Noel Rockmore describes himself as “partially insane, but disciplined.”
“This isn’t gallery hype - he’s a genius,” said Bryant Allen, owner of Bryant Galleries, 2845 Lakeland Dr., where the New Orleans artist recently opened an exhibit of new work. “It’s hard to describe his style because he changes so frequently. He’s got a thousand paintings in his head.”
More than two dozen of Rockmore’s strong, sometimes chaotic figurative works are on display at Bryant Galleries through Feb. 7. Rockmore, whose work defies definition, incorporates a variety of media ranging from watercolors, oils and acrylics to felt markers and found objects.
Images from Mardi Gras, a trip to Haiti and life in the French Quarter in New Orleans crop up from time to time.
The exhibit moves the viewer through a series of vibrant mixed-media drawings, inspired by a Rockmore journey to California, to sensitive pastels such as The Violin Maker that reflect the artist’s classical training. Major oils such as Tour de France and Scrapbook are included.
Tour de France explores the mania of bicycle team racing in Europe with its depiction of a group of athletes in brightly colored cycling uniforms standing around like philosophers.
Scrapbook shows fragments of old valentines and other greeting cards against a brown surface. A pretty woman framed by a horseshoe with the open end turned down is the center of the painting. The superstitious might interpret the downturn of the horseshoe as disastrous, with all the good luck running out.
The most recent works are those based upon his study of Egyptian culture, Rockmore said. The work is difficult because it involves analyzing and studying another culture while translating it into his own style and retaining features of both, he said.
“It’s like walking a tightrope,” he said.
The son of well-known illustrator Floyd Davis and painter Gladys Rockmore Davis, Rockmore grew up in New York, London, Paris and Rome.
Rockmore remembers playing the piano with George Gershwin a year before the composer’s death. As a 10-year-old, he sketched author Ernest Hemingway’s portrait. “I did a beautiful drawing while he was eating dinner,” Rockmore said.
Rockmore attended art school briefly, but dropped out and opted to teach himself. Rockmore’s paintings of American fraternal organizations won acclaim when he was 28 years old and were featured in a four-page spread in Life magazine.
In the 1960s, Rockmore said his work became more complicated and less straightforward. “When I was young, I won a lot of prizes because my work behaved well and so did I,” he said. “Then my work became more complex.”
The 61-year-old artist, who said he has no control over his talent, sometimes sees a “flash of complete composition” and executes a finished work just like the one in his mind. Other times, his work detours as it progresses, he said.
Rockmore, who allows no one to watch him while he paints, arranges his palette in one room and canvas in another. “In between rooms I think about what I’m going to do,” he said.
He works in two- or three-hour stretches - never more - and then steps out for a walk in the French Quarter, where he lives, or stops in a bar to sketch.
New Orleans, he said, allows him to live in obscurity. “In New York, it’s autograph time,” he said.
Rockmore, who estimates he’s completed 8,000 paintings and 40,000 drawings, has participated in group shows at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Whitney Museum of American Art, the Museum of Modern Art and a host of museums throughout the United States. Collectors such as Vincent Price and Raphael Soyer own Rockmore pieces.
Photo caption: Carnival Carousel, an oil on canvas, is among paintings by Noel Rockmore in a premiere exhibit of his work at Bryant Galleries on Lakeland Drive in Jackson this month through Feb. 7.