1973 Noel Rockmore Biography by Larry Borenstien Part 2
5-1-73 additional material added by Larry Borenstein
Noel Davis Exhibitions and Awards
Both Raphael Soyer and Xavier Gonzales are among contemporary New York painters who have encouraged Rockmore to persevere in his own direction rather than to conform to art fads. In the early 1950's Rockmore was able to gain access to the backstage areas of the Barnum & Bailey circus. Some remarkable paintings came into being from these images. His first important etchings date from this period, many of them in extremely limited editions. The excitement of producing the plate was what he was after. In some cases he would pull two or three proofs and then abandon the plate. Some of these are studio interiors which demonstrate his love for detail and his device of shocking the viewer with a complete non-sequitor.
During the middle 1950's he won several prizes in competitions held by the National Academy of Design. He was nominated for membership which he refused, much to the chagrin of his parents and well-wishers. In 1955 (actually 1958) his “Coney Island Labyrinth” won the Tiffany Fellowship. This oil is composed around a self-portrait with a violin in his studio which was a Coney Island storeroom for sideshow props. (Insert from Noel Revision) Coney Island Labyrinth relates to 1958 only. Should be removed from other dates. Belonged to Richard Levy (1960) and resold in 1970 by ELB to a relative of Dr. Steiner. Larry must complete text and supply Steve Rockmore with index or lists of collectors so that they can be applied as captions to photographs. Should have been done long before now, should be done at once.
In 1952 he was invited to participate in a group exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Modern Art and in 1953 at the Pennsylvania Academy and the Butler Institute (winning an award in the latter exhibition).
It was at this time that his first contract with an art dealer was formalized. Harry Salpeter who operated a small but distinguished gallery in Manhattan was overwhelmed at Noel’s energy and accomplishments. Through him Harry Hirshhorn became acquainted with his work and purchased a "40x50" oil self-portrait which Noel recalls as his first four-figure sale to a major collector. Hirshhorn purchased many works of this period including many drawings and graphics. The period of 1952-53 produced exquisite pencil drawings of subjects ranging from wax museum diaramas to large detailed interpretations of the French Market banana warehouses.
In 1955 Life magazine commissioned him to do a series of paintings on the fraternal organizations of America. Rockmore traveled to many cities to view a variety of functions and rituals. The first strong evidence of his voyeur style took shape in the execution of this commission. Reproduced is the “Old Folks Home at Enid Oklahoma” one of several controversial subjects. His sense of the macabre produced interpretations of such subjects as a mechanized reindeer ride operated by Coney Island showmen (Sporty and Nooky). “The Forgotten Room” and “Labyrinth” were also stimulated by these subjects as were paintings of a carved wooden gorilla and part of a broken horse from a carousel.
Noel Davis becomes Noel Rockmore and discovers New Orleans
1959 and 1960 was a dry spell. Only about 20 works were produced, most of them in egg tempera and although none of them were ever formally exhibited all of them were sold and reproductions are to be found in this book (Actually many more works were produced but not shared with Larry at the time). It was due to the discipline gained through these egg temperas that it was possible for Noel to produce his shipyard series about five years later. About 30 paintings were done in the period of approximately six weeks. First he prepared 24"x48" Masonite panels and covered them with a warm dark coat of acrylic. Each day he would select one or two and take a cab to the “Ship Graveyard” at the New Orleans Industrial Canal. He gained permission to go into restricted areas including holds of the ships which were being cut up for scrap. He suggested on more than one occasion that the feeling of watching these salvage operations was similar to watching a butcher dismember a side of beef. The same response was given another stimulant during the period that many New Orleans buildings on the riverfront were being demolished to make way for the International Trade Mart. Here again Rockmore chose to get into the thick of the action and be present on the demolition site with a hard hat and prepared panels and actually record the impact of the wrecking ball as it crashed into the doomed structures.
