Monday, December 28, 2009

Rockmore's Preservation Hall Portraits

Bill Matthews, Preservation Hall
1964, oil on canvas

If you've spent any amount of time, as I have, in conversation with the old-line bohemians of the French Quarter, you've heard many tales of the late Noel Rockmore. He was a regular patron of the lower-Quarter artist's cafes and bars central to that social scene, and he held court with no less intrigue and charisma than his fellow bohemian, Tennessee Williams. Arriving in "the last frontier of Bohemia" in 1959, Rockmore discovered the place of his dreams, a place that allowed him to both portray the fantasy and decay so central to his personal aesthetic, and to do so by painting what was there, without embellishment.

Born in New York City in 1928, he had both lived in France and studied violin by the age of five. He and his sister, Deborah studied briefly at Julliard. By 1939, painting and art had become his passion. By 16, he was copying Rembrandt at the Metropolitan Museum. By 18, he was studying at the Art Students League.

In 1948, Joseph Hirshhorn purchased Rockmore's Self-Portrait with a Model. At the same time, his style was being defined through a series of seventy-five drawings of Bowery bums. He depicted these crushing figures without social comment, a style he continued throughout his career. He spent time in the Natural History Museum painting monkeys and mummies. Several years were spent depicting Coney Island through drawings, etchings and paintings.

In 1951, Rockmore married and honeymooned in Mexico. During the trip, his car hit a cow, and much to the dismay of his bride, rather than seeking help, he spent time sketching the dying bovine. This obsession with death and decay continued in his next major series of three hundred circus paintings and drawings. For several weeks he travelled with the circus, and found himself overwhelmed with the thundering throngs of humans and animals, all in various states of decline.

Throughout the fifties, his work matured and continued to meet growing critical success. The Whitney Museum exhibited his work in 1956. In 1958, Hirshhorn bought nine more paintings, all of which are now in the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington, D.C.

Billie and DeDe Pierce, Preservation Hall
Oil on canvas, 1963.

A friend recommended that Rockmore visit New Orleans in 1959, and arranged a studio for him in the home of Paul Ninas. By 1963, Rockmore had executed over 350 portraits of musicians at Preservation Hall. Ben Jaffe, bassist, creative director and proprietor heir of Preservation Hall, told me recently that his father would often purchase the portraits painted in Preservation Hall. It was a kind of steady income for Rockmore during his early years in New Orleans.

The Ogden Museum is proud to have five portraits from the Preservation Hall series in its collection, all gifts from the Roger H. Ogden Collection. The two works pictured above are currently exhibited on the fourth floor of Goldring Hall.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Orcenith Lyle Bongé (1929 - 2009)

Photo by David Houston

The Ogden Museum is mourning the loss of a talented artist, great Southerner, friend to the Museum, and just a damn fine human being. Lyle Bongé passed away in his hometown of Biloxi on Monday, December 7, 2009.

Father Orcenith Lyle Bongé, a courtly citizen of Harrison County,
God-Hep-Us-Mississippi, is the signal representative of a wild eyed,
smooth-talking tribe who could charm the skin off a snake. -- Jonathan
Born in 1929, Lyle was the son of painters Archie and Dusti Bongé. Dusti was a native of the Mississippi Gulf Coast and that state's first true Modernist painter. Walter Anderson was the best man at their wedding. Lyle attended several schools including University of Southern Mississippi, University of Mexico, and the short-lived but highly influential Black Mountain College in North Carolina. He served two years in the Korean War, where he ran a darkroom. He began his career in photography after returning home to Biloxi in the early 50s. Over a span of thirty years beginning in 1955, Lyle amassed over forty-thousand negatives from shooting Mardi Gras in New Orleans. He is also known for his photo-abstractions. An accomplished sailor, he broke the world's record for single-handed cross-Gulf passage under sail in 1968. He wrote cookbooks, was a tree-topper, bank director and landlord. He also created metal sculpture.

In the foreword to The Photographs of Lyle Bongé (Jargon Society, 1982), A.D. Coleman said, "[T]here are many sides to Lyle Bongé, and a plethora of strange and curious tales to be told by and about him." No doubt the stories will continue to be told and told again about this rare gem of Zen-boho bodacity native to the Mississippi coast.

In the clipping below from a late-40s Black Mountain College's student newspaper, a young Lyle Bongé is described thusly:
He has red hair and sports a "French" mustache. He is noted for wearing a monocle on his left eye. This adds to his distinction greatly. Lyle possesses some strange but amusing hobbies. He collects skulls (from old graveyards) and animal skulls in the woods. To prove his statement that he loves "danger as a stimulant," he once lived in New York on $1.50 and a bottle of stimulant. He ate only one meal a day and that was with friends. Another hobby is sailing alone in a storm in his boat. Others include travelling, writing prose and poetry and he loves all modern art forms.

Black Mountain Student Paper
Circa 1948

A portfolio of four of Lyle's mescaline-influenced photographs titled "The Search for Vision" was included in Aperture 6:3, under the direction of Minor White. The Jargon Society published two books of his photographs, The Sleep of Reason: Lyle Bonge's Ultimate Ash-Hauling Mardi Gras Photographs (1974) and The Photographs of Lyle Bongé (1982). His photographic works are included in the permanent collections of the Mississippi Museum of Art, the George Eastman House, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the Houston Museum of Fine Arts, the Pensacola Art Museum, the Historic New Orleans Collection and the Ogden Museum of Southern Art. His sculptures have been exhibited at Loyola University in New Orleans and the George Ohr Museum in Biloxi.