Noel Rockmore: Artist
By Shirley Marvin (with excerpts from Bill Russell-Rockmore Interview)
The discovery of the work of a major artist who has worked mainly in obscurity is like the discovery of a planet. It has been there but out of our sight and the finding extends our perception of the known universe.
Such an artist must have the vision, the technical mastery and the power not only to product new and meaningful images but to impose the sense of his inner reality in a way that extends the viewer’s perception.
Writing about Noel Rockmore Dr. Alfred Werner, art critic and author, noted Rockmore’s “assumption that there is a world beneath and beyond that of everyday vision, and his concomitant desire to express the contradictions that spring from never completely chartered realms of the mind... a world that most of his fellow men do not care, or dare to envision.”
Norman Mailer once suggested that the successful authors of our time be ranked according to the courage and skill in which they explored their own dark. In such a ranking of painters Rockmore would be in the top tier, having taken that perilous journey again and again.
Making the journey even more difficult Rockmore chose a return to obscurity after achieving early fame. It is not unusual in the history of art for a painter to initially have his work ignored or reviled. However, today it is not unusual for a talented young painter to achieve early fame and then be dropped from center stage in a relatively short time. The artist who is so removed or chooses, like Rockmore, to remove himself from the limelight is in for a difficult time.
Noel Rockmore was born in New York City in 1928. Both his parents were well known artists, Gladys Rockmore and Floyd Davis. Both Noel and his younger sister Deborah were precocious children. Noel was playing violin by the time he was four - and music has always been a powerful element in his life. For a while he attended The Juilliard School of Music. In 1937 he attended art classes, was encouraged by his teachers and made an early commitment to be an artist. At 16 he was copying the works of artists like Rembrandt and Dali at the New York museums and at 19 had produced a considerable body of work including a Self Portrait with Model which was later purchased by Joe Hirschhorn at the Harry Salpeter Gallery in New York. This began the Hirschhorn Collection of Rockmore’s early work which was recently exhibited at the Hirschhorn Museum in Washington, D.C.
By the time he was 20, Rockmore had his own studio in the Cooper Union complex in New York and had painted a series of Bowery derelicts. He had also spent time sketching at the Museum of Natural History where his use of the image of the mummy as a death symbol first emerged.
During the 50's work emerged of increasing complexity and technical skill. Rockmore became fascinated with behind the scenes at the circus and did hundreds of circus paintings and drawings. He also spent several years at Coney Island doing a massive series of paintings, drawings and etchings. He received criticism and encouragement from Raphael Soyer, John Koch and Francis Taylor, Director of the New York Metropolitan Museum (1948).
Recognition began to come in 1952 with inclusion in an exhibition of drawings of the New York Metropolitan Museum. He was commissioned by Life Magazine to travel the country for the purpose of painting a series on America and the work received attention in the Luce magazines. In 1952 a major painting was reproduced in the New York Times illustrating a favorable review by art critic Stewart Preston. In 1953 his work was exhibited at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts and the Butler Institute of American Art in Ohio. In 1955 Rockmore won the Tupperware Fellowship Award. In 1956 his work was exhibited at the N. Y. Whitney Museum. He also won the Hallgarten Prize at the National Academy of Design as well as the Tiffany Fellowship Award (which he won again in 1963). He was in a group exhibition at the New York Modern Museum of Art in 1958.
During this period Xavier Gonzales, Raphael Soyer, Jack Levine and Fletcher Martin encouraged the artist to continue in his own direction rather than follow the trend toward abstract expressionism. Speaking of the direction of his work some time later, he declared “I have no strong desire to question that element of realism which I retain. I feel that painting, unlike music, is an art form in which matter and form are not abstract inherently; and the depictive factor far from being a limitation is a peg to hang my coat on creatively...I don’t feel any tremendous push towards abstraction... My creativity is involved in doing different things with the same thing as against designing a new bottle to pour the wine into.
I am not, in that sense an innovator. I am an innovator only in the sense of what I do with non-innovation, as it were, Fundamentally I am a draftsman. I think not so much in terms of line but in terms of design with line...color...is germane from the beginning...and...my color is a definite weapon in the arsenal of whatever effectiveness I might be guilty of...;But I am not a colorist in the sense that Matisse was or have that basic tendency as did Cezanne early on. Unlike Cezanne I work at mass only through carefully contrived edges...linear edges. It is always there, the draftmanship.”
In the late 50's Rockmore has noted that “the image of a city is basic to my work. I learn through it more than any single thing.” He explained “surrealistic elements began to appear in my work weakening the resolve of realism and weakening the paintings in that period.” He felt under pressure in two directions and this pressure finally flowered a few years later in a pseudo realist and basically surrealist work called “The Coney Island Labrynth”.
In 1959 he visited New Orleans and made the decision to move and work here in what he termed “creative obscurity”. His first dealer in New Orleans was Naomi Marshall who ran the Downtown Gallery. However, he still retained his New York studio and continued working with the Greer Gallery there. In New Orleans he obtained a studio in the house of Paul Ninas, also a painter. He soon met music lover and jazz archivist Bill Russell who became a friend and the subject of a series of portraits continuing through the 80's. Rockmore also became involved in painting hundreds of works with Preservation Hall musicians as subjects. His dealer then was Larry Borenstein who owned Preservation Hall and encouraged the jazz series.
