Noel Rockmore: Fantasies and Realities

By Gail Feigenbaum - Associate Director of The Getty Museum

                                                          Time is running out for us all…

            Those who knew Noel Rockmore can imagine the glint of irony and self-mockery with which he would have delivered this pompous, ponderous, and utterly sincere line. Rockmore’s lifelong preoccupation with themes of decline, decay and mortality has been remarked by all who have written about him. It spurred Rockmore’s creative energy, channeling the torment ever-present in his own temperament and in his work. If time was running out, then Rockmore’s hedge against mortality would be his own productivity, as relentless as the passing of time. His work confronts the cycle of fertility and death without flinching, daring his spectators to do the same. Few artists drew and painted as incessantly as Rockmore did, through all phases and difficulties of his life. Though he styled himself as outside the mainstream, he surrounded himself with company and devoted friends. His pessimism, coupled with his insecurity, led to many a preemptive strike against the professional success and friendship that was perpetually knocking at his door.

            Noel Rockmore’s life followed a rich arc from child prodigy, born in 1928 to a family of New York artist-intellectuals, to promising young painter, to a successful but troubled career in New Orleans, and finally to a death hastened by drink and hard living. A highly self-conscious artist, Rockmore had a vexed relationship with the mainstream of art history. He detested the authoritarian critical voices that dominated, even tyrannized, the New York art world in which he came of age. In the fifties he began to be noticed by the influential artists, and his work was gaining a toehold in the market. His awards and exhibition history seemed to foretell a bright future. But at the same moment a dramatic shift swept the New York art world riveting attention on the vanguard of abstract expressionism and color field painting, on Arshile Gorky, Jackson Pollack, Willem de Kooning, Barnett Newman and Mark Rothko. For Rockmore their aesthetics held little attraction or meaning, yet their dominance was inevitably stifling. As the critics proclaimed the true path and progress of art, Rockmore must have had intimations of the foreclosure, or at best marginalization, of his own future in the New York art scene. When he came to New Orleans in 1959, on the suggestion of Newcomb College art professor Xavier Gonzales (1898-1993), he discovered a place where New York’s styles and dictums were irrelevant. New Orleans was exotic and characterful. Here Rockmore could work as he pleased without anyone monitoring his relationship to the latest movements and theories.

            Not long after Rockmore arrived in New Orleans, he became friends with Larry Borenstein who was running a gallery and associated with Preservation Hall. Borenstein commissioned Rockmore to paint the jazz musicians who performed at Preservation Hall. For more than a year Rockmore focused on this project, sketching the performers as they played their forty-minute sets, using quick-drying polymer. Many of them he immortalized in oil or acrylic paintings for which they sat, in daylight, in Rockmore’s studio the following afternoon. The jazz portraits comprise a historical record of exceptional importance, as well as one of Rockmore’s greatest artistic achievements, though Rockmore himself did not think so. A section of these portraits was included in the monograph Preservation Hall Portraits, published by the Louisiana State University Press in 1965.

            Rockmore could draw solace from the warm welcome he received from his adopted home. In New Orleans he enjoyed the rare luxury of supporting himself solely from the sale of his work. His loyal friends were often avid collectors of his work. Many of them are immortalized in his paintings. Rockmore was part of a cultural scene that flourished in the French Quarter during the sixties, seventies, and into the eighties, a scene that included artists, musicians, poets, and those who provided their venues, gallery owners, impresarios, and publishers, not th mention the people who ran the bars and restaurants that were their hangouts.

            Rockmore worked in series, of which the “Preservation Hall Portraits” constituted the most formal and extensive example. When he was starting out he depicted the street people of Bowery, making hundreds of drawings and paintings. A few years later Steeplechase Park at Coney Island was the object of his obsession. Ten it was backstage at the circus, afterwards in Terre Haute, coal mines and slaughterhouses. In New Orleans he spent a year amidst the hyperbolic ephermera in Blaine Kern’s warehouse which resulted in the series “Mardi Gras Backstage.” Another year Rockmore haunted the shipyards of the Port of New Orleans, from which came one of his most focused series. In 1966 Victor Potemkin, a wealthy car dealer, sent Rockmore to Israel for a ten-day trip and commissioned a series of some seventy works. A trip to Haiti in 1983 inspired the lilting, syncopated charm of a series of island village scenes, and then erupted later in a cycle of voodoo paintings. There was a Scrapbook series of Civil War and Victorian imagery, and near the end of his life a corpus on the theme of ancient Egypt and a collection devoted to immigrants, The denizens of Rockmore’s neighborhoods and hangouts were immortalized in his “Homages,” an intermittent series of large group portraits. An individual could become a series: Mike Stark, minister and founder of a clinic that served the indigent population of the French Quarter. Within the various series, one can trace how Rockmore developed his imagery, one idea leading to a plethora of others, gathering in themes and motifs from previous work. Woven throughout is a vocabulary of personal symbols, monkeys, mummies, alien-like beings. The series often culminated in overwhelming complication, at which point he dropped the subject cold.

            Rock more had an easy command of a variety of artistic idioms and chose to paint in several of them at the same moment, sometimes in a single painting. Simplified rounded figures with clear outlines filled with smooth blocks of color, as in The Figaro Café, appear in Rockmore’s work at virtually the same time as the sensitive naturalistic observation of the nude portrait of the artist’s father, the miniaturistic, quirky surrealism of the early egg temperas, or the expressive scumbled impasto and monumentality of the Preservation Hall musicians. Stylistic turning points that have been flagged in previous literature, such as a trend toward figurative abstraction after Rockmore’s break with Borenstein and the Preservation Hall series, in retrospect seem less decisive. Rockmore already had been experimenting with a figurative surrealism and abstraction before he started working with Borenstein.

            In the mid-sixties he began to favor a technique that did change the character of his work. As a general rule painters cover their canvases with a light-colored ground and block in a composition from the light areas to the dark or black ground, and working toward the light areas. His approach resulted in a darkness that lurks at the edges of forms, and underlying shadows that threaten to swallow up the colors brushed over them. Even without an explicit natural or landscape reference, the compositions have the feel of nocturnes. A second trend seems almost inevitable: an ever-increasing density and complication of surface.

            Never spare or minimal in his style, by the early seventies Rockmore was producing works in which not only was every square-inch occupied by imagery, but additional motifs then were layered upon and inserted into every square-inch of the composition. A figure might wear a brooch upon which a portrait had been painted; a bouquet might yield up a baby among the petals of a flower. At first elements of a collage were unobtrusively incorporated, usually two-dimensional materials like paper, half-painted over. Rockmore was fascinated with the oiled paper and ornate designs of bookbinding papers which he glued onto the canvas to further agitate his designs. When he could not go beyond his own profusion on these flat surfaces, he raised the stakes by moving into the third dimension, attaching objects such as string, tubing, and vent holes, found objects like a quilted headboard, and once even a dead cat to his canvases. These dense, overwrought and aggressive works are among his most intense and demanding. They attest to a mind overwhelmed by its own impassioned, relentless churning, and they correspond to his last, and according to those who knew him best, most tormented, years.