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Adaline Kent: "Addict of the High Sierra"

By Medicine Man Gallery on

 

Adaline Kent in the High Sierra, c. 1950. Collection of the Adaline Kent Family

Adaline Kent in the High Sierra, c. 1950. Collection of the Adaline Kent Family

“The mountains are calling, and I must go.”

Surely, you’ve seen this saying printed on a t-shirt or coffee mug. Such souvenirs fill shops in ski towns across the West, proof positive of the innate lure mountains hold over millions of people. People like Adaline Kent (1900-1957).

Kent was a self-admitted “addict of the High Sierra.” She grew up in the shadow of Mt. Tampalais, just north of the Golden Gate Bridge in Marin County. She would share her love for peaks and ridges with her husband Robert B. Howard. They spent summers exploring the High Sierra with winters skiing near Tahoe. They were among the first investors of Sugar Bowl Ski Resort in Tahoe.

In her artwork, overt references to the mountains can initially prove difficult to identify. She was not a representational artist by the end of her life and career which was tragically cut short by a car accident. At some point, however, it will strike you: they’re all mountains. Most of them, anyway. Everything she produced she produced through eyes and a perspective and world view shaped by the mountains. She could no sooner divorce her work from the mountains than she could from being a woman or a human being.

Adaline Kent’s mountain visions are on view now through September 10, 2023, at the Nevada Museum of Art in Reno – the doorstep of the High Sierra – during the exhibition “Adaline Kent: The Click of Authenticity.” This is the first retrospective of Kent’s work in over sixty years and features 120 pieces of art from her entire career—some of which have never been seen before in public.

“Kent was not interested in reproducing (mountains) mimetically; she was more intrigued by the organic effects they could inspire, in their capacity to yield original ideas and abstract patterns, textures, and forms for her art,” Apsara DiQuinzio, Nevada Museum of Art Senior Curator of Contemporary Art and exhibition curator, writes in her essay for the exhibition catalog, the first scholarly publication on Kent to date.

When regarding Kent’s artwork – be that sculptures or drawings – look beyond the obvious references to mountains, beyond their silhouette or craggy outcroppings. Think about sunlight and arches and trees and streams and boulders and meadows and everything held by mountains.

“I do not want to get away from nature—it would be impossible anyway—I want to understand and coordinate all aspects that speak to me—to listen for more and more,” Kent wrote. “We don’t express nature—we express our relations to nature. The fact of creating is the expression of nature.”

Creating as an expression of nature. Everything Kent created, every single object, was an expression of nature in her mind. For her, there was no such thing as art separate from nature.

“Although Kent’s work began in the figurative mode, by the 1940s, she had moved into high abstraction. Searching for traces of the High Sierra in her work is to search for the ways in which the natural world influenced and inspired the artist’s inner world, and for the ways – both large and small – that inspiration manifested in these sculptural forms,” Rebecca Eckland, Nevada Museum of Art Director of Communications and Marketing, explained.

“Other aspects of nature inspire sculpture, sometimes as the main idea, sometimes as treatment of a subject,” Kent wrote. “Such things as shell forms and bones have been developed into complete and satisfying compositions, retaining enough of nature to admit their organic beginnings.”

Adaline Kent, Wellspring, 1945, Tempera on incised Hydrocal. 14 × 16 1⁄2 in. (35.6 × 41.9 cm), Museum of Art and Archaeology, University of Missouri, Gift of the Betty Parsons Foundation. Photo: Museum of Art and Archaeology, University of Missouri

Adaline Kent, Wellspring, 1945, Tempera on incised Hydrocal. 14 × 16 1⁄2 in. (35.6 × 41.9 cm), Museum of Art and Archaeology, University of Missouri,

Gift of the Betty Parsons Foundation. Photo: Museum of Art and Archaeology, University of Missouri

Kent filled notebooks with her philosophies on art. Her writings deeply influence the exhibition down to the title. In one entry, written as a poem entitled “Classic Romantic Mystic,” dated April 17, 1956, Kent noted, “I want to hear the click of authenticity,” musing on the creative process and how she determines what to bring into this world.

Despite her rapture for the mountains, Kent was not a one-trick pony artistically. She was deeply interested in movement and the concept of infinity. She was an athlete. A hiker, a skier, a cyclist who kept gymnastics rings in her studio and was by all accounts proficient with them. Fewer apparatuses are a greater challenge of strength, balance and coordination. She considered the movement of the body close to her ideas about her own art.

“To me, skiers, dancers, trapeze artists provide pleasure comparable to that of sculpture—an idea of form in space, space in form,” Kent wrote. “Control in space, free yet disciplined in composition. The feeling of space and movement seem to be the essence of our time.” 

Living in the age of Einstein and his revolutionary theories about time and space and space-time and multiple dimensions, within Kent’s work can be found regular hints to the infinity symbol.

“Kent was conscious of developing original ways to represent time and the fourth dimension in her art,” DiQuinzio states in her catalog essay. “The infinity symbol is her most literal manifestation of these concerns, a concise way to index the vastness of time, space, nature, and consciousness. Kent’s writings express various understandings of time’s complex and irreducible nature. In them she indicated her different understandings and expressions of it in her art. For Kent, the infinite was the wellspring of the growth and knowledge that led her to the discovery of her truth.”

Kent experienced considerable success in her day. She was featured in key 1940s and 1950s exhibitions at the Museum of Modern Art and the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York and the Bienal de São Paulo. She exhibited with the Betty Parsons Gallery in New York where she was a peer of iconic 20th century artists such as Ruth Asawa, Isamu Noguchi, Mark Rothko and Clyfford Still. Rothko was a personal friend.

Despite this, Kent has mostly slipped through the grasp of art history, a not uncommon fate experienced by countless brilliant female artists last century, particularly among those who didn’t live in New York. Undoubtably, Kent’s death occurring in her late 50s, at the peak of her career with perhaps decades of her best work to come, cut short what might have evolved into a towering artistic legacy.

“I hope that visitors gain an appreciation for how (Kent’s work) is a unique expression of our region that speaks to the inspiration many of us, in the West, feel about our natural spaces,” Eckland said. “So too, I hope they recognize her unique contribution to figuration, abstraction and surrealism on the West Coast. Her work has been overlooked for far too long and the exhibition and the catalog it inspired will be a remarkable contribution to our understanding of this unique artist.”

Adaline Kent, Link, 1949, Terracotta with pigment, 2 × 3 1⁄4 × 2 3⁄4 in. (5.1 × 8.3 × 7 cm). Collection of Julia Hilgard Ritter. Photo: Ron Jones

Adaline Kent, Link, 1949, Terracotta with pigment, 2 × 3 1⁄4 × 2 3⁄4 in. (5.1 × 8.3 × 7 cm). Collection of Julia Hilgard Ritter. Photo: Ron Jones

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