1973 Noel Rockmore Biography by Larry Borenstien Part 1
This was the first part of a book that was to be published about Noel Rockmore by Bryant Galleries. It was written by Larry Borenstein in 1973 with Noel’s revisions and additions included here. Larry Borenstein was Noel Rockmore's dealer in New Orleans and also instrumental in the start of what would become Preservation Hall. Larry is widely recognized as the center of the French Quarter universe from the late 50's to early 70's. He had an on again off again love/hate relationship with Noel Rockmore until his death in 1981.
Note written on letterhead from:
ELB Gallery - 511 Royal Street - New Orleans, LA 70116
Thanks for your call. I enclose draft of first part of my contribution.
In haste, Larry Borenstein
I am frequently asked how it is possible that Noel Rockmore could have a 30-year career and produce such a large body of fine work and still be relatively unknown to the international art world. During this time he has produced about 200 graphics (etchings, aquatints, mezzotints, lithographs), in excess of 2,000 paintings (oils, egg tempera, acrylics), and 4-5,000 drawings and watercolors and guaches, countless sketches, illustrated letters, and other less formal art pieces. Many impromptu examples exist on menus, napkins, and other casually selected surfaces. Significantly he has done no sculpture. Rockmore is a compulsive draftsman. While this is true of most artists even the most minimal of these efforts bear the Rockmore stamp. The speed and excitement with which he expresses his impressions reminds me of a hummingbird moving his wings furiously in order to stay airborne.
He has won many awards and has had a large number of exhibitions and is represented in some of the great collections of the world. For years there has been a small, loyal group of enthusiasts eager to see and acquire his most recent efforts but in view of his reluctance to be handled and promoted by New York gallery professionals with the limitations which they place on their “stable”, Rockmore has never had
the exposure which has been given to lesser and more docile talents. In order for anyone to really understand the scope of Noel Rockmore’s work it is necessary to have a little background on how he developed into the painter he now is.
Noel Rockmore's Parents - Gladys Rockmore Davis (1901-1967) & Floyd MacMillan Davis (1896-1966)
To gain a little insight into Rockmore it is necessary to know something of his parents and family life. His mother, Gladys Rockmore Davis, “Mrs. Davis, a petite, energetic woman, painted between 600 and 700 works. Her subjects usually were children, female nudes, and still lifes in oil and gouache. Her style was representational.
“Her work hangs in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts in Philadelphia and in the Baltimore Museum of Art as well as in many private collections. She won prizes at the National Academy of Design, of which she was a national academician, at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts in Richmond, at the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington and at the Art Institute of Chicago.
“Mrs. Davis, who was born here, spent her first nine years in New York. Then her family moved to Canada and later to San Francisco.
“In a 1940 issue of the Magazine of Art, Mrs. Davis wrote, ‘I was completely absorbed with the business of drawing from the first minute I was able to hold a pencil. I can remember as a child being intensely interested in drawing almost to the exclusion of everything else.’ “In her teens, she studied at the California School of Fine Arts in San Francisco and then at the Chicago Institute of Arts, from which she was graduated in 1920. “She then went into fashion advertising art for the Marshall Field store in Chicago, and for Vogue magazine.
“In World War II, she and her husband were artist correspondents for Life magazine in France, where she narrowly escaped death in a German strafing of Metz. Her paintings of wartime scenes, mostly of Paris after the liberation, appeared in color in Life.
Among the galleries that exhibited her work were the Babcock, Rehn and Midtown. “Howard Devres wrote of her 1956 show at the Midtown in The New York Times, ‘from a stay in the Orient Gladys Rockmore Davis has brought back some vivid impressions of Balinese dancers.’ He added that ‘she has made full use of the brilliant colors of the costumes, the childlike figures, the swaying rhythms of the performers and the sharp contrasts of light and dark in the outdoor performances.’
“Stuart Preston, reviewing her 1953 show at the Midtown in the New YorkTimes, wrote that her ‘recent sojourn in Spain has produced a rich harvest - oils and gouaches of Spanish scenes.’ “‘This exhibition,’ he wrote, ‘is wholly delightful.’ “Mrs. Davis was the author of the book ‘Pastel Painting’, published in 1943.”
In 1925, five years after her graduation from the Art Institute of Chicago, she married Floyd M. Davis, who even then was a well-known illustrator and advertising artist. They moved to New York, where Noel was born December 15 , 1928. Thirteen months later their daughter, Deborah, was born (Feb 1, 1930).
Mrs. Davis continued her fashion work until 1932 when with bag and baggage, babies and nurse, the Davis’s sailed for Europe. After touring about for several months they settled in Cannes quite near the house in Le Cannet where Renoir spent the last 25 years of his life. The visits to the Renoir home and studio made a lasting impression on Gladys.
(Insert from Noel Rockmore Revision 5/3/73) During the French period the Davis’s acquired important work at the low prices which then prevailed, including bronzes by Bourdelle and Gaston Lachaise; also a double head oil study by Renoir of “Gabrielle”. This last was acquired for $200 and when sold shortly before Gladys’ death realized several thousand dollars.
