AS art exhibitions go, "The View From Asgaard: Rockwell Kent's Adirondack Legacy" is a small show: just 23 paintings and some lithographs, drawings and artifacts. But it has the makings of a big draw nonetheless, and not just because it is on view at the Adirondack Museum in Blue Mountain Lake, N.Y., in the heart of Adirondack State Park.
Kent, a colorful character born in 1882, specialized in painting rugged landscapes like those that abound in New York's north country. Yet his views of the Adirondacks are not well known, and the exhibition offers a chance both to see them and, for those up for an excursion into Kent's painting grounds, to see the scenes that inspired them. In something of a historical footnote, the show also reunites works separated by the cold war.
Kent, if not a towering talent in American art, was a prolific man who made a good living not only as a painter but also as a commercial artist; muralist; designer of fabric, pottery and jewelry; architect, and Adirondack dairy farmer. In his later years, his popularity faded as he derided abstraction and the critics who promoted it, though many of his own works feature large, flat shapes that are decidedly "modern." When he died in 1971, Kent's reputation rested more on his renowned illustrations for books like "Moby-Dick" than on his paintings.
Still, Kent might have gone further had his politics not been as radical as his art was conservative.
An outspoken, lifelong socialist and Communist sympathizer, he got caught up in McCarthy-era emotionalism. Called to testify before Senator Joseph R. McCarthy's investigations subcommittee in 1953, Kent, ever the individualist, took shelter behind the Fifth Amendment. Just outside the hearing room, he declared that he had never been a member of the Communist Party, but the damage was done.
Museums and galleries shunned his work. The Farnsworth Art Museum in Rockland, Me., soon reversed its earlier decision to accept Kent's gift of 80 paintings and 800 prints and drawings.
So in 1960 Kent gave the entire trove to the Soviet Union, where his work had been warmly received during a 1957-58 touring show. Nothing from "the great Kent collection" has been seen in the United States since.
Until now. With the cold war over, the Adirondack Museum decided to seek a few of those works for "The View From Asgaard." As a small museum attempting its first international loan show, it did not have the clout or the money to borrow from the Pushkin Museum in Moscow or the Hermitage in St. Petersburg, where most of Kent's works in Russia reside.
But it did find a willing partner in Armenia, thanks to Scott R. Ferris, the exhibition's guest curator. While researching "Rockwell Kent's Forgotten Landscapes," a catalogue of the paintings in the former Soviet Union of which he is co-author (Down East Books, 1998), Mr. Ferris had made friends with Shahen Khachaturian, the director of the National Gallery of Armenia in Yerevan.
The exhibition has one more bit of bait. Kent's artistic credo, as written in his 1955 autobiography, was "Go before nature, use your eyes, and then paint what you see." How would his landscapes, made between 1928 and 1965, compare with the vistas in the "forever wild" Adirondacks today?
Mr. Ferris, the former director of the Rockwell Kent Legacies at Asgaard Farm, Kent's home and dairy near Ausable Forks, N.Y., knows the territory well. He agreed to steer me to sites depicted in several paintings in the exhibition.
Busy Life on the Farm
One morning in late June, I rented a car and drove upstate to Blue Mountain Lake and beyond.
Kent had preceded me by 72 years. He was well known in 1927 when he left New York and moved with the second of his three wives to the 200-acre Asgaard Farm, where he had a house, a studio and a dairy.
Life was busy. Besides farming and painting, Kent wrote (two autobiographies and several other books), lectured, designed buildings, campaigned for leftist causes, served as an officer of labor organizations and in 1948 ran for Congress on the American Labor Party ticket.
Though he was an eccentric, difficult man, he entertained lavishly; elaborate meals, picnics, pool parties, tennis matches, musical performances and just plain conversation were the order of the day and, often, the night. Among the guests at Asgaard were Pete Seeger, Paul Robeson, Louis Untermeyer and John Dos Passos.
Nature was his subject, though, and not just in the Adirondacks. He embarked on several painting expeditions to remote places like Greenland, Tierra del Fuego, Alaska and Maine, where he captured on canvas the barren scenery, the biting winds and the chilly seas.
At the Adirondack Museum, the paintings are warmer, even the snowy scenes. The Kent show crowds into one gallery, which Caroline M. Welsh, the chief curator, had painted the deep blue of a cloudless summer sky for the exhibition.
Kent laced his works with his personal spiritualism, influenced by the Transcendentalist belief that nature is a visible manifestation of a deity. Robert Henri, one of Kent's teachers, is quoted by Mr. Ferris in his catalogue essay as observing: "His painting is a proclamation of the rights of man, of the dignity of man, of the dignity of creation. It is his belief in God."
Kent's reverence for nature is clearly on view, as is his affection for the Adirondacks region. Several paintings, especially those like "Gladsheim" that depict his home, are tranquil, even idyllic.
Some works, like "Adirondacks," which opens the exhibition, simply employ generic Adirondack imagery. Others, like "Mountain Road," are close copies of what actually exists. Still others use the Adirondacks as a backdrop for political messages, like "Wake Up, America!," from 1941, which warns that the United States is moving close to war.
