In many ways, I grew up at 521 St. Ann Street, across from Jackson Square in the French Quarter.
The current exhibition at the Louisiana Art & Science Museum on Baton Rouge’s downtown riverfront, “The Faith & the Fury: Noel Rockmore and His Patron,” which visually chronicles the effervescent, 32-year relationship between the prolific artist and his patron (90-year-old Baton Rouge doyenne Shirley Marvin), took me back to 1959, when my mother opened the Downtown Gallery at that address.
The rebellious, thirty-one year-old New York prodigy, who arrived in New Orleans the same year, couldn’t live with his artistic, cerebral parents; but, as his homage to them in several paintings in this exhibition suggests, he couldn’t live without them either — at least as inspirations.
Perhaps best known for his Preservation Hall Portraits, a series of more than 300 oils and 500 small acrylics completed over two years in the early 1960s, Rockmore chose those aging musicians and the ever-present street people of the Quarter as his new family.
One of the most striking paintings in the exhibition, “The French Quarter and Mississippi River through the eyes of an artist recently arrived from Coney Island,” masses Quarter structures together like a montage of Coney Island rides. It gives a taste, in 1959, of the fanciful, Surrealist bent that would suffuse Rockmore’s work throughout his life.
Another work from the same year, “Boy in Front of Hat Shop,” could serve as a template of the ease with which the artist could combine the acute observation of figures; an elderly woman, in widow’s black guarding, at St. Joseph’s Altar, is situated within a world in which a meticulously-lettered sign: “Mrs. F. POPOVICH,” on a facade with each red brick, shares artistic space with an adobe wall, fanciful flora and a staircase that seems to lead nowhere.
In 1962’s poster child for the exhibition, “Figaro Cafe,” Rockmore compresses time, space and pattern to create, as the accompanying label proclaims, “a mystical state of suspended animation” within a “hermetically sealed environment,” in an homage to heroes such as Lenny Bruce, Bob Dylan and Jack Kerouac. It’s a tour de force that would make any Modernist proud.
In 1960, the Downtown Gallery gave Rockmore his first solo exhibition in his adopted city, and he shared wall space with gallery artists George Dureau, Enrique Alferez, Paul Ninas, Juan Calandria, John McCrady, Leonard Flettrich, Millie Wohl and Bill Long.
My first encounter with Rockmore was at arm’s length. Working from a studio in Paul Ninas’s house and cavorting with other Quarter artists who frequented the E. Lorenz Borenstein Gallery, which Bohemian dealer and real-estate magnate Larry Borenstein had opened with an uncharacteristic champagne, black-tie reception in spiffed-up quarters at 511 Royal St., Rockmore frequently began his day over coffee with fellow Quarter artist Richard Hoffman.
In the Downtown’s print rack, near the entrance, was a voluptuous nude drawing Rockmore had made of Hoffman’s wife. Gallery director Arlin Ende, whom the gallery had lured from Taos, New Mexico’s celebrated Stables Gallery, opened the front door one morning to find a despondent, but enraged, Hoffman clamoring to get in.
Once inside, he snatched the drawing from the rack, dodged Ende to the street, and tore the drawing into tiny pieces that fluttered into the gutter. Then he collapsed into tears, wailing that he’d never be able to have coffee with Noel again.
That’s the way things went with Rockmore, who sank into a misanthropic and hyperactive swirl of personal decline and artistic sublimity over three decades, until his dissolute death, at age 66, in 1995.
Rockmore always viewed himself as a genius whose work would one day be valued in the millions. Shirley Marvin believed this, acquiring some 1,400 paintings over three decades. My mother, Naomi Marshall, owned many Rockmores, but she sold most over the years. Today, at Madewood, we have several pen-and-ink drawings; an enigmatic, humanoids-in-the-Quarter scene, with the artist’s other-worldly “feeples”; a crepuscular still-life overlooking the “Skyscraper” building at Royal and St. Peter; a stark, dramatic portrait of Mother Margaret (Parker), a musician who cofounded an orphanage with her meager earnings; and three seldom-seen works from a sojourn in Terre Haute, Indiana, in 1964.
The Downtown Gallery opened the year I became a teenager, and my brother, Don, and I spent most weekends in the company of artists. I learned early on about different lifestyles: why Mother’s attempts to fix up George Dureau with Miss New Orleans were misdirected at best; that nude drawings of other people’s wives might not be a good idea. Though I desperately wanted to meet Dureau’s stylish Aunt Lillie, who drove a fire-engine-red Lincoln convertible — the classy one, with front and rear doors that opened away from each other — that was not to be.
I heard tales of La Casa de Los Marinos, at the corner of Toulouse and Decatur, where Uptown socialites would party after gallery openings. And I marveled that people like Amy Vanderbilt and the Beatles signed the guest register on their visits to New Orleans. (Yes, someone tore out the page with all four Beatles’ signatures.)
All these memories came rushing back at the Baton Rouge exhibition, as well as at a smaller, not-to-be-missed show at The Historic New Orleans Collection. The HNOC show is focused on the Loujon Press, which includes a diminutive Rockmore, “Ruthie the Duck Lady,” and a huge, encyclopedic Rockmore, “Homage to the French Quarter.” The latter, which portrays every artistic or renegade character you wanted to know in those heady days, is owned by New Orleans restaurateur and Quarter habitué JoAnn Clevenger.
Even if you know nothing of Rockmore and the French Quarter in the 1960s and beyond, a visit to either show will give you a taste of coming of age during that era.
Please don’t be jealous.
“The Faith & The Fury: Noel Rockmore and His Patron”
July 20–October 6, 2013
Louisiana Art and Science Museum, 100 River Road South
Tues-Fri: 10-3; Sat: 10-5; Sun: 1-4. Closed Monday.
“Alternative Imprints: Jon Webb, Gypsy Lou, and the Hand-Sewn World of the Loujon Press”
August 13–November 16, 2013
Williams Research Center, 410 Chartres St.
Tuesday–Saturday, 9:30 a.m.–4:30 p.m.
Admission is free.
(Edwin J. Blair, whose collection forms the base of the HNOC exhibition, will be joined by art collector and restaurant owner JoAnn Clevenger and Bukowski scholar Neeli Cherkovski for a special program on Saturday, September 7, from 2 to 4 PM. See website for details.)