Upon returning to the U.S. in 1933 she is quoted as saying, “I discovered to my surprise that I had completely lost my flair for commercial work.” She studied for a while at the Art Student League working for a while with George Grosz. Before long she had attracted the critics and in 1937 the Metropolitan Museum of Art acquired her “August Afternoon”, an important landmark in her rapidly developing career. Speaking of her son and daughter, she is quoted as saying, “So far they seem to have made no difference in the scheme of things except to contribute to the added richness and flavor of living with two very happy children.” The “two very happy children” were used as models and soon paintings of “Sissy”, as Deborah was known, and “Tuffy”, which was Noel’s nickname, found their way into museum collections around the country.
Floyd’s career continued to flourish. The Saturday Evening Post, Colliers and Life used artwork of his frequently as well as Cosmopolitan and Redbook. In 1944 Gladys and Floyd were commissioned by Life Magazine to go to France to do a series of impressions (of the liberation of France).
Noel Davis & Deborah Davis as children & students
As a very young child Noel demonstrated that he was unusual. He was fascinated by the violin and insisted on getting violin lessons at the age of 5. He showed enough virtuosity that his parents acquired for him a fine 3/4 size antique Italian violin formerly owned by Ruggiero Ricci. There seemed little doubt that his career would be in the musical field as he showed great talent for the piano and guitar as well. Then he contracted polio, which impaired his locomotive functions and during the long period of recovery he found himself drawing and painting.
By the age of 11 (note reproduction 1940 pencil drawing nude) he had started to produce serious, unchildish works. His sister, Deborah, also showed artistic talent and his parents encouraged each of the children to excel in draftsmanship.
Noel’s education progressed spectacularly. When he demonstrated that he couldn’t get along with usual children at Lincoln School and Trinity School his parents placed him in Horace Mann. There was a short period at Juilliard when he attempted to regain his musical skills after his recovery but he was unable to accept the discipline, and finally most of his education was had at the Putney School in Putney, Vermont, which was a pioneer educational plant for handling exceptionally gifted youngsters.
(Insert from Noel revision) - At Juilliard Noel studied exclusively with Fraulein Schroeder, a superb technician.
In 1937 Noel attended summer art school classes at Begeary’s School in Philadelphia and again in 1939. His early works were quite academic and rarely bizarre but there seemed little doubt that his potential career would be as a painter rather than as a musician because of the physical setback. At 16 he spent a lot of time in the Metropolitan Museum of Art copying Rembrandt paintings. There are no examples of these extant but apparently they were not just the usual student exercises. Noel claims that some of his present technique was gained from this early discipline. In 1944 a scratchboard done at Putney of the town meeting was a breakthrough in his linear technique. Noel’s career at Putney was not without disciplinary problems. Many of his classmates were among the intellectual elite and accordingly assertive of their own individuality. Noel was suspended several times and finally graduated in 1947, much to everyone’s relief.
(Insert from Noel revision) Noel’s misanthropic personality kept him from establishing many friendships among other students. However, two of those early friends have remained; David Amran and David Lattimore, both of whom have achieved prominence in their chosen fields.
Deborah showed talent on the piano and studied assiduously. Both children drew incessantly and before long it was obvious that theirs were not merely childish drawings. Surrounded by artistic parents and powerful art objects and being encouraged to develop creatively, it is not surprising that many of the usual lessons that children learn at this age were bypassed
Gladys and Floyd moved in a social milieu which included luminaries in all the arts such as Ernest Hemingway, Dr. Thomas Mann, George Gershwin, Leonard Bernstein, Mark Blitzstein and the puppeteer, Bill Baird. These early contacts with the foremost exponents of such a variety of creative endeavors established in Noel the respect for professionalism which marks his career.
(Insert from Noel revision) When he was 8 and Deborah 7 they frequently performed impromptu recitals of Shubert sonatinas.
About 1935 the musical endeavors were interrupted when both children contracted polio. Deborah’s case was mild and her recovery was rapid, but Noel lost some of the use of his legs and was not able to continue the daily practice routine and turned to the magic of painting as an outlet. By 1939 this became his predominant passion and with the advantage of criticism from such artists as Raphael Soyer, Kuniyoshi as well as his parents, art became his principle love.
Noel Davis - Young Adult, Husband, Father & Artist
In 1948 Noel together with his mother and sister visited Mexico City for the first time. The vivid impressions made him fill sketchbook after sketchbook and led to subsequent trips. By 1950 he was back in New York and drawing incessantly. One of his best sources was the Museum of Natural History. Examples such as “The Opossum” owned by Dr. Engel and the pencil drawings of mummies and other exhibits are exquisite. Also in 1949 a remarkable circular drawing of a rubber doll and drapery (where is it?) was done. Simultaneously he found himself attracted to the Bowery where he did a remarkable series of paintings of the old derelicts who frequented the area. In 1950 he acquired access to the backstage area of the Ringling Bros. Circus. His paintings and drawings of this period capture much of this excitement and helped to perfect his realistic mastery.