Rockmore felt that 1961, 1962 marked an important creative period which began with the first “Portrait of the Artist’s Parents”. The artist felt that this painting “deals very strongly with both realism and fantasy in a completely successful way, in my opinion... The painting deals exactly with whatever it started to deal with. I was so clear in that period and close to resolution of these two basic strains that in no way work together, and produced “The Game”...(This is) a completely inventive composition of two figures playing at an imaginary game at a table. A totally contrived work, if you will, hermetically sealed in an amazing, unreal setting pretty much the opposite of the portraits of the artist’s parents. The paintings were done within two or three months of each other and remain a typical duality.”
As regards the jazz series, the artist said that although he produced a large body of work it “had more success and publicity than it deserves in comparison with great works like “The Astrologer” which are almost unknown in the art world and are hidden in private collections. These compositions deal with a state of mind and could be subtitled...’state of mind’”.
In 1964 Rockmore was Artist-in-Residence at the Sheldon Swope Art Museum in Terre Haute, Indiana. This residency was made possible by a grant from the American Federation of Arts through funds provided by the Ford Foundation. He turned out a large volume of “work of a very high order” according to Director Francis Bilodeau who described “The Slaughter House” and “The Coal Mine” paintings as disturbing but especially “strong and compelling”.
In 1964 the Arts and Science Center in Baton Rouge held a retrospective show, In 1968 the Louisiana University Press published a book entitled “Preservation Hall Portraits” featuring 80 paintings by Rockmore.
In the following decades the artist traveled on assignment to Mexico, France, Italy, Morocco, Israel, and Haiti and in each produced a series of work. On one of his California trips in the 60's he found subjects in Haight-Ashbury. He also did some remarkable portraits of his sister Deborah. In New Orleans he developed work centered around Mike Stark and the people in his drug rehabilitation clinic on Decatur Street. He also painted a New Orleans shipyard series; then he moved into the Victorian Era which included a Civil War series. In the Victorian-Civil War series he abstracted the images and the artistic conventions of the time which emerge not only redefined but as a part of the artistic vocabulary of the artist.
In the Mardi Gras Backstage series painted at Blaine Kern’s warehouse, contemporary images and icons were translated into a cultural short hand with powerful impact. In the words of poet John Crowe Ransom, they become “the images of the invaded mind”. And always there were portraits of mimes, jugglers, magicians — a parade of New Orleans street people. Rockmore has always identified himself as a street person living dangerously on the edge of his emotions and energy. And he has always been proud that street people respond to his work. Indeed he makes it possible for bartenders, waitresses, mimes, magicians, and musicians to proudly own Rockmores; as well as businessmen, lawyers, dowagers, actors, bankers, and college students.
Portraits appeared in the same time frame as works of fantasy. As a result, the variety of styles in a single exhibition bothered many people. However, as Jean Selz points out in Matisse “The technical development and changes in the style of work of most painters follow chronologically with the result that their work is grouped according to styles and periods. This did not occur in the case of Matisse and one of the most perplexing aspects of his work is the ease with which he was able to pass from one style to another.”
It was also said of Picasso by Ronald Penrose in his Portrait of Picasso for MOMA of NY that “his mastery of the medium allows him to use in the same day as many styles as he finds appropriate to his need for expression”...So it is with Rockmore. Furthermore, he uses the given stylistic convention of the era or locale as the base for mining its meaning. Witness the Egyptian series, the Victorian and Civil War series, the Haitian series. In each the artist not only reworked the visual material within its own conventions, but also illuminated it with his own perspective.
Rockmore worked directly from life in the jazz series. The best of these tie the musician and his instrument into an almost organic unity with a dimension of true presence. Rockmore worked for several years on the jazz series and the work was very popular. There was pressure to continue as there was a large market for the work, but he had finished with this phase of his work and moved into a series of totally imaginative “interior” works, much to the dismay of Larry Borenstein, his dealer and friend, in the 60's.
Rockmore approaches new subject matter by immersing himself in the material and mining it for images and techniques that emerge as the work continues. Usually after a year or two he has reamed the material as far as he can take it, he puts the work behind him and moves on to the next phase of work; that is, new subject matter and the technical challenges involved in its presentation. By the time a series of work is ready for exhibition the artist has already lost interest in it and he has unloaded everything into the gallery: work in which stylistic alternatives have been explored successfully or not quite, fantasy works, descriptive work, exploratory work, lyrical work. The artist has a complete lack of interest in completed work which is not of the first rank. And he sometimes withholds the best work from public view and sale so he can live with it and better understand it. He is often so driven creatively that he does not comprehend the work until it is completed. It is left to the gallery to make the choice of submitted work suitable for exhibition; a task that over the years has thoroughly taxed the selective abilities of many dealers.
In conclusion, Rockmore had this to say about his work, “I am to a certain extent one of those artists who chronicles decay...I would say 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 little 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...”
“But there is a certain element of hope implied even in beginning a major work. That is perhaps where my optimism shows: in stretching the actual canvas in starting the etching. Why bother otherwise? But once into the process my intelligence tells me...the whole thing is hopeless. The minute you touch a copper plate, the minute you touch a canvas you’re already out of control. There is no way the human mind can control the next brush stroke. It is impossible. It has already set up so many vibratory interactions that is completely out of control and your intuition must take over. And if your intuition is good enough and you’re experienced and whatever gift was given you, you may be able to control one third of that process by the time you have finished... Nobody ever paints a picture or writes a book or a symphony or anything else. One merely manages to salvage a certain percentage of what might have been. At best.”
Then he added, “As Picasso said, art is not decoration - it is war.”
Copyright 1991, Shirley G. Marvin
All rights reserved.