1973 Noel Rockmore Interviewed by Bill Russell about his art

Following is an interview between “R - Bill Russell” and “N - Noel Rockmore”, from 1973

R - Bill Russell) One thing here Larry wanted you to discuss pop art.  You’ve probably covered that as much as you want to, the contrast with your own work and all.

N - Noel Rockmore) I think it’s a complete bore and to be forced to take it seriously as an art movement because of the accreditation given to it by publications and the beetlebrows who run the art world.  It’s not my fault and I don’t think I should be castigated to the point of having to discuss it as an important subject.  I think it is a bore.  Literally a bore.  I react to it the same way I do to a poster on the subway, which is to glance at it.  Art is not meant for glancing. 

R - Bill Russell) I don’t even know what is going to be in this new book and wonder if you could just take your time as we do have a few minutes to just think about different things you might want to discuss; maybe even about individual paintings.  I don’t have the least idea of what the book has organized, what it’s all about, or...

N - Noel Rockmore) It’s organized into several sections.  I think the most important section to my view is what I would call either psychological or interior/exterior compositions.  What I mean by psychological or interior/exterior compositions is that in all of these paintings, etchings, drawings, etc. I have used essentially the same theme, which is almost invariably a table, figures, some of the outdoors; usually without the explanation of a demarked window; the outdoors climbs indoors, it is on the same plane of experience always, with very, very few exceptions.  The minute you think, in one of these compositions, that you are actually outdoors, you suddenly notice that part of the outdoors is on top of the table, which is indoors.  And so on and so forth. 

The device is used to two-dimensionalize an essentially third-dimensional mind.  This is the impact of modern art on all of my work and you can see it progressing from, for example, the “Coney Island Labyrinth” the last painting done in my 20's, reproduced in color in this book, 1958, compared to let us say “Family Tree Group” of 1964 or “The Astrologer” of ‘65, or “The Sorcerer”, both in the Potamkin collection of ‘65.  The difference is obvious spatially. 

The later works, without exception, are flat, two-dimensional compositions compared to the Renaissance picture window horizon-line device of the beach and the ocean in the Coney Island painting, which leads the eye in to a violation essentially of the flat two-dimensional field of the picture plane which I was not that aware of until I began to really look at modern art assiduously and I mean from Gaugin on and the general tendency of modern art through a series of influences not wanting to be like photographs. 

It isn’t in the 1850's and 60's and 70's that I’m talking about now but the fantastic influence of Japanese prints upon Manet, etc. etc. tempering somewhat the general direction of Pizzaro and Monet’s pointilism and impressionism developments leading into also Seurat’s phenomenal two-dimensionality.  The general development in that entire period is similar in a sort of toned-down version of what happened in the teens of this century, but essentially the same thing happened earlier.  It didn’t happen to make an impact for lots of reasons.  It lacked a Picasso personality to push it.  It lacked the scholarship, the instant publication of color reproductions, which has become to me one of the greatest dangers today.  There is a lack today...all contemporary art today, practically all, shows this lack and danger...where the message really has become the medium.  That is one of my pet hates which I think is disasterous, absolutely disasterous.  It’s so complicated.  I’m trying to...

R) Take your time.  That’s all right.

N - Noel Rockmore) What was the basic point I was heading toward?  I’m thinking about too many things.  Do you remember was it two-dimensionality or what?

R) No.

N - Noel Rockmore) Alright. The impact basically therefore of modern art on my work essentially happened very slowly over a period of fifteen years and it happened methodically.  I rejected it and still reject it as much as possible because I want to say things third-dimensionally.  I see them third-dimensionally.  But I’m working on a flat surface so I cannot make them really round.  If I make them round then I have to put them back in the space a little bit.  Buy my space tends to be only four or five inches think. 

