In the 1930s and 1940s Rockwell Kent's illustrations were widely known in America. But during the 1950s his socialism received more attention than his art, and that combined with a modernist loathing for illustration kept him from regaining the spotlight.

American museum exhibitions of Kent's work were rare, especially after he gave a large group of his paintings "to the people of the Soviet Union" in 1960. There was an important show in Maine almost a decade later. But only now, 30 years after his death, does "Distant Shores: The Odyssey of Rockwell Kent" at the Terra Museum of American Art celebrate him equally as a painter and illustrator.

In his early life, Kent was a wilderness traveler, and the paintings, prints and drawings assembled here testify to that passion. There's something a little creepy about his decades of self-testing in Maine, Newfoundland, Alaska, Tierra del Fuego and Greenland. But he thought such travels represented a "flight to freedom" from so-called civilized man, and the effect of the works proves as much mystical as macho.

In any event, the difficulty of life in Kent's chosen locales rarely comes through in the paintings. And that perhaps has less to do with a stoic attitude than a rugged style. He favored a tight delineation of comparatively few streamlined forms, painted with strong contrasts of light and dark. This gave a heroic cast to unpeopled landscapes and work scenes alike.

The difficulty with the style is its similarity to the "uplifting" ones practiced in totalitarian countries. Kent's romantic, allegorical content was favored over every other by various dictatorial regimes in the '30s, though of course that was not his fault. But whereas his pictorial simplifications were strong, a tendency to simplify philosophically undermines several of the pictures, giving them a certain gooeyness.

That rather than storytelling, which is central to illustration, is what works against Kent, for when he is at the service of someone else's thought — as with Herman Melville's "Moby Dick" — he can be both spare in design and ideationally superb.

Kent's unpeopled landscapes are, too, appealing in the way the works of certain early moderns were, creating a drama purely of light and form rather than overheated sentiment.

"Distant Shores: The Odyssey of Rockwell Kent" continues at the Terra Museum of American Art, 666 N. Michigan Ave., through May 20; a talk on Kent's politics will be at 6 p.m. May 1.