It was in 1959 that Noel petitioned the courts in New York City to legally change his surname from Davis to Rockmore. As he explains it there were at least four prominent painters named Davis on the scene not including his parents. He also liked the imagery which the name Rockmore evokes.
His excitement with the New Orleans scene was partially based on his observation that the architecture in the Quarter was surrealistic and did not require that he provide the surrealism but only record that which existed leaving his talents for the blending of this facilities with the extant realism. If Noel depicts himself as a voyeur in his paintings it is balanced in that in his other experiences he is an exhibitionist. Once he was in New Orleans and no longer supervised by Harry Salpeter who kept a fairly short rein on his productions, he had to find a new audience to dazzle. This led him to Max Hill who operated a framing shop catering mostly to street artists whose work was produced for sale to tourists as souvenirs. Although Max Hill had limited art credentials (Note- Shirley Marvin expressed in a 2007 interview that Larry was quite possessive of Noel and that other dealers were a threat to Larry in this regard. She feels the afore mentioned line is absolutely not true, Max Hill had credentials and was a lovely compassionate man.) he (Max Hill) recognized at once that Noel’s work was important and soon Noel’s paintings were the major part of Max Hill’s operation. It was during this time that such gem-like large egg temperas were produced. “Burial of an Ancient King”, “Basin Street Swing” (now in the Swope Museum), “The Gate” (collection of Julian A. Rockmore), “Burgundy Street” , “St. Joseph’s Day” (collection of E.L. Borenstein), ‘The Wharf Dwellers” (collection of George Haverstick).
In 1960 several crates of earlier paintings including some of those done for Life magazine, were received by Rockmore in New Orleans from the Brooklyn storage company where they had been for a few years. These were for the most part too rich and too esoteric for Max Hill. (Note – Shirley disagrees once again. “Larry wanted these and all of Noel's works and he made Noel an offer”). They were offered in a block to E.L. Borenstein, who at that time operated an art marketing service known as Associated Artists.
This transaction led to a long relationship which included Borenstein commissioning Rockmore to do a series of paintings of the old black New Orleans jazz men who were performing nightly in the newly named concert hall, “Preservation Hall”. During the period of 1962-63 and 64 approximately 300 oil portraits of musicians and over 500 small acrylics were produced on this theme. Rockmore set up a studio above Preservation Hall and in the daytime he would execute the oil portraits of musicians who came to his studio each day. At night Rockmore would squat on the floor in the audience and quickly set down what he saw and felt. The spontaneity and interplay between the artist and the subject is evident. A selected group of this series was reproduced in 1964 (actually it was 1968) by the Louisiana State University Press in a publication called “Preservation Hall Portraits”. Borenstein’s text which accompanied the paintings is quoted completely here. The book also included an interview of Noel Rockmore by Bill Russell. The balance of the book had to do with concise biographies of musicians whose portraits Rockmore had done. Rockmore’s association with Preservation Hall and Borenstein led to other meaningful friendships, among them Bill Russell, who became one of his favorite models, another Michael Stark, who during the period of Rockmore’s acquaintanceship developed from a youthful seminarian into the spiritual leader of the French Quarter hippy community.
Inside the mind of Noel Rockmore - Artist
In 1960 Rockmore’s natural inclination to share his fantasies with his viewers became so compelling that almost all works thenceforth have this element in varying degrees. In some the entire concept originates in his own interpretations, in others the catalyst is a real subject or person interpreted through his perception and served up for the viewer as if to say “you think this is just an old building, but I know that it has a occult existence and I can demonstrate it if you will only look”. In portraiture this device is furthered by the fact that practically every model is dissected and re-established, with the important addition that the new product is really a self-portrait of Rockmore masquerading as that person. Because of the insights that he has in his own place in the world he frequently projects motives and defenses into others when he senses that they too have similar basic insecurities. Occasionally this cutting across the facade of the model produces brilliant results.