When I was younger it might have been a mile back, a total violation of the flatness of the picture and the only way to explain picture plane to people so they finally understand what a picture is not is to give them the circus-hoop analogy and the tiger jumping through the paper and that is what a misuse or abuse of the flat two-dimensional field essentially does to a good painting; it literally jumps through the hoop.  Now you can jump through the hoop if the hoop is way back itself so that where you ran after the jump is still within the picture plane field of depth.  It depends upon what your depth consciousness is. 

My depth consciousness creatively in other words has flattened out and it is now only a few inches.  When I think of a large composition everything in that composition; two figures; five figures; is happening within a two-dimensional frieze controlled shallow face of perhaps five or six inches, maybe up to a foot at the most.  Even if there are clouds they are only five or six inches away from that head in depth.  It’s a very important point.  It also makes people think about paintings in a way they don’t usually; one of the problems is you can’t judge in a major work; paint a great head or figure or something; and then a landscape or a cityscape behind that head, let’s say rooftops and paint the damned thing as it is in real life, half a mile beyond that head because you’re working on a flat piece of canvas and you are obviously, a photograph has no choice, but the artist up and flattens and brings it all together in the same plane of experience; much more interesting, much more active up and down and across. 

One of the most important things about modern art is that it made artists think again about that.  I consider movements like pop art and so on diversion along the general path of real creative thinking just as much as I do bad realism or boring, repetitive abstraction of which there are so many examples in the last 30 or 40 or 50 years.  But I do think there are some artists who have developed very well in that period. I don’t like Miro’s late development; I think he’s gotten cute.  Possibly that much fame does hurt you; I don’t know what the answer is.  But he remains a very fine patternist.  However, the biggest change is that since the 30's I don’t think he designs as much and therefore I think he leaves behind some of his greatness. 

As far as my own development though, you can see it very clearly by comparing the “Coney Island Labyrinth” with any major work of the same type, a major figure composition in space, 10, 12, 15 years later.  The difference is obvious.  But that’s about the only concrete thing I can say about that.  The other think creatively I can say now is that the book will expose a new period of egg tempera that I have been going into which will hopefully develop into a two or three year period and constitute perhaps an edition of 150 or more egg temperas.  Since I’ve only done about 25 thirteen years ago I did 20 and I have recently completed my eighth in this new series I should take two or three years of course to reach that number. 

The reason for doing a large number is that I am curious to see what they would look like; how they would develop ideas because the egg tempera medium carries a discipline which in itself influences ideas and idea patterns.  Its limitations become a form of freedom in a perverted sort of way that is also one of its reasons for its unpopularity and the fact that perhaps only a handful of artists actually work with it today in the world.  I myself will be happy to give it up and go back to oils which I feel is more expansive and I feel a more basic medium, more direct.  But I think the period of egg tempera should produce some very interesting pieces that could not be produced in any other medium.  It is one of the few painting media in which the medium itself has something to say about the painting creatively to that extent. 

The opalescence, the translucence are all qualities that both limit and free in a restricted sense certain ideas that simply wouldn’t be effective in oils the same size at all.  Whereas by and large if I can do in acrylic what I can do in oils except for the lack of warmth in acrylic colors because they are after a chemical substitute for egg tempera essentially.  As far as future direction goes, the next few years I hope to concentrate as much as possible on major compositions working more and more in this space field.  I have no strong desire to question that element of realism which I retain.  I feel that painting, unlike music, is an art form in which matter and form are not both abstract inherently and the depictive factor, far from being a limitation, is actually a :peg to hang my coat on” creatively. 

So as I go into maturity, in my middle 40's, theoretically one hopes, I don’t feel any tremendous push toward abstraction any more than I did 20 years ago but I think I have a better reason for not experimenting in that direction.  My creativity is involved in doing different things with the same thing as against designing a new bottle to pour the wine into.  I am not in that sense an innovator.  I am an innovator only in the sense of what I do with non-innovation, as it were.  Concurrently with the egg tempera I begin to feel a strong desire to return to etching.  