Ms. Welsh, echoing other critics, said that Kent's works with a message could seem overwrought, like florid prose. Still, Ms. Welsh and Mr. Ferris think that Kent is underappreciated and hope that this exhibition will elevate his reputation.
As a painter, Kent was agile, sometimes reducing detail and modeling the shapes; "Winter Sunrise, Whiteface Mountain" is almost abstract. Other times he used an almost superrealist style. "We wanted to show the diversity of his use of landscape," Ms. Welsh said.
"You will see," she added, "that the quality of the landscape hasn't changed, even though the details have."
The next morning I met Mr. Ferris, and we drove northeast through the towns of Saranac Lake and Lake Placid, past Wilmington and Jay, toward the Ausable River.
Just over a one-lane bridge whose wood cover had been removed for repair and was lying off to the left, we pulled over and walked a few yards down to the riverbank. The view across the river, west south-west, is portrayed in "Ausable River Rapids," Mr. Ferris said.
Kent usually worked en plein air, and certainly he sketched outdoors, but I had a hard time imagining where he had pitched his easel. Time had clearly intervened.
View Matches the Painting
Trees and brush obscure the foreground, and the wall is more weathered than it was in 1950, when he painted the scene. Yet the mountains do overlap. The central tree and the rapids do, too. After a few minutes of study, the view did seem to match the painting pretty well.
We walked back across the bridge and bore right, following the river. Some yards away, Kent had painted "Skaters." But we could not get there. His vantage point lies on private property or, improbably, in the rocky area close to the riverbed. With the bridge cover gone temporarily, and a hot June sun indicating that it was hardly skating weather anyway, we abandoned our quest to see if "Skaters" stood up to the scene today. We drove a short distance and pulled over onto a narrow dirt shoulder. Nothing looked familiar until Mr. Ferris suggested I turn around. Sure enough, "Mountain Road" lay before me, though Kent had undoubtedly used a painter's eye.
He had played with perspective, bringing the mountains in closer and accenting the road to lead the viewer straight to them. His colors are more vibrant than they were the day I visited. His clouds are better formed, too; indeed, Kent studied cloud formations and made so much of them that they became a trademark, and the subject of a New Yorker cartoon.
A few miles away, we stopped on a winding unpaved road. Kent had used the view off to the right of the Sentinel range for both "America" and "Adirondacks." This is private property, but we got permission from the owners to see what Kent saw. He must have used license, though the haze hanging over the distant mountains did not help. For again, as in "Mountain Road," Kent had sharpened the view and shrunk the space between his vantage point and the mountain. Perhaps a telephoto lens would have helped.
The scene of "Cloud Shadows" was next. Kent painted this view of his farm buildings, looking west toward the mountains, many times in all seasons. Whiteface Mountain, which he particularly loved, is the high peak on the left.
Several yards away, he painted "Clover Fields," another view of Asgaard.
Comparing the two is fascinating -- and illuminating. True, the view is slightly different, looking to the southwest. But if Kent had simply painted what he saw, how much difference would such a slight distance make?
It is obvious that Kent took artistic liberty to great effect. In "Clover Fields," he rearranged the mountains slightly. "There is no Whiteface," Mr. Ferris pointed out. In the foreground, Kent painted a close-up of the flowers, instead of depicting the pattern of fields from a distance, as he did in "Cloud Shadows."
His use of light may be the biggest difference between the two. "Clover Fields" has a bright band of light across the center that changes the whole feeling of the picture and makes it less like the scene in nature. "Cloud Shadows," despite its puffy, dramatic clouds, seems bland by comparison. Its blues, pinks and chartreuse-greens pale next to those in "Clover Fields."
We drove farther, through the village of Ausable Forks and up a hill. We were now looking south toward the mountains, the scene of "Oncoming Storm: Adirondacks," which Kent painted in 1946. In the work, one of those lent by Armenia, the storm looming in the east is a metaphor for the approaching cold war with the Soviet Union. Kent had preached that "only tolerance of each other's way of life" would insure peace.
"We wanted it because of its political message; we wanted to show that Kent employed Adirondack imagery as a messenger for his beliefs," Ms. Welsh had said.
Because of that political overlay, this may have been the hardest work to envision in today's wilds. It did not help that what would be the foreground of the work is now overgrown, or that the painting has a bare-chested worker, walking and carrying pails, in the foreground, which seemed highly improbable. The haze of the day interfered, too. But only the profile of the mountains seemed true.
Still, throughout my excursion it was easy to see why Mr. Ferris and Ms. Welsh said Kent's art was slowly getting a second look. After museum shows in San Diego in 1985 and Cleveland in 1990, the Whitney Museum of American Art last year presented "Rockwell Kent by Night," his first solo exhibition at a major New York museum.
Earlier this month, the art museum at the State University of New York at Plattsburgh opened "Commercialism and Idealism: The Advertising Art of Rockwell Kent." Next year, the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, Mass., will present "Distant Shores," focusing on Kent's work in the polar regions. It will include four paintings from the Hermitage.
