Noel Rockmore holds unique place in pantheon of New Orleans artists

By Lake Douglas, Contributing Times Picayune writer - Lagniappe / November 13, 1998 / page 16

            Noel Rockmore (1928-1995) is an enigmatic figure in the artistic chronology of New Orleans, perhaps known less for his art than as a French Quarter eccentric.  Both his life and work are marked by excesses that can seem off-putting.  Many cognoscenti of today’s local art scene, if they know of Rockmore at all, are likely to dismiss him, and that’s exactly how Rockmore wanted it: to be marginalized from the mainstream, apparently not connected with too many people, local art venues or national trends or movements.

            The New Orleans Museum of Art retrospective of his work, “Noel Rockmore: Fantasies and Realities” (on view through Jan. 3, 1999), offers examples of artistic brilliance and technical facility together with psychological turmoil and visual chaos.  Separating the good from the dreadful is a daunting and ultimately personal task, yet this show gives us an opportunity to learn more about Rockmore and view him in a local context.  While this may be exactly what he resisted during his lifetime, it is appropriate:  An understanding of the art scene in New Orleans in the 1980s and 1990s really begins with an analysis of Rockmore’s work.

            Born into an artistic and intellectual New York family (both parents were respected artists), Noel Davis - he took his mother’s name in 1959 - was a musical prodigy who studied violin at Julliard School of Music.  He had taken up visual art during a long convalescence from polio at age 7.  Largely self-taught, Rockmore had early success and artistic recognition: He was included in group exhibitions at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (1952), the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, Philadelphia (1953), the Whitney Museum of American Art (1956), and the Museum of Modern Art (1958).  He had one-man shows in New York during this time, won several prestigious prizes, and a large body of his work was purchased by Joseph Hirshhorn.

            In 1959 Rockmore moved to New Orleans (and worked in the studio of Paul Ninas) to escape the “modern” movements in art from which he felt increasingly alienated.  Here the artist found a relaxed climate not in the least consumed with artistic fashion, trends or expectations of success.   He quickly settled into the Bohemian, bar-centered lifestyle of the French Quarter and found acceptance among local musicians, writers, characters and free spirits who lived without constraints of the mainstream.  Until his death less than four years ago, Rockmore lived, worked and exhibited in the French Quarter, for the most part isolated from the larger community.

            His career, fueled by early recognition, obvious talent and flashes of technical brilliance, followed an intense smoldering trajectory completely separate from the city’s growing (and increasingly social) contemporary art scene of the 1970s and 1980s.  Shifting gradually from the French Quarter to Magazine Street, then to Julia Street and the Warehouse District, the scene left Rockmore behind.  Though he continued to show in the French Quarter (and elsewhere in the country), his career was more a local curiosity than a factor in creating and enlarging contemporary art in New Orleans.

            Although self-conscious, Rockmore was convinced of his own genius.  He read and made stream-of-consciousness notations in his extensive library of art books; he littered where he lived and worked with fragments and images of favorite artworks.  Over time, he cultivated a preemptively confrontational personality while he pursued a life of alcoholic excess.

            Rockmore was a prolific and passionate artist, proficient in several media; this retrospective gives us examples of oil, egg tempera, ink, etching and collage.  About 60 works have been culled by curator Gail Feigenbaum, beginning with the excellent “Self Portrait, New York, Age 21" of 1951 and ending with the chaotic work of the early 1990s.  Between these two poles is a career of nearly four decades that falls into several phases.  There are common themes, and often Rockmore worked in series, creating large bodies of work around single subjects or locations.

            The early work is figurative and displays a masterful facility for portraiture and drawing from life.  Particularly notable from this period are “Coney Island Labyrinth” (1958) and “Standing Nude of My Father from Life” (1965).

            “Coney Island,” while painstakingly rendered with minute detail, is nevertheless mysterious and captivating.  It is obviously self-referential (the artist sits slightly off-center, holding his violin) yet delightfully cryptic: What do those animal fragments in the foreground signify?  And what about the electric fan off to the side?  This painting suggests artistic influences of metaphysical (Giorgio de Chirico), surreal (Salvador Dali and Rene Magritte) and magic realist (Paul Delvaux) predecessors, interpreted in an individual and personal way.

            Rockmore’s nude portrait of his father is loving and poignant.  The subject faces the viewer unashamed and unabashed, standing in front of a fragment of a Chinese ancestral figure, incompletely yet beautifully rendered.  Clearly portrayed in the subject are the ravages of time and an acceptance of imminent death (his father died the next year).  Without the precision of Philip Pearlstein’s work or the raw energy of Francis Bacon’s, Rockmore’s quiet and thoughtful portrait is profoundly moving, and it displays a masterful facility for portraiture and drawing that extended throughout the artist’s career.  Its theme - inevitable decline, or as artist Raphael Soyer said in a catalog essay form a 1974 Rockmore exhibition, “an almost medieval concern with death” - is a thread of continuity as well.

            Soon after Rockmore arrived in New Orleans he met Larry Borenstein, who had a gallery and was associated with Preservation Hall.  This relationship between artist and patron was mutually beneficial.  Borenstein commissioned Rockmore to do portraits of the jazz musicians who played at Preservation Hall.  The resulting series is a major accomplishment (many of these musicians were at the end of their careers) and a significant body of Rockmore’s work in the 1960s.  Of particular interest are “Portrait of Billie and Dede Pierce” (1963) and “*****, Preservation Hall” (1964).  The faces and bodies are rendered by brush strokes that are quick (almost gestural), confident and economical: A lot of information is transmitted with little apparent effort.

