New Orleans and Its Art
An interview with Noel Rockmore by Patrick Kelly
Good press or bad press can help of hinder most artists unless they’re “established,” meaning, for one thing, they’re beyond the vicissitudes of the press, the critics. For another, that they’ve jumped through the hoops held out by the aesthetes of academe (or teachers in art schools) and have competed successfully for awards. Then there’s the matter of getting into museums, the first step toward sanctification.
French Quarter resident and painter Noel Rockmore has exhibited at the Metropolitan, the MOMA, the Whitney, the Pennsylvania Academy and locally at the Delgado, among other places. He’s received awards. Two Tiffany Fellowships and several more, according to a 5-year-old biographical sketch. He received an Artist-in-Resident grant through the Ford Foundation in 1964. In 1965 LSU Press published the artist’s New Orleans Jazz Works - 80 plates of local jazz figures.
All this tells us where the artist has been and nothing about where he is now and/or where he is going. That’s the purpose of the following interview. Also, it speaks more for the painter than a list of past accomplishments that are akin to a military hero’s medals, meant to astound and convince - while asserting the wearer’s bravado and wherewithal. At 42, Rockmore has gone through all that.
Due to his subject matter he is sometimes considered a “New Orleans painter.” Actually, he is still very much a New York painter who has brought an alien attitude to an equally alien clime and social milieu. It’s a matter of the artist’s malapert temperament up against what he calls the “honest degeneracy” of the French Quarter - the result is a surreal imagery that penetrates the scabrous 3-dimensional exterior of the Vieux Carre to seek the psychic dimensions of the people who call the Quarter home.
You work both in New York and New Orleans as well as San Francisco. In New York especially there seems, well, seems to be something going on. In New Orleans there are artists, such as yourself, but you have to ferret them out, find them... You’re here for some reason. An influence maybe?
There is a reason to be in the Quarter. It relates to honest degeneracy. The cemeteries, the rooftops. That’s basically why I’m here and I think that’s why Tennessee Williams was attracted to the idea of here. Although he couldn’t work here. The proximity factor was so strong.
Could this “honest degeneracy” be interpreted as “inspiration”?
Part of inspiration is depression. The manic depressive streak with which creative works come about requires a combination of both - duality - requires both functioning. I think that New Orleans is essentially a depressing place. Meaning, a physically attractive place except for the tourist sort of thing, but you wake up in the morning, see the clouds, rooftops. You don’t see that in Manhattan. The Bronx is miles and miles long and has no charm at all. These are some of the reasons for staying here; it’s part of the city that has this quality. It’s like a stage set sometimes, though.
What kind of feeling do you get when you go back to New York?
I don’t get any kind of feeling. I got a studio in N.Y. and that’s New York. When an artist goes into a studio he isolates himself and by isolation he acquires a sense of secrecy. New York doesn’t involve me. You have to go into the subways and see rows of frightened people going to work every morning. Bored and full of hate.
But in New Orleans you aren’t confined to your studio. I’ve seen you out sketching...
Almost all my etchings and sketches are done in cafes and bars. I like to be around the noise of people without being disturbed by them. People know me and leave me alone.
You paint a lot of “characters” of the Quarter; actually, here they’re quite normal. People from across Canal St. are characters. You were sketching Paul Ernest a few days ago..holding a skull...
Paul of course is fascinating because he’s a walking skull, and we all are incipiently, but he is literally and that’s why he fascinates me. It’s as simple as that. When he holds the skull in his hand it’s a double portrait. It’s extraordinary... I think the situation down here in New Orleans is very bad. I think it should be. There should be a place in the United States that is as bad. Culturally. A completely hopeless, visually fascinating, backwater. Because the worst thing you could have here would be an art colony. It’s bad enough to have McCrady Art School, et cetera because it’s not that type of town. This town does not need an art center. If you took Lincoln Center and put it down next to the Trade Mart it would be the laughing stock of the world. It would be completely ridiculous.
It’d also go into bankruptcy...
It’d be like putting the UN Building in Mississippi. You can’t do it. You’ve got to leave it somewhat alone. It is a backwater. It’s not a metropolis. If you had 4 million more people you’d have 3 million more just like these who are here now. Almost identical, repetitious. The thing that makes this area fascinating is the folk art element, Sister Gertrude who is a religious fanatic artist and the jazz element that’s dying out rapidly, and so on. The greatest thing in New Orleans is probably the relationship of the cemeteries to a funeral band. And that’s something you won’t find anywhere else in the United States. And literally speaking, nowhere in the world. In Milan, you can see a funeral procession, but it’s an official, city procession. It’s entirely different. But we invented Jazz in this area. I think the attempt to achieve a minor supracultural area by certain galleries is ridiculous.