And there is ample time to see "The View From Asgaard: Rockwell Kent's Adirondack Legacy." It remains on view through Sept. 18 and will be shown again in a slightly different form at the Adirondack Museum next season, June 1 through Oct. 15, 2000.
Blue Mountain Lake, N.Y., is about 265 miles north of New York City. "The View From Asgaard: Rockwell Kent's Adirondack Legacy" remains on view at the Adirondack Museum there, on Route 30, (518) 352-7311, through Sept. 18. Hours: Daily, 9:30 A.M. to 5:30 P.M. Admission: $10; $9 for the elderly; $6 for those 7 to 16; free for those under 7. Here is a sampling of places to stay and eat in the area, along with travel information:
Where to Stay
THE HEDGES, Blue Mountain Lake, N.Y., (518) 352-7325. Double room with breakfast and dinner and private bath, $145 to $166; two- or three-bedroom suite, $249.
HEMLOCK HALL, Blue Mountain Lake, (518) 352-7706. Double room with breakfast and dinner, from $92 with shared bath to $120 for private bath; one-room cottage, $135; two-room cottage, $145.
POTTERS RESORT, Blue Mountain Lake, (518) 352-7331. Double room, $80 to $90.
BEST WESTERN GOLDEN ARROW HOTEL, 150 Main Street, Lake Placid, N.Y., (800) 582-5540. Double room, $139 to $159; two-room suite, $165 to $250.
HILTON LAKE PLACID RESORT, Main Street and Mirror Lake Drive, Lake Placid, (800) 755-5598. Double room, $149 to $179; two-night minimum.
MIRROR LAKE INN, 5 Mirror Lake Drive, Lake Placid, (518) 523-2544. Daily rates range from $90 to $195 for a single or a double room to $265 to $315 for a suite.
PLACID BAY INN ON LAKE PLACID, 70 Saranac Avenue, Lake Placid, (518) 523-2001. Double room, $70 to $90; one- and two-bedroom suites, $95 to $160.
Finding the Sites
"AUSABLE RIVER RAPIDS": From Blue Mountain Lake, take Route 30 North to Route 3, then Route 86 and Route 86 North through Wilmington and through Jay. At the junction of Route 9N, continue on the extension of Route 86 (Mill Hill Road) and cross a one-lane bridge over the Ausable River. Stop at the end of the bridge; park on the right (the south side) and descend to the riverbank. Look across the river to see the view in "Ausable River Rapids."
"MOUNTAIN ROAD": With the bridge behind you, go left onto North Jay Road/ County Road 64 and drive just under two miles. Turn around to see "Mountain Road."
"AMERICA" and "ADIRONDACKS": Continue on County Road 64 for about 2.5 miles to Stickney Bridge Road and Green Street. Proceed north on Green Street for a half-mile and make the first right, onto Black Mountain Road. Go about half a mile. The view to the right is "America" and "Adirondacks."
"CLOUD SHADOWS": Retrace the route back to Stickney Bridge Road and turn right onto it. Turn right onto Sheldrake Road/County Route 65 and go about 1.3 miles. The view on the left is "Cloud Shadows."
"CLOVER FIELDS": Proceed another one-tenth of a mile on Sheldrake Road/County Route 65 and you see "Clover Fields."
"ONCOMING STORM": Continue on Route 65 to Ausable Forks, where it becomes Main Street and then North Main Street. At a stop sign, where a sign says "Fernlake" and "Black Brook," turn left onto Silver Lake Road. Go 0.8 mile; at the first fork, bear right onto Palmer Hill Road. Go a half-mile and turn left onto a dead-end road (which soon becomes a dirt road). Go one mile and park. Walk past the gate on the right and proceed about a third of a mile up the dirt path. You will see an old fire tower with a clearing on the right. The view from the clearing is the background for "Oncoming Storm."
Where to Eat
AROMA ROUND COFFEE HOUSE, 18 Saranac Avenue, Lake Placid, (518) 523-3818. Light fare and beverages.
AVERIL CONWELL DINING ROOM, at Mirror Lake Inn, Lake Placid, (518) 523-2544. American-Adirondack fare, expensive; reservations suggested.
THE COTTAGE, Mirror Lake Drive, Lake Placid, (518) 523-9845. American and health food, inexpensive.
GOLDBERRIES, 137 Main Street, Lake Placid, (518) 523-1799. A family restaurant with American-Italian food, moderate prices.
BY CAR: From New York City, take the Major Deegan Expressway to the Thomas E. Dewey Thruway (Interstate 87); continue on I-87 to Exit 23; from there, pick up Route 9 North and continue on Route 9 North through Warrensburg, N.Y., to Route 28. Take Route 28 straight to Blue Mountain Lake. (It becomes Route 30 just before Blue Mountain Lake.)
BY BUS: Adirondacks-Trailways offers daily service from the Port Authority Bus Terminal in Manhattan to Glens Falls, the nearest town to Blue Mountain Lake to offer car rentals. The bus ride from New York is just under five hours; round-trip fare, $63; half-price for children under 12. Enterprise Rent-a-Car, Glens Falls, (518) 745-5020. Bus information: (212) 967-2900.