I have upstairs in my studio here in New Orleans a bunch of valuable old copper plates, photoengraving plates, and may produce a series of, oh 20, new etchings in the next two years and these will tend to be no aquatint pure etchings; tremendous detail in most cases.  Subject matter will remain, as I said earlier in a different sense, pretty much the same - figures in space, compositions, extraordinary people resulting in extraordinary portraits or at least the attempt at extraordinary portraits.  The tendency to not paint healthy people in a literal sense but visual deviates will remain the same because it has remained the same.  I think there is a growing compassion in my work but only in a small sense.  My work remains essentially that of a surgeon.

R) That’s all very good points you make, discrimination, nice reading...  Do you want to take a minute and think of anything else about this book - the things a reader might wonder, you know, I mean when they see certain paintings they might wonder when they were painted, why, or...  I suppose Larry or somebody is going to discuss the general things like what period, how long a period, and so forth.

N - Noel Rockmore) Yeah.  I would imagine that would all be...

R) Is there anything of that kind that you would want to comment on?

N - Noel Rockmore) Well, the periods as I remember them fall into teen-age years, the Bowery series, lived with and painted and drew a large series, several hundred studies of Bowery bums, constituted a major period.  Of all this work in this period I have literally only one, that one is reproduced in the book, dated 1949 when the artist was 20. The drawing shows complete mastery of draftmanship in the classic sense, at 20, which can suggest the quality level of the rest of that period, which although extant is not reachable for this book. 

Concurrently with the International History series of Dali-esque pencil drawings, and by Dali-esque I mean degree of execution, details, of mummies.  These constitute only about six but these small drawings each of them , one reproduced, are so extraordinarily detailed that one hand less than an inch long took me almost a week.  The discipline represented in that period is not so much in numbers but in degree of intensity. 

The next major period was Coney Island, the first Coney Island period, and the circus period which produced many different works which are scattered in many different sections of the book.  Very few, but I think two or three or four.  Again there is no coverage of these periods as periods. 

Then the middle 50's we can break it down into basically realism leading into the Brooklyn Heights period where we have some major reproductions.  “Three Men on a Beach” is an example of this period of work done in 1955.  The early family portraits were essentially extraordinary art student’s work almost in the old-fashioned sense.  One was destroyed, the other is extant in a museum in Florida.  I don’t know if we have a reproduction of it. 

The pull toward fantasy however began to weaken the resolve and direction of pure realism in the late 50's.  Surrealist elements began to appear in my work weakening the resolve of realism and weakening the painting in that period.  A perfect example is in the Hirschhorn Foundation, I don’t know if there is a reproduction in this book, of the ex-wife of the artist and the artist standing in front of Coney Island where almost superimposed are elements of Coney Island night life to make the painting literally less literal as a portrait. 

These devices are the devices of someone under pressure in two directions who cannot make up his mind.  Not being able to make up your mind is the most important first step toward developing one, however, and a year or two later flowered in a pseudo-realist and basically surrealist great work, in my opinion, called “The Coney Island Labyrinth” which is reproduced in color in the book and has already been discussed.  This direction held for a while but no specific direction in terms of any style has held for very long in my work.  I have too inquiring a mind and too restless a personality to stay with it in that sense. 

I return constantly to it, however, whatever it is and I would say that the most important creative period of all occurred after the first egg tempera period, which although it produced the most beautiful paintings in some way, I have ever done in 1959 and 60 in New Orleans, creatively it was not an important period of work.  On closer analysis these painting do not deal in a first-rank sense with creative problems.  They are works which deal with mood, poetry, exquisiteness of execution; they are the works of someone who has done his work and is now feasting essentially and in a very peculiar way relaxing. 

The creative work which is important happened in 1961 and 62 in New York where I did the important large first “Portrait of the Artist’s Parents” which deals very strongly with both realism and fantasy in a completely successful way, in my opinion, but frontally; there are no sideways glances in any direction.  The painting deals exactly with whatever it started to deal with. 