I agree. I think it will always fail. There will never be a Lincoln Center. Instead, we have something of a substitute that suits New Orleans, that football thing, the Super Dome. I think this is New Orleans’ Lincoln Center...
How do you get your work to the public? Some artists have galleries, or showings and also the “open house” studio for prospective buyers. In New Orleans, for example, if you want something by Rockmore, from what I hear, you see Larry Borenstein. This is what I hear, I know neither of you only that Borenstein has a lot of your work.
I’d like to add that no one owns an artist’s work. It passes on through various hands. The person who buys the painting rents it. He dies, and it goes into other hands - or he sells it at a profit, a profit that usually doesn’t involve the artist.
It’s difficult to believe that some collectors or buyers - according to that - don’t own, physically possess, the paintings...
A lot of the problem is this, that they want to own what they can’t produce...
That’s a common thing...
Some of them buy what they think they can make it up with, but it has its limits. You can’t own a human being. You can relate to them. Some people don’t understand the relationship of Conweiller to Picasso, a dealer who allowed 10% of his work to be owned.
What about local galleries, in New Orleans, specifically the Quarter?
I think the Orleans Gallery is doing a great disservice to the area. They succeed in aping the situation of what they think is L.A, that is, aping N.Y. that reflects London which is also aping New York. This is not going to help New Orleans. The actual strength of an area that is non-indigenous to an art center has its own peculiar kind of art which is regional. I don’t mean bad regional art, of which there is plenty, but at the same time I don’t mean proto-Pop copies, of which there are tons. I walk down the street in New Orleans and I see ice cream dishes careening out of a window display, it could be a bakery, but it’s a gallery. That’s bad news. I saw that eight years ago.
Let’s talk about your “Homage to the French Quarter”...
That was a documentary. To my friends I describe it as not one of my good paintings even though I love it dearly, but it’s something I had to do. To me it’s a 19th century piece a la 1970 which is when it was done. You can’t do a good painting that way. It’s sort of a satire, but not really satirical. The best way I can describe it is to say simply it’s the world’s largest post card. That’s exactly what it is and some day people are going to realize that’s what it is.
It’s not a culmination of any style or combination of method, then.
Nor does it mark a turning point...
No, this is something I had to step back to do because, you know, five years ago I wanted to do it. It’s not a creative thing. It’s...it’s a joke that took nine months to do.
What do you have in mind for the future? Is something planned or do you evolve aesthetically through experimentation...
No, I know exactly what I’m going to do. I’m going into a tremendous series in the next 20 years, 50"x70" approximately, imaginary compositions with motorcyclists, with a moon, that’ll be a latter day Rousseau’s “Sleeping Gypsy” almost. That’ll be the first composition and I’d like to do about 50. And then a series of imaginary visits to my studio with people like Mike Stark and Bill Russell and so on and some of the fantastic characters and friends I have here. The work is definitely getting more internal.
What’s this about the motorcycle?
You’re taking a classical idea, or form, that a hundred years ago might have been a man swimming alone by himself at night, for example, and putting him on a motorcycle and turning him into the machine he is. The motorcycle fascinates me because (A) I’ve never seen it painted accurately, and (B) because it conjures up all the surrealist imaginatory factors that can be utilized in a realist literal sense without distortion. I mean, they exist for themselves. (Pause) These guys are nuts! And their home is on wheels. It’s kind of tiny, but the “hog” is a floral still life to me. I see it as that any motorcycle painting I ever do will always have a bird in it, a little, tiny bird in the foreground wondering what the hell is happening.
The motorcyclist is sort of a “degeneracy” as you said earlier?
Well, he’s so far out that “degeneracy” is behind the time. Nevertheless, a fascinating and valid subject. This will be the first in a series over the next 20 years.
What do you think of the national art scene today, generally?
I think American art requires that American artists face responsibility on a large scale without using the scale as a shock element, which is unfortunately what happened with contemporary art and I’m completely against that.
What about the large canvasses in the area of someone like Frank Stella?
I think Frank Stella is absolutely dreadful. A real bore. And I can’t even think of anything to say about him. One Mondrian is more interesting and I think Mondrian is a bore - compared to Van Gogh. I’m really at a loss of words which is really an extraordinary situation for me.