George Dureau might have lost his dignity, or worse, to the shadow of his fading memory, but the legendary French Quarter artist had people looking out for him.
Mostly, he had Katie Nachod.
Dureau’s legal curator got the call from police last December that set off the alarm: Dureau’s Alzheimer’s disease had entered a new and critical phase, and he needed to be committed to a nursing home.
“That was the crisis day,” said Nachod, who along with an informal group called the Friends of George had been looking after Dureau for several years.
Nachod was all too familiar with inquiries about her friend, the charming and gregarious, if increasingly unwashed and unkempt man. The man with the signature beard and the affable, gregarious style, who for years, had walked Nachod to and from her job as a law librarian at the Louisiana State Supreme Court.
“No, it’s not a homeless man,” Nachod would say when people would ask about her friend. “It’s a famous artist.”
It was George Dureau, a New Orleanian made famous by his intensely gritty, intimate and altogether human photographs of nude African-American males, dwarves and amputees that brought a sense of upfront dignity to French Quarter urchins and misfits, the underclass who worked the streets and often succumbed to their temptations and tricks.
Dureau was a fixture in the French Quarter for decades after making the photographs in the 1970s and was a major influence on the likes of Robert Mapplethorpe — and he still rode his bike around the neighborhood into his 80s, making the rounds at friends’ bookshops and galleries in the French Quarter and Faubourg Marigny. He could cut a check for groceries at Matassa’s, and he still took snapshots, mostly at Jackson Square, Nachod said.
Nachod had been staunchly opposed to having her friend committed to a nursing home, but the signs of his deterioration were mounting, as were concerns for his physical safety.
He’d already been victimized by one unsavory street person who’d stolen money from him using his Matassa’s check-writing privileges.
Nachod had taken control of his finances after finding him sitting on his hands on a French Quarter stoop one day with an impish look on his face and a secret.
“Suddenly he takes his hands out from under him,” she said, “and he’s got a packet of $100 bills in each hand. He had $2,000 in cash, but he had no idea where he’d gotten the money from,” Nachod said.
They quickly deposited the money in his checking account and she began the process of taking over his finances, with the help of former U.S. Attorney Harry Rosenberg, a longtime friend of Dureau’s.
Nachod found a half-brother in Dallas and a couple of elderly first cousins in the immediate area. They were all very helpful, but the first cousins were also dealing with an elderly relative with Alzheimer’s and couldn’t do much beyond offer support.
“Alzheimer’s is a cruel disease,” Nachod said.
That fateful December day, after a final and fiercely independent afternoon spent living the raconteur’s life near his Bienville Street home, the renowned 81-year-old painter-photographer, with the urging of Nachod, checked himself into a local emergency room.
After a quick whirlwind through several regional medical facilities, he wound up at Carrington Place, a nursing home in Algiers Point operated by Touro.
But the medical bills began to mount.
So this weekend, The Friends of George, a group of locals who came together to help Dureau negotiate his declining situation several years ago, organized an auction of furniture and other wares from Dureau’s last home in the French Quarter, a three-story rental at 537 Bienville St. he moved into after Hurricane Katrina.
That group grew from eight members to more than 80 over the past few short, sharp years of Dureau’s decline.
The auction was Saturday at the Crescent City Auction Gallery on St. Charles Avenue. The offering was a wide-ranging assortment of possessions that featured a lot of furniture from Dureau’s home and other, more intimate items that speak to the mythopoetic influence Dureau — a New Orleans native who was trained in classicism at LSU — has had on contemporary art.
One lot of “various ephemera” had an almost shrine-like quality to it, a presentation of old padlocks and small frames and thrift store figurines, and other small items. The bulk of Dureau’s work and papers will find a home in a major art institution, said Arthur Roger, a Friend of George’s and owner of the namesake gallery on Julia Street.
Another lot was a set of props he used in his photographs — boxing gloves, handcuffs and other items that appear in his most famous body of work, the photos that are now on display at the Arthur Roger Gallery along with some unfinished Dureau paintings from his home collection.
Getting famous for his photography was never part of the plan for Dureau.
He was trained as a painter and wanted to be known as a painter, said Roger, but his photographs are what brought him to fame in the 1980s and beyond.
“George opened this gallery in 1988,” Roger said, adding that it was a relief — though a sad one — to see his friend finally have ongoing care, even at the cost of his fiercely held independence.
“It was pretty grim for him for a few years,” Roger said.
Roger speaks with pride and protectiveness about his friend’s journey from A-list art-world fame to the awful, grinding reality of Alzheimer’s disease. Dureau was a primary influence on the late photographer Mapplethorpe, but Mapplethorpe was just the most famous of a number of artists who stole from Dureau over the years, Roger said.
Mapplethorpe himself “lifted compositions” from Dureau, Roger said — a claim he said Dureau would famously and ferociously make himself.
The irony was that Mapplethorpe became famous for his stark and eye-popping photographs of nudes, whereas “George’s photographs were almost an afterthought, the necessary record of the people” he would mold into mythology on the canvas, Roger said.
The black-and-white photographs give a raw and sometimes unsettling glimpse into the hard, druggy and weird world of the French Quarter of the 1970s. There’s nothing carny-show garish or exploitative about the photos, which deliver emotional frankness absent any sort of cheap thrills, sexual or otherwise.
Yet, there’s a casual, relaxed feel to many of the photos, whose laid-back intimacy allows for space to be punctuated by the glare of a pugnacious black dwarf or a pleading-eye double amputee swaddled in an American flag.
These were posed shots, some that required poses that Roger said were hard for the subjects to hold.
But you’d never know that from just looking at the photographs. Instead, the intimacy is itself the seat of any discomfort with the subject matter, born of the subjects who took comfort in their friendship with Dureau and trusted him with their deformities.
“They came to him wanting to be photographed,” Roger said of the subjects. “They completely trusted him.”
Critics and fans of Dureau have long pointed out that where Mapplethorpe’s photography can have an aloof and almost severe quality — subjects detached from the observer and even from themselves — Dureau’s pictures are possessed with that intimacy of knowledge, an unmistakable vulnerability and gripping earthiness that’s characteristically New Orleans.
“George had deep connections to his subject matter,” Roger said. “Whether or not it was a sexual connection, I don’t know, and I don’t care.”
The photos of African-American nude males, Roger said, “made white Uptown comfortable” with the idea that virility is not the same as vulgarity.
The prints are selling for $5,000.
Dureau chose to shoot, and then paint, nude black men because such depictions, at the time, went “against the grain, and forced you to look more intently,” Roger said.
The creation of mythos around bodily irregularties extended to the deformities.
“In the photograph, it’s just an amputee. But the harsh reality of the subject, they become mythologized in the paintings,” Roger said.
Dureau has himself become mythologized by critics and fans over the years.
Famously “over the top,” and intense, said Roger, Dureau was born in New Orleans in 1930 and never left in any meaningful sense. He never went to New York like some of his contemporaries, who included Robert Gordy, Ida Kormeyer and Lin Emery.
“He stayed, and that had an enormous impact both on his work and on the legacy,” Roger said.
Rochod said she visits Dureau regularly in the nursing home and he remains affable, charming and highly engaged.
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