 At the same time in the same period I was so clear in that period and close to resolution of these two basic strains that in no way work together and produced “the Game”, which is reproduced in color in this book also, and “The Game” is completely inventive composition of two figures playing an imaginary game at a table.  A totally contrived work, if you will, hermetically sealed in an imaginary unreal setting, pretty much the opposite of the portrait of the artist’s parents; the paintings were done within two or three months of each other.  And this remains a typical duality til the present time.  That’s about all I can say about it.

R) Larry suggested that you talk about the universality of the human experience in your view of life and so forth.  Do you have any remarks on that?

N - Noel Rockmore) Well, yeah.  The essential subject matter aside from the basic theme I have stated, which is essentially an emotional theme, such as the patio series or “The Game” or paintings of this type which are so fundamental to most of my work in one way or another, nevertheless underlying all of this I suppose you could say the spectre of death is the basic subject - the inevitability of our decline.  I am to a certain extent one of those artists who chronicles decay. 

I am not interested, as I said, in physical health as a subject in my painting.  I simply don’t find a young face interesting unless I invent it and if I invent it then it is highly stylized and useful to me as a device but it itself generally is not interesting to me although I have done some portraits, and very beautiful ones, of children.  But that is the patina of childhood, of the extraordinary wax-like perfection of complexion, the skin, that fascinates me.  And that in itself is sort of inhuman - it is not a human quality per se.  The beauty of a child essentially is the beauty of alabaster and therefore emotionally a copout in effect.  Not creatively, but emotionally it doesn’t force the artist to deal with anything.

I think that “Eternity”, the major etching of the mummy, is perhaps the most successful single death image I have produced.  Certainly the head of RFK, “As I Lay Dying”, painted the day he was shot from a newspaper still, is an extraordinarily provocative and disturbing image of death.  It is essentially the helplessness of this condition that fascinates me.  I have painted an autopsy but destroyed the painting because it was so ghoulish.  It is interesting that in the autopsy painting for example, just to give you an example, literally, of how far this tendency is carried in me, I actually painted the man’s face not upon him, the embalmer, but reflected in the blood inside the chest cavity - which I found a little hard to live with. 

I would say the spectre, the inevitability, of death excites me.  It is somehow the promise behind the peculiar process we insist upon calling life.  I love life and I think my work reflects a love of life - the use of plants, of animals, inventive little shapes - all show a delight similar to that of a gourmet; but I am also pointing an accusing finger and warning, not at a sociologic candor such as the 30's realist who warned about social ills - I don’t care about one way or the other about social ills because they all follow an inevitable pattern.  The essential emotional trap - the minute one is born essentially the largest portion of that life and its destiny are out of his hands - is what fascinates me.  Somewhere in there is the truth.

When people complain about my compositions having a macabre feeling to them, it is this “hanging gardens of Rome” inevitability that is behind the shape of heads perhaps that may project this or of the overall complex conglomerate of harmonic decision in a thousand little tones and colors in a big composition that give the overall impact of depression or gloom which is essentially more interesting than the opposite.  You cannot, to carry it to its joke level, paint a smile.  If you do, you can paint a smile only to use as a protector? grotesqueness?  The minute you free the literal depiction of happiness doesn’t work in art whereas gloom is a natural.  And yet at the same time I don’t think that most of my work is macabre. 

I am not suggesting that; I am not implying it but definitely I am not on the other hand an objective realist with a happy face.  There is a certain element of hope implied in even beginning a major work.  That is perhaps where my optimism shows in stretching the actual canvas or in starting the etching.  Why bother otherwise?  But once into the process my intelligence tells me I am quite sure that the whole thing is hopeless.  The minute you touch a copper plate, the minute you touch a canvas, you’re already out of control.  There is no way the human mind can control the next brush stroke.  It is impossible.  It has already set up so many vibratory interaction that it is completely out of control and your intuition must take over and if your intuition is good enough and you’re experienced and whatever gift was given you you may be able to control one third of that process by the time you have finished and created something.