            Other noteworthy work from this period are “Bill Russell Holding Violin,” “Mike Stark in Psychedelic Shirt,” and “Sister Gertrude Morgan,” all from 1970.  There are obvious connections between Rockmore and all three subjects.  The artist and Russell often played violin together, and in this portrait, Russell is portrayed as lovingly as the artist’s earlier portrait of his father.  The late Mike Stark is portrayed in a simple yet remarkably complex composition of two vertical elements, two round elements, and a lot of colorful, patterned fabric.  Out of nowhere comes the surprising and obvious suggestion of Matisse.  The “Sister Gertrude” is equally astonishing.  She often was in his paintings, and several are in this show; yet this portrait is so different from Rockmore’s other works (and so much in the style of Sister Gertrude herself) that a collaborative effort between the artist and his subject seems likely.

            As the 1970s evolved, Rockmore’s work became increasingly complicated both visually and thematically.  Often he uses collage, initially bookbinding paper or cut-outs of objects but later string, found objects and almost anything else.  Initial works in this style are quite successful, particularly as his work becomes more inspired by fantasy and personal imagery.  “The Fortune Teller” (1973) is an example of how effective this technique can be.  This painting is significant on several levels.  Clearly it shows how artistically and technically imaginative Rockmore was with color, composition and content.  But it is also the beginning of a steady move toward filling every square inch of large canvases with visual stuff, a direction that may work in his “Homage” series to French Quarter and early Jazz Festival characters (1981) but spins out of control in his later work.

            By the 1980s, Rockmore’s canvases became increasingly dark and gloomy, often with fragmented and disengaged figures; see, for instance “The Dream of Baron Samedi” (1983-84) and “Punch and Judy with the Argonaughts” (1987).  References are obscure and piled one on top of the other, and found objects are employed to give a three-dimensional quality.  (Once, he even affixed a dead cat to a canvas; thankfully, it is not in this show.)  This direction culminates in one of the largest works in the show, “The Golden Door I” (1991); it is both disturbing and visually haunting.  Worn shoes are glued to a large canvas, then painted over with broad, messy brush strokes.  Obviously these are references to those who have entered America as immigrants, yet questions remain: Whose shoes are they?  Where are they going?  Why are they empty?  This provocative work makes us ask uncomfortable questions and confront ugly realities about out times and recent history.  And meanwhile, in the background, Rockmore’s confrontational and agitated voice is heard on video (edited from a longer documentary) ranting about being an abstractionist, about the necessity for destruction before creation can happen, about immigrants’ perception of American streets paved with gold, etc.  While probably unintentional, the effect is chilling.

            This exhibit, together with its accompanying catalog, gives a balanced and accurate view of Rockmore’s broad artistic talents and obviously troubled personality.  Perhaps without meaning to, it also provides insight into the careers of other local artists whose works, considered collectively, comprise the local Visionary Imagist movement first defined by a highly regarded exhibit of the same name in 1990-1991 at the Contemporary Arts Center.  (Did Rockmore see this show?  Likely he did not.)  It is difficult to see Rockmore’s work, particularly “The Fortune Teller,” without thinking of the seven artists of that show, together with others such as Robert Warrens, Christopher Guarisco, and Randy Ernst.

            This retrospective demonstrates, too, that the work of this talented yet tormented artist is arrestingly bad as often as it is breathtakingly good.  But more importantly, it confirms what ‘Visionary Imagist” essayist D. Eric Bookhardt said in the catalog of that show.  “There is something in the air in this city that engenders an impulse to surreal or transformative imagery.  This is not an entirely new development - looking backward we may see the roots of this kind of expression in the work of Caroline Durieux, whose prints and drawings from the Thirties and Forties constitute a highly stylized Magic Realism in their own right.”

            Bookhardt is right: It must be in the air.  How else can one explain how Rockmore, geographically isolated in the French Quarter from other local artists and psychologically separated from all but a few by an abusive and self-destructive personality, could artistically be so well-connected to what has evolved over time into a recognized movement?  If nothing else, this retrospective suggests the ironic significance of an unwilling participant on the current vibrant local art scene.  Moreover, it makes us ponder just what it is about our environment that produces such interesting, if flawed, artists.  Perhaps we’ll never know; but shows like this one certainly inform the discussion.

Photo captions:

Noel Rockmore painted “Mike Stark in Psychedelic Shirt” soon after he moved to New Orleans in the ‘60s.  During the same period, he painted a series of jazz musicians who played at Preservation Hall.  As his work - and personal life - evolved, Rockmore became an increasingly enigmatic fixture of the French Quarter art scene.

The earliest of the 60 or so works by Rockmore on display at the New Orleans Museum of Art, “Self Portrait, New York, Age 21" was painted in 1951.

Somewhat uncharacteristic of most of his oevre, “Sister Gertrude Morgan,” above, shows the influence of the subject on the artist.  At right, “The Dream of Baron Samedi” is typical of Rockmore in the ‘80s: Darker, gloomier and more complicated.