(Insert from Noel Revision) It is unusual for a model to correspond exactly to his inner vision, therefore in many cases the above-mentioned approach can be considered a superimposition. However, where conscious choice of a model is involved the the artist usually veers toward the male rather than the female and usually old rather than young.
Other insights into Rockmore’s evaluation of his own work can be gleaned from these direct quotes of Rockmore on Rockmore. “I am a loner who aligns himself with neither fad or gallery or school of thought and therefore I am ignored. It is interesting that an artist can live completely as an artist and in 30 years produce approximately 10,000 works and never be recognized as a major artist. Intuitively I work against the grain because it enriches experience.” On egg tempera, “egg tempera is normally done in darks over a light ground. I always start with a dark ground and work up to the lights.”
On feeple (the malformed, often stylized, inhabitants of his morbid fantasies), “Feeple are the result of the egg tempera technique when it is applied to humans.” (Insert from Noel Revision) The feeple style resulted from the fact that deformity interests this artist more than regularity or symmetry. The weather-beaten quality of age is intuitively of more interest in a painting as a visual problem, i.e. wrinkles etc. than is the lack of same. Basically the feeple style is a result of working out of imagination rather than directly from life and is a case of stylization over reality and can be related to the way in which the pre-Columbian chooses his subjects. Other artists who have chosen stylized features with emphasis on defects include George Tooker, who introduced Rockmore to the use of egg tempera in 1958 in Brooklyn.
On artists whom he admires, “Velasquez was the greatest painting machine who ever lived. Picasso in 1907, ‘14, some parts of his rose and blue period, 1920-30, and a small section of the late ‘30's, and leading into the early 40's. He outlived his talents. Miro the best pattern design maker we have. Early period Matisse and Roualt”. (Insert from Noel Revision) A major figure in American art in my opinion is Max Ernst. Masson is another artist I admire greatly, especially his work of the 40's.
Rockmore on the “table series”, one of his recurring themes; “Most of these started with very early imaginary factors. Small drawings became the technical basis for many works in unrelated subsequent periods. These themes relate to a fundamental aspect of negative and positive. My biggest gift is ‘infighting’. If I have to deal with subjects widely separated I am in trouble. "The closer and more confused the physical components, the clearer it is to me.” “I can transpose a positive physical formula into a negative by simply reversing white on black to black on white. This is an intellectual exercise for me but it is natural and spontaneous.” “My most successful paintings tend to be of widely spaced objects. (Insert from Noel Revision) “Three Men at a Table”, 1958, 40"x50", oil, which Dr. Richard Levy owned and sold is essentially the first table series painting. ELB to mention Levy as a person dazzled by Noel when he first arrived in town and later fell out with. (Note - Shirley Marvin adds in 2007 interview that the falling out occurred after Noel captured personal qualities in a portrait of the Dr. that he did not wish to have revealed).
Other frequently recurring themes are family portraits and self-portraits. Frequently the self-portraits are symbolically disguised. In many paintings the image of a boy with flowers is restated. It is Rockmore as a naive observer trying to share a gift with unappreciative bystanders who refuse to look and therefore who will not understand. Basically Rockmore is a non-participant who is where the action is. The self-image is in a dream state and the rest of the painting is the content of that dream. It is a complication of a self-symbol and an attempt to convey a state of mind. This device occurs throughout works in all periods and all media, etchings and drawings as well as in the wet media.”
Early Noel Davis/ Noel Rockmore works from 1950-1962
In 1957 Rockmore was commissioned to do a series of prints for Life magazine based on Graham Greene’s play, “Potting Shed”. Subjects included Frank Conroy, Dame Sybil Thorndyke, and Robert Fleming. Techniques included etchings and lithographs. After the breakup of Rockmore’s marriage Xavier Gonzales recommended to him that he come to New Orleans and arranged for him to obtain a studio in the house of Paul Ninas, a highly respected New Orleans painter. During this period some of the most exciting of his New Orleans paintings were achieved. However, Rockmore continued to maintain his New York contacts.