Coney Island proved to provide the stimulus for endless drawing and painting material. Dozens of sketchbooks were filled. The material often later was incorporated into paintings. Rockmore seems to work best under pressure, and the confusion and closeness of Coney Island was a challenge to him. There were frequently confrontations with people who resented being depicted. Somehow he managed to rent studio space in a building used to store sideshow props. Later Rockmore discovered Fire Island and would alternate periods of painting in the two contrasting islands. It was from this period that the large painting, “Three Men on Beach”, in the collection of Dr. Thomas Fauble was completed. (Get some chronological parallels in private life to all of this period.) This canvas, which was large even for Rockmore (76"x96"), was reproduced and very favorably criticized in the New York Times by Stewart Preston who said in part, “ (find quote)
In 1951 Noel married Elizabeth Hunter and an automobile honeymoon to Mexico was cut short by an accident in Valles and on the couple’s return to New York they settled down to being a typical “young marrieds” in Manhattan with a 7-room duplex at Des Artistes, which was then as now a posh address for artists. During this period three children were born and in 1957 the family moved to an old brownstone house in Brooklyn Heights. However, by 1958 the marriage broke up; as Noel says, “because I was too young and found myself in the family-man, home tension normalcy situation I had earlier escaped and decided that my art career was more important to me than this straight life.”
(Insert from Noel Revision) After the divorce Noel moved to a shack on Coney Island. There are three children born of this marriage; Christopher, a son, and two girls, Robin and Emily. All use the surname “Davis”.
The Bowery bum theme continued to have appeal and paintings of old alcoholics and unfortunates have been part of all of the periods of his career. In 1951 and again in 1952 he found himself doing family portraits with considerable realism and again the family portraits, both in groups and of individual members, are a constantly recurring Rockmore theme. He also discovered the human wealth of material available at Coney Island and Coney Island also became an inexhaustible source of inspiration.
The Brooklyn Heights period produced many major works, among them “Three Men on the Beach” now owned by Dr. Thomas Fauble. (Insert from Noel Revision) “Three Men at Table” reproduced. “Boy with Box Kite” Shirley Marvin Collection, reproduced. “Russell Thomas” detail in Hirshhorn collection.
A characteristic of Noel’s work is the recurring themes and the repeated attempts to augment earlier statements. For example, each of the paintings of the “table series” is an entity but each succeeding painting in this series emphasizes another dimension of his statement. Similarly, in the series of jazz portraits each is at a superficial level a likeness of the musician but if one accepts the premise that over and above this they are also self-portraits, then each calls attention to another insight into Noel’s view of himself. Noel believes that the only exception to this observation is the extraordinarily healthy rosy cheeked Johnny Wiggs, who is painted objectively rather than subjectively because the artist did not identify Johnny Wiggs with his own introspection and inner vision.
(Insert from Noel Revision) Johnny Wiggs - in the publication called “Storyville Portraits” published by the Museum of Modern Art while still smarting from the treatment he received at the end of Rockmore’s brush in describing Beloc, Johnny Wiggs said, “Oh, I would say he was five feet. He was short. And his sitdown place was very wide. And he had very narrow shoulders. I’ll tell you who would just love to paint him is Noel Rockmore. Rockmore gives everybody narrow shoulders and a big sitdown place.” (Note: this should go along with description of Wiggs as babyfaced, pink & white, etc.)
Noel Rockmore - Artist (New Orleans and New York City)
In 1963 an exhibition of the Preservation Hall portraits was held in New York City and in connection with that showing many of the paintings were viewed by Tom Sancton, who wrote, “The meeting of Noel Rockmore and Chicken Henry, one of the last and best of the old New Orleans trombone players, was a meeting of two compatible men and artists as well as a meeting of two contrasting traditions. Noel came to New Orleans in the spring of 1963 commissioned to do a series of paintings of jazz men in connection with Preservation Hall.
“In Chicken Henry he met a great traditional jazz musician (trombonist with the storied Eureka Brass Band, the group which for years has played festivals, outings, and funerals for New Orleans music lovers). He happens to be other things too: a skilled plasterer (this was one of the great crafts among colored artisans dating back to pre-Civil War days), and an avid horse player (a grantic handicapper who works from the form, charts, voodoo, and the stars).
“Chicken’s musicianship has been topped by other men, but Chicken’s incredible philosophies, a riotous gumbo of humor, wisdom, and Storyville lore, can never be surpassed. Added to these qualities are Chicken Henry’s hypnotic looks; dark skin, narrow ascetic features, one electric blue eye, and tangled white eyebrows. This in its total effect was the image which drew Rockmore’s paintings through changing phases as he penetrated deeper into the inner meanings of the bizarre but typical jazz man...and deeper and deeper into the levels of his own life as a painter.
“The first studies of Chicken as well as other jazz men, powerful but conventional, are cherished by some who know Chicken Henry and the music but as the series progressed the succeeding paintings brought out a highly personal technique and insights into the man which show in the later paintings of the series and give an added depth to the image of this wonderful old sorcerer of jazz.”
Continue on Reading to part 2