“I am to a certain extent one of those artists who chronicles decay. I would say that 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 shapes all show a delight similar to that of a gourmet; but I am also pointing an accusing finger and warning...The essential emotional trap the minute one is born, essentially the largest portion of that life and its destiny are out of our hands. This is what fascinates me.” Noel Rockmore
On Sunday, February 19, 1995, artist Noel Rockmore died in New Orleans. At the time of his death, he was hard at work on the latest of his extraordinary artworks, the immense diversity of which fascinated his many collectors, but also served to hamper his hopes for public recognition. The international art scene tends to ignore artists whose work doesn’t fall into the officially approved categorizations. Rockmore accepted his fate of creative obscurity as necessary to artistic freedom.
During the course of his 48 year career, Rockmore produced untold thousands of paintings (two and three-dimensional), murals, drawings, etchings, seriographs, sculptures, assemblages, and found-object combines. His chosen subject matter included the circus, music, dance, portraits of jazz musicians, portraits of nearly everyone else who crossed his path, astronomy, astrology, Haitian folk art, Mardi Gras, ancient Egypt, Americana, the Civil War, turn of the century immigration to America, and combinations thereof. He sold just about every piece he produced - through the galleries in New York (Salpeter, Greer, Forum) and New Orleans (Borenstein, Oreck, Bryant) that showed his work over the years; directly from his “office” - in New York (McGlade’s Bar on West 67th Street), and in New Orleans (the old Alpine, and Johnny White’s Bar); and from his many studios (he moved as often as Beethoven, his avowed brother in time) to the vast numbers of people he knew, many of whom became significant collectors of his work.
Rockmore was born in New York City in 1928, the son of prominent illustrator Floyd MacMillan Davis and painter Gladys Rockmore Davis. His family lived in a duplex at the Hotel des Artistes, the grandest of several buildings designed for artists on West 67th Street, where his parents also had their separate studios. By the time Rockmore was 17, he was spending much of his time along the Bowery, producing drawings of skid row denizens which manifested even then his lifelong preoccupation with death and humanity’s decline.
Rockmore’s promise as a realist painter impressed many, including Joseph Hirschhorn, who purchased some 20 paintings in the early 1950's, now in the Hirschhorn Collection at the Smithsonian Museum. Solo shows soon followed; numerous private commissions; Life magazine spreads in 1956 and 1957; awards and fellowships from the National Academy of Design and the Butler Institute of Art, among many others. All the earmarks of a successful career in the making. During these years, he married, had three children (a seven room duplex at the Hotel des Artistes serving as home and atelier), along with his parents and sister Deborah, also a gifted painter, close by.
By 1958, he was suffocating from what he called “home-tension normalcy” and from the constraints of his burgeoning career in the academic art world of New York. A year later, he would be divorced and living in New Orleans. It was Xavier Gonzales who suggested that he go there, knowing how fascinated Rockmore was by the strange, the unusual, the old, and the decrepit. Rockmore quickly realized that the French Quarter’s architecture and constant supply of local eccentrics corresponded to his own sense of fantasy, that he had only to record what actually existed and it all would lend itself quite handily to the moods he wished to convey. Early on, he met Larry Borenstein, the founder of Preservation Hall, who would become one of his major dealers in the 1960's. As Rockmore was attracted to the folk art and jazz of New Orleans, Borenstein invited Rockmore to paint in the Hall. Haunting portraits emerged from these in sutu sessions, with others formally posed for in his studio. Preservation Hall Portraits, published in 1965 by Louisiana State University Press, reproduced 100 of these paintings.
In 1966, Victor Potamkin sent Rockmore to Israel, commissioning him to produce seventy-nine paintings. A book of poems by Charles Bukowski, Crucifix in Deathhand, was published in 1968 by Lou-Jon Press, featuring four complex etchings by Rockmore. In 1972, George Wein, founder of the Newport Jazz Festival, sent Rockmore to Paris for a year, and bought 27 paintings from that trip. Byrant Galleries sent him to Haiti in 1983, which led to several exhibitions focusing exclusively on paintings produced during that and later visits to the island.
After incorporating collage and assemblage with painting in the 1960's, Rockmore started adding three-dimensional objects to his paintings in the 1980's. His powerful interest in subverting what he called the tyranny of the flat surface led him in the last five years of his life to transmute what he started out with in the early 1980's, paintings with adjoined objects, into high-relief sculptural constructions with painted elements. The contrast and interplay between protruding emblems of kitch, ritualistic objects and the painted elements is sometimes comical, sometimes profound, often explosive, and always interesting.
In November 1994, Nabil Mehchi, Louis Nader and Marika Menutis completed their short film, ROCKMORE. In this informative and entertaining documentary, Rockmore appears at his inventive and lucid best while discussing this methods, motives, and artistic values.
The death of Noel Rockmore was marked in the French Quarter by a tribute held at Preservation Hall and the screening of ROCKMORE at Johnny White’s Bar on Bourbon Street