His arrangement with Harry Salpeter was dissolved and he started to exhibit his work with the Greer Gallery, who offered him greater exposure. His first show at the gallery in 1961 included a marvelous octagonal painting called “Girl in White” now owned by S. Leonard. The 1962 show had a catalogue which included a color reproduction of the artist’s parents now owned by William May of Denver, Colorado. Other important paintings of this period included the portrait of Dick Kohlmeyer (Dorothy Kilgallen’s son). Another painting in the table series, “The Brothers”, is in the Swope Museum. A painting entitled “Quaker Oats” anticipates pop art long prior to its impact on the New York scene. Another experimental series of paintings undertaken at this time included the umbrella series which led to paintings and graphics. There was also a group of what Rockmore refers to as “partition paintings” in which a somewhat cubist approach to reflected light was utilized.
Rockmore thinks of 1961 and 1962 in New York prior to his definitive move to New Orleans as the period in which all the various facets of what he had attempted heretofore jelled into a final style and commitment . It was during this period that “The Game”, now owned by Dr. Engels of St. Simons, Georgia, was painted. This painting which must be considered a breakthrough led to such paintings as “The Astrologer” and “The Sorcerer”. At this point Rockmore became obsessed with the guitar and studied with Julio Prol and Leonid Bolletine. He sold his Scarampella violin in New Orleans although he continued to drop into Bill Russell’s music shop on Chartres St. and play duets with Bill frequently.
Referring to “The Game” Rockmore considers it as an artificially contrived approach to a painting. He considers it as a hermetically sealed space and within this capsule all of the kinetic action ceases. Everyone and everything is in a mystical state of suspended animation almost as if his rapidly moving dream was held in a second of time. The implication is that subsequent to this incident the action will resume and whatever sequences of events were implied will go forward. Paintings of this type include “The Encounter”, “The Figaro Café”, “Invitation to the Dance”, etc.
An interesting observation about Rockmore’s mysticism is that it is completely independent of religious overtones. With the exception of “The Crucification” painted in 1952 and “The Tower of Babel” painted in 1964 there are no Biblical subjects. In 1968 when he toured Israel and did a series of painting depicting religious sites and the ecstasies of Jews at the Wailing Wall it is again evident that his is not a participant but an observer and that he is in effect saying, “Isn’t it interesting that these people should do this.” Here again as in the series of jazz paintings Rockmore is reminiscent of George Catlin in his attempt to depict how other people live and and react.
An important painting of the early 1950's is named “Flaying of the Tiger”. This image had to do with an incident in Central Park Zoo. A well-meaning child had left a bottle of a carbonated soft drink near the tiger’s cage. Somehow the tiger spilt the fluid and lapped it up and the gas caused the tiger’s death. The zoo chose to remove the tiger’s skin for stuffing and Rockmore, with his usual attraction to scene of death and morbidity, chanced on the operation and made the sketches and drawings which led to this remarkable work. It is noteworthy how many of Rockmore’s subjects are subjects with death or at least with doomed persons. There is a gem-like oil in the collection of Mr. & Mrs. Irving Stimmler of New York City of a circus dwarf making up backstage. Rockmore’s account of his choice of this subject indicates that he thinks of the dwarf as applying cosmetics to his own face for burial.
Noel Rockmore Art from 1960-1964
In 1964 Rockmore received a grant from the Ford Foundation which enabled him to spend several months as artist in residence at the Swope Museum in Terre Haute, Indiana. Paintings of this period included several slaughterhouse subjects. There is a remarkable similarity in a large painting of pork carcasses being moved along an overhead conveyor with his later treatment of a group of Jews at the Wailing Wall. Other subjects which were stimulated by the Terre Haute period include “Coal Mine Disaster” and other paintings of coal mines and slaughterhouse subjects. This and an abandoned brick factory. It was during this period that Rockmore perfected his technique for utilizing old book binding papers as a collage in combination with acrylics.
