Portrait of an Artist Sorely Tried by Riotous Times
By ANTHONY BURTON
Artist Noel Rockmore returned to his studio at 5:30 p.m. He pulled off his turtleneck sweater and began to change into his tuxedo. He was just an hour and a half away from one of the most important moments in his career. Rockmore, 38, stepped out into W. 67th St., hailed a cab and told the driver to take him to the Greer Gallery on W. 53d St., where his exhibition, “The World of Noel Rockmore,” was about to have a champagne opening before a choice gathering of the beautiful people.
The 35 paintings hanging on the newly painted walls of the gallery represented nearly two years of work. Thousands had been spent to attract buyers to the show. But crisis had followed crisis. There had been the death of the publicity man at the very time he was due to start beating the drum for the show, then the frantic search for a replacement. There had been a panic when the date of the opening had to be changed after the invitations had gone out. There had been the summit decision that the artist’s shaggy locks would have to be trimmed by a hair stylist - $35 to sit in his chair – so that Rockmore would project the right image. There had been the shattering news that Frank Sinatra had been ill-mannered enough to try to steal some of the spotlight by opening a new film the same night. There had been the discovery that one of the show’s most important paintings had been sent to Connecticut. But all had been weathered and even threatened snowfall had not materialized.
Rockmore’s cab was three blocks from the gallery when he began to wonder what was going on. About 700 guests had been invited, but surely, all these policemen were not needed to control the traffic. Cops were everywhere, hundreds of them. They seemed to be concentrated around the Hilton, where Secretary of State Dean Rusk was due to give a speech. People were running around with signs, shouting and throwing bottles and eggs. Police barriers blocked Rockmore’s cab. Abandoning the taxi, the artist began to walk. Gangs of kids were roaming the streets, shouting obscenities at pedestrians in evening clothes, assuming they were heading for the Hilton.
Rockmore finally reached the gallery, which was less than a block from the Hilton. He was immediately reminded of a tomb. Singer Sergio Franchi was there looking lonely, but hardly anybody else appeared. The phone began to ring. Guests reported they couldn’t get through. Police were stopping limousines from entering 53d St., where the gallery was located. The apologies rolled in. Anita Louise, designer Pauline Trigere and Vincent Price couldn’t make it. Then a demonstrator tried to get into the gallery and was hauled out bodily by a huge police sergeant.
“At this stage,” Rockmore said later, “the prospects for the show were not good.” From the opening time of 7 p.m. until 8:30 p.m., the gallery was practically deserted. Braver spirits, including City Council President Frank O’Connor, Huntington Hartford and HopeHampton, ran the gantlet of demonstrators and police and the gallery began to fill. For about an hour, it was fairly crowded. But of the 31 paintings on view, only half of a dozen were sold. People seemed more interested in discussing the action outside.
Co-owner of the gallery Manny Greer said yesterday: “Disastrous. The riot lasted from 7 p.m. to 10 p.m., the time of our opening. It couldn’t have been worse.”