An Authentic American Genius flourishes in the French Quarter

- Photostory by Ed Martinez = Montrose Voice / April 2, 1982 / page 15 / Montrose Art section

          The light gleamed softly through the leaded glass doors of the stately mansion located on the carefully landscaped lot in uptown New Orleans. Inside all was elegance and quiet good taste.  Furnishings and art objects of museum quality filled every room, together with delicious food, beautifully gowned women and interesting men.  Finally, the artist himself, cigarette constantly in hand, darted from group to group, greeting this one, meeting that one, pausing briefly before moving on.

            The home was that of Sandra Zahn Oreck, Noel Rockmore’s agent, owner of the art gallery that bears her name, and herself a talented artist, sculptress and printmaker.  At one point in the evening, some of the models featured in Rockmore’s paintings joined the group dressed in the garb in which they had been painted, so that they seemed to step out of the painting to join the guests.

            The following evening, the exhibit of Rockmore’s paintings opened at the Sandra Zahn Oreck Gallery in the French Quarter.  The show was entitled “Recent Rockmores,” and featured works of the artist not previously exhibited.

            Noel Rockmore is probably a genius.  If not, the difference is so slight as to be purely academic.  Born in New York, Rockmore was precocious as a child, and, like many artists, proved to be multi-talented.  He studied at a very early age at Juilliard, learning to play the violin, piano and guitar.

            At the age of eight, he began to paint, and his major talent began to unfold.  Frequent trips to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and later studies at Cooper Union fostered a talent that showed promise of becoming major in the art world.  Rockmore was encouraged by many in the arts during the later 40s and 50s, among them Joseph Hirshhorn, who purchased Rockmore’s paintings that now hang in the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington, D.C.

            In 1959 Rockmore moved to New Orleans at the urging of a friend, who arranged a studio for him, and from that time began the beginning of a association that can best be described as practically a love affair.

            After several moves, including one return to New York, Rockmore once again settled in New Orleans, where he is presently restoring a house to serve as his residence.

            The sheer volume of Noel Rockmore’s work inspires envy in most artists.  More than 6000 works are scattered around the world, and include almost every medium, from oils, watercolors, tempera, to his present interest, egg tempera. The list of museums and collections that include Rockmore’s work is extensive, and in addition to the Hirshhorn Museum, includes the New Orleans Museum of Art, the collections of Huntington Hartford, Vincent Price, Newton Minnow and many others.  Exhibitions at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Whitney Museum and the Museum of Modern Art, all of New York, attest to the acclaim this artist has received.

            The beauty of the present state of Mr. Rockmore’s art, however, is his twin muses: New Orleans and Sandra Zahn Oreck.  New Orleans has often been accused of cannibalizing her artists without giving them their due.  From William Faulkner, through Lillian Hellman, Tennessee Williams and others too numerous to mention, practically all have fed deeply and lovingly at the breast of this river city.  Hardly any, however, have achieved recognition for their work while they live in New Orleans.

            The reasons for this are many and varied, and differ from one artist to another.  The fact remains, however, that most artists have had to leave New Orleans to succeed.  For a while this syndrome seemed to encompass Rockmore.  Finally, however, about two years ago, Rockmore returned to New Orleans and found Sandra Zahn Oreck.  New Orleans had found her voice in the images and fantasies of Noel Rockmore, who promised to sing her melodies as no one before.  Rockmore’s “Homages to the French Quarter,” his “Mimes,” his vivid portrayal of the various characters that everyone who has ever spent much time in the French Quarter takes for granted are there.  The voodoo lady, the jazz musicians, all the rich panoply that is the Quarter carol out at the viewer.  The colors and rich detail, the exquisitely rendered minutiae that scream out the smells and sounds of this most lurid city in America are there.

            Some have said that Rockmore is obsessed with death.  Others have compared him to Heironymus Bosch.  Whatever the truth is, the call to the old gods before modern materialism and nothingness became the norm is sounded, loud and unashamedly.

            But it is Ms. Oreck who has sensed the dimensions of Rockmore’s talent, and who has promoted him shamelessly.  A proud New Yorker and Manhattanite, Sandra Oreck is not only an artist, but a connoisseur of artists.  She senses how important it is that Rockmore’s work be seen and appreciated.  Rockmore came to Sandra Oreck and asked her to represent him.  This she has done, and this second one-man exhibit proves that he made a wise choice.

            Sandra Oreck and Noel Rockmore complement each other, and, not infrequently, compliment each other as well.  Ms. Oreck has the practical push that enables Rockmore’s work to be shown to best advantage.  Rockmore has the incredible ability to produce huge amounts of art, quickly, usually.  His most recent undertaking is 40 egg temperas, that will take place over the next five years.  His interest in this technique is not new, but is a return to that medium.  The luminous quality of the work is unattainable in any other manner, and it is such a slow and exacting medium, requiring endless strokes and buildup to achieve that vivid colors that characterize the works, that even Rockmore must spend at times as many as 250 hours on a single painting.

            The range of Rockmore’s work is astounding, slipping easily from dreamy watercolors to whimsical humor such as “Self Portrait with Blinking Eye and Two Ritas,” an unusual effect that shows the artist’s eye opened and closed at different angles.  But the most arresting of the works presently being displayed are the egg temperas, such as the stunning “Lot and His Daughters” and Mime Trio.”

            New Orleans has indeed found her mime and her minstrel, one who thunders and shouts to the world of his love of and fascination with this beautiful old city by the Mississippi River.

Editor’s note: This past week, VOICEart critic Ed Martinez found himself in New Orleans on personal business, and filed his weekly art review column from that city.  Next week, the VOICE’s art page will again spotlight a Montrose artist.

Photo caption: “A Self Portrait with Blinking Eye and Two Ritas,” tempera and collage on panel by Noel Rockmore

Photo caption: Sandra Zahn Oreck with Noel Rockmore

Photo caption: “Mime with Polichinelle,” oil on Belgian Linen by Noel Rockmore