In about 1961, I(Larry Borenstein) had acquired a large stock of antique handmade cartouche papers from a defunct bindery. Rockmore was fascinated with the paper and did some paintings on the surface leaving some areas unpainted so that the marbled effects were integrated into his completed painting. Some of the earliest paintings in the Preservation Hall jazz portraits acrylics utilized this technique. Later experiments led him to bonding small areas of these papers to his Masonite panels prior to preparation. He would then leave some of the original paper design exposed for this purpose. This device recurs in some of the paintings of the ship graveyard series and later in some of the Terre Haute paintings and still later in the Coney Island Revisited series. As finally developed, the taste and selection of the paper as part of the entire surface is as creative as if he had chosen to paint the areas himself.
(Insert from Noel Revision) During the period 1963, 64, and 65 several attempts at portrait commissions were undertaken. In every case the sitter was warned in advance that Rockmore would not do a pleasing portrait of the usual drawing-room variety. However, in some cases the understanding was that in the event the sitter chose to not own the painting Rockmore or Borenstein would retain ownership of it. In some cases these portraits were loved by the sitters. In others they were paid for with some trepidation and have found their ways into closets. At least one marriage was jeopardized once the spouse of the sitter saw personality traits which previously had not been clearly defined. Included are many of the portraits mostly from the collection of ELB which are not identified as to sitter.
Noel Rockmore Art from 1965-1971
In 1965 Rockmore made a trip to Morocco. Only one noteworthy painting, “The Arab”, resulted, but a major sketchbook now owned by Shirley Marvin, Baton Rouge, was produced.
(Insert from Noel Revision) Loft paintings of 1965: In 1965 a deviation from Rockmore’s direction was stimulated by frequent visits to friends who inhabited a loft in New York’s lower East Side (East Village). A great deal of uninhibited sexual activity as well as narcotic adventures were documented during this period. Included are orgies, Lesbian intimacies, flagellation, and other deviant behavior. As always, Rockmore is the voyeur, never the participant. A small intense, combined mixture of flubdubbery with Tom Peepery.
Yet another friendship made in New Orleans was Gypsy Lou Webb, a remarkable personage with aptitudes in several creative fields including song writing and art. She and her husband, Jon (now deceased) published a literary journal known as “The Outsider”. Among the writers who were published by Lou-Jon Press were Charles Bukowski and in 1965 a handsome publication called “Crucifix in a Death Hand” was hand printed by Lou-Jon Press. The cover of the book utilized Rockmore’s etching “Night Music”. Along with the text of the book were several other of Rockmore’s etchings, “The Nocturnal Banquet”, “The Mummy” (whose hands form the crucifix of the title), “The Coney Island Labyrinth”, an etched form of the Rockmore painting of 1957 (actually 1958), and “Young Man with Flowers”. Used near the end of the book almost as a colophon is symbolized Rockmore’s sharing of his inner thoughts with the public at large. In association with this publication I (Larry Borenstein) wrote the following short comment (quote last page of book). The book proved significant to all of the participants.
(Insert from Noel Revision) 1967 San Francisco period. The 1964, 65, 66, and 67 years are the basic years of the internal compositions in his whole career. First began in 1961 and 62 in New York with paintings like Dr. Engel’s “The Game” and the umbrella series.Those four years in a row are the central years of major imaginary compositions.
In 1967 Rockmore made a trip to Israel and in a matter of ten days produced 30 large watercolors and inks as well as several sketchbooks. Upon his return he executed over 100 oils which were the subject of a one-man show at the Crane Korchin Gallery at Bala-Cynwyd, Pennsylvania. Later, in 1967, Rockmore went to San Francisco and during this period produced a large body of work mostly in the fantasy genre. An octagonal portrait of the artist’s sister is a good example of this very productive period.
(Insert from Noel Revision) Second marriage: in 1967 Rockmore endured a second marriage which lasted five months (Robin Levine).