Nobody ever paints a picture or writes a book or a symphony or anything else.  One merely manages to salvage a certain percentage of what might have been.  At best.  I might suggest using that in the book.  That’s a good phrase.  Also I have never, in all these years, I have never figured out what actually is the subject of the human figure.  When you think about it objectively it is very peculiar to depict oneself essentially. 

And Larry feels literally, as many people do, that when I paint a portrait it is essentially a self-portrait. Literally speaking this is not correct but there is a grain of truth always to that.  But I think it’s a silly idea and one not worth going into.  In other words my answer is, “So what?”  One still naturally projects oneself upon the other image.  One tends to even seek out sitters who correspond perhaps to that inner tendency whatever it is.  I tend to like to paint older men, for example, but the use of the human object as an object in a painting has a peculiar bounceback.  

Psychologically it turns the canvas into a form of partial mirror inevitably.  And that is basically why I prefer the use of human subjects as the fundamental single prime object in all works. There are relatively few works in 30 years of my ouevre in which one will find pure landscape.  There are two rare early examples reproduced in this book however - three; “The Tree” also but they are extremely rare still lifes the same.  Both landscape and still life, whether fantasy or real, tend to be always interrelated to the human figure.  And the human figure basically in my work is a toy to play a visual game with, to say something that means something to me. 

I am not interested in painting a human being.  I am interested in using a human being as a device is a visual game of chess.  Essentially, that is what these compositions mean to me.  Emotionally, you could say that the compositions, all of them to come in the future and the past, mean essentially “I am trapped”.  And I don’t particularly mind it but at the same time I am just uncomfortable enough to create the tension that you see.  That is the essential topic.  That’s about all I can really.

R) Do you have any afterthoughts now about any individual paintings that you’ve done that you haven’t mentioned?  I think that ought to be enough material certainly.  Ten to 20 pages probably.  I don’t know how long it’s supposed to be.  Have you any idea?

N - Noel Rockmore) I have no idea.  I don’t think the text is going to be much longer than this probably will be.

R) Anyway, it is well to have plenty so you can be choosey, you know.

N - Noel Rockmore) Well, I can say one thing specifically.  The jazz period, although numbering close to 700 or according to Mr. Borenstein more than that, does not constitute in my opinion a major period of creative work in my life because of the redundancy of many of these works.  In the jazz series there are creative works but they are relatively few and far between.  Once established, the formula was used over and over again.  The fact that the formula was effective does not mean or imply that later examples were as creative as they should be necessarily.  Some of them may have been through sheer luck, talent, or anything else you may care to name but compared to the major compositions that we have just been discussing, for example, a serious portrait done on my own with my own initiative, based on curiosity, not commissioned portraits. 

Throughout my life, I would think far superseded in importance any specific period such as the jazz which has had more success and publicity than it deserves in comparison with great works in my opinion like “The Astrologer” and so on and so forth, etc. etc. which are almost unknown in the present day art world.  They are hidden in private collections, none of them are in museums with the exception of Swope Museum which holds the major “Back Porch” egg tempera for 1959, which after all is a long time ago and doesn’t represent my work at all now.  Therefore it is practically only my and a few serious collectors’ opinion that this large series of compositions constitutes my major work. 

I am fairly sure that I am right about it.  I want to get that in only because Larry mentioned a little too much about jazz in my opinion and I thought that without doing what he expected me to do, knock the jazz, I still want to place it correctly.  I think it’s minor creatively in my work.  I don’t think he understands that because he’s too tied up with it.  But I feel that way; most of the serious collectors like Shirley Marvin, who know my work intimately over a period of many years, do not place it in that an importance.  You could also say that the compositions deal with a state of mind; that that could be the subtitle of almost all of the big compositions - “state of mind”.  Passage in time.  Something happening in time.  Temporal factor is something I would like to fool with, like a painting that happens between 5:30 and 6 o’clock.   Even if it took a year to paint, the subject matter occurred in a half hour.  Oh well, you can go on.  I think that covers the essentials, Bill.

