made his world appear. Kent was well known (and in the McCarthy period reviled) as a political radical. But in his prints I could see his radical creativity- to bend forms, exaggerate contrasts, and ruthlessly eliminate details that interfered with his vision. In a period where color was front and center for so many other modern artists, Kent did perhaps his best work in black and white, mastering the emotional nuances of shapes in hard, clear terms.

As a painter myself what I found in Kent was a certain boundless energy and expressive optimism. I think gave me a gust of wind in my sails as an artist to aim for a more personal way of seeing the world- higher constrast, a lot more simplicity, and a freer rein given to the fantastic and dream like parts of my imagination. Rockwell Kent is the kind of artist who gives you courage to head out onto the waters of your own uncertainty.


Philip Koch is a landscape painter and a long time professor at MICA.

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