Again in 1969 Rockmore spent some time in San Francisco. A very great, seemingly unfinished painting of the artist’s sister which includes a self-portrait with a wooden arm is a major work of this period.
In 1970 Rockmore undertook his “Homage to the French Quarter”. This painting Rockmore refers to as the world’s largest postcard. It was done somewhat tongue-in-cheek and included 68 likenesses in its final state. Actually there were many more but as Noel said, “Whenever I had an argument with someone, I simply painted him out of the picture.” This included a couple of changes of mistresses and in its final state none of the original nudes survive.
In New York in 1971 Rockmore did a horizontal “Homage to New York”. This painting includes over 40 likenesses and is now hung in the lobby of the Beaux Arts Building, part of the collection of Ray Sterlini. About this time Rockmore became extremely interested in Sister Gertrude Morgan, a black mystic whose primitive paintings of Bible messages sprang from her fantasies and her outlet of her place in God’s plan.
Rockmore speaking of other recurring models: Bill Russell, bloodless death figure; (AMPLIFY WITH ROCKMORE’S HELP).
(Insert from Noel Revision) Bill Russell represents a bloodless blue-white walking conscience of others. Bloodless refers to both his coloring, which is essentially alabaster, but also suggestive of the idea that normal blood does not run through these veins. Relates definitely more to birds than to people or who would prefer that people were more like birds and resents the fact that he is human himself and would rather be a bird. This is why I see him as a gliding marine bird rather than as a person.
(Insert from Noel Revision) Also, there will be as many as 15 reproductions of Bill Russell. His 15-year relationship with his now deceased parakeet, Pretty Boy, was in many senses like the friendship of two equal personages. Russell’s niece, Jenny, also essentially bird-like, appears as a bird on his shoulder in one of the major portraits of him. This animal doesn’t leave a spoor. Attracted toward these qualities plus the configuration of his head and his hands; he (Bill Russell) is the Michaelangelo feeple, the only true feeple with true dignity. The archtype of the feeple image retaining his true dignity no matter how mistreated by Rockmore attempts to emphasize his physical imperfections.
Paul Ernst: “He is disqualified as he is really a nut and not like the people who I generally react to who appear natural and I point out their irrationalities.
“Psychological tension portraits” means tension between potential viewer and mirror of all human weaknesses. I use the sitter immediately to project the warning that this can happen to you. The excellent dignity of the human head overriding the farcical traits of people. I do this in order to impose my lugubrious nature. I tend to select sitters who correspond to my inner vision. When a sitter is possible I never choose physically healthy people.
TO BE DEVELOPED: Bryant Gallery, George Wein
(Insert from Noel Revision) Two shows at Bryant. 1972 one of so-called scrapbook series which was a disciplinary exercise. 1880's scrapbooks originated the idea that little old ladies, grandmothers, had put together scrapbooks corresponding with their inner vision momentarily fascinated the artist and he felt a kinship with them and wanted to transpose into the paintings an imagery that was not intended for that purpose originally producing a series of paintings. Although not among the freest or more convincing, still it was a valuable experience or discipline.
The second show, George Wein became a friend and suggested a trip to Paris which produced two bodies of work unrelated to each other. Wein collection includes the 28 pieces of Paris and then back in New Orleans produced the second Paris set shown in Houston at the Houston Bryant Gallery of January 1973. Produced “Flea Market” 50"x70" and major works such as “Tuilleries” 40"x50".
(Note – it has been suggested but not verified that the Paris arrangement was that Noel was to give George Wein first pick of the works from Paris. The works that Noel gave George Wein to pick from were all minor works except for one self portrait. Rockmore then details in the notes above that the second set of Paris works were produced in New Orleans and not related to the first. Regardless, George Wein remained a patron and later commissioned Homage to the Jazzfest.)
(Final Insert from Noel Revision) It is possible that additional trips under the generous patronage of Mr. And Mrs. George Wein will occur. Bryant Galleries are the people responsible for the production of this book. (Note - Neither of these Fantasies were to become a Reality)