R) I can’t think of anything else and there wasn’t any other place here that Larry had suggested.  Actually we didn’t discuss this but for about two minutes on the way out to the Fairgrounds yesterday or the day before; he was driving and I didn’t know what it was all about.  It seems to me that you have some wonderful material here that make that thing at least ten wonderful pages and maybe more and people can be selective when they organize it, whoever does it for.

N - Noel Rockmore) You know the dummy for this book is huge.  11x14 (and more about the physical book).

R) The last time, in the other black and white book, you mentioned that color wasn’t important to you except as an emotional...

N - Noel Rockmore) No, I think that color is more important in the compositions we have just discussed.  As a general rule color is about as important a factor as is design.  It is part of the structure of, for example, “The Sorcerer” and it is essential to an understanding and full impact of “The Astrologer” and “Patio #1" which will possibly be in color.  The color is terribly important to that, etc.  It depends upon the period and the work.  Generally that refers to jazz, which I think color is almost non-existent in.  Larry’s insistence on one jazz color plate is silly to me and a waste of money but perhaps it isn’t silly; I don’t know.  I really don’t know.  Possibly the Punch Miller with the slash of red in it would make one fine color plate and since it is a great painting of its type it’s OK.  But that’s as far as I’ll go on that.

R) I like the color myself.

N - Noel Rockmore) Well, it’s awfully difficult to reproduce those umber colors.  They don’t pick up well.  Basically I am not a colorist but I think that my color is a definite weapon in the arsenal of whatever effectiveness I might be guilty of in some of the bigger compositions.  Cannot be left out.  Of those.  And for example, it is terribly important in most egg temperas because the range of color hues and tints and sheer brilliance is possible in egg tempera is so extraordinary that it’s not possible to not use it and to use the medium so I expect to go into some really interesting new for me color experiments because of that medium. 

But still I would not basically say “I am a colorist” as for example Matisse is essentially a colorist.  Another basic thing I think he should hit is that fundamentally I am a draftsman.  I think in terms of not so much line, but in terms of design with line, and I’m not implying that color is added as an ingredient to a stew and then stir it in; it is germane from the beginning if it is a major painting but I have to go through a greater change from my basic nature in order to paint at all than, for example, Cezanne did but in terms of color structure very early in his life actually.  Only he didn’t paint that way early in his life, the tendency was still there.  His early paintings are essentially mass whereas I work into mass only through carefully contrived edges, i.e. linear.  It’s always there, the draftmanship. 

As far as overall future direction I can’t say really anything intelligent.  Basically going in the same direction I was in in the early 60's with a maturation factor, an increase in power; if I can put it all together I think it’s going to be richer, more powerful but essentially in the same direction because it is a direction that has not been plumbed to its depths at all in my opinion; I have just scratched the surface and I certainly won’t change away from, for example, the fundamental thematic approach I have described as one does in becoming bored with something until I actually become bored with it and the only thing that would bore me would be successful repetition.

R) Anything else?

N - Noel Rockmore) You might say that I am basically a nocturnal artist diurnal as a silly overtone of dramatization but nevertheless there is a grain of truth to that.  I could say again that I think my resolve in the direction of the pure etching, the tremendous detail to strengthen the impact of what I am trying to say, is even more ingrained with every passing year than it was when I was younger and more confused.  I feel, if anything, less confused about the veracity of this direction, this overall direction, now.  My path is therefore clearer in my 40's than it was in my 30's to me.  If this is really true, and I don’t know yet if it is, but if it is really true it will result in more consistent production of a long line of work dealing more effectively on a higher plane with the problems that fascinate me.  That’s about all I can think of, Bill.

R) Yeah, I’m sure that’s enough.