Later this month, the Prospect.4 triennial will bring New Orleans the work of 73 international artists, many new to the city.
But there’s one artist local audiences already know quite well — though not in the way you might expect: The Prospect.4 installation at the New Orleans Jazz Museum in the Old U.S. Mint will include a collection of collages by none other than New Orleans’ own Louis Armstrong.
Prospect.4 artistic director Trevor Schoonmaker says the collages may come as a surprise to audiences who only know Armstrong as a towering presence in jazz music.
“Armstrong played a critical role in the formation of that musical art form, but most people don’t know he also made beautiful collages from magazine and newspapers on top of his reel-to-reel tapes,” Schoonmaker said. “These hidden gems are one of many examples of works in Prospect.4 that engage both sound and the visual.”
Trumpeter and bandleader Armstrong began making collages in the early 1950s, using scrapbooks and the walls of his apartment in Queens, New York, as his canvases.
But most of his collages were done on the 7-inch-square cardboard covers of his collection of reel-to-reel tapes.
Armstrong’s visual art was very much of a piece with his musical experimentation. Just as his jazz improvisations synthesized elements of existing compositions, the collages combined photographs, news clippings, handwritten notes and various bits of printed ephemera. All were affixed to the boxes with different kinds of adhesive tape that became as much a part of the visual rhythm of the collages as the images themselves.
The hundreds of collages that Armstrong made are currently in the collection of the Louis Armstrong House Museum in Corona, Queens, New York, which is lending 28 of them to Prospect.4 for the upcoming exhibition.
For Armstrong, making a collage was a way of constructing a narrative. “My hobbie [sic] is to pick out the different things during what ever I read and piece them together and make a little story of my own,” wrote Armstrong in a 1953 letter to a fan.
The collaged boxes complement the material on the tapes, which Armstrong would use to record selections of his own performances and pieces by other musicians he admired along with snippets of personal commentary on everything from music to race relations; conversations with family, friends, fellow musicians and fans; and background sounds from his home and backstage environments. In a way, Armstrong was an early pioneer of the mixtape culture that would coincide with the explosion of aural sampling and hip-hop several decades later.
Perhaps unsurprisingly for an artist who had a healthy sense of self-regard and his own importance in musical history, Armstrong cast himself as the main subject in most of his collages, whether combining his own image with that of his wife, Lucille; a snapshot of his fellow musicians working in a recording studio; or alongside a saucy photo from a cheesecake magazine.
While several of the collages have been shown previously in an exhibition organized by the Louis Armstrong House Museum in 2009 (and published in an accompanying catalog), the Prospect.4 exhibition at the New Orleans Jazz Museum is the first time they will be on view in New Orleans.
Along with Armstrong’s collages, work by nine other Prospect.4 artists will be exhibited at the Old U.S. Mint: Larry Achiampong, Michael Armitage, Satch Hoyt, Rashid Johnson, Darryl Montana, Rivane Neuenschwander, Dario Robleto, Hank Willis Thomas and Peter Williams.
This puts Armstrong, who died in 1971, in the company of some of the most important contemporary artists working today — and indeed, Armstrong believed that his work had an importance that transcended his own lifetime.
When asked the purpose of his collages in a 1961 interview, Armstrong answered with a characteristic witty malapropism: “For posterities.”
Ricky Riccardi, research director at the Louis Armstrong House Museum, sees New Orleans as the perfect venue to introduce new audiences to another dimension of Armstrong’s immense artistic legacy.
“For Prospect.4, they return to Armstrong’s birthplace to tell his story,” said Riccardi in the Prospect.4 catalog. “ ‘For posterity’, in the place where it all began.”
"Prospect.4: The Lotus in Spite of the Swamp" opens citywide Nov. 18. For more information, visit prospectneworleans.org.
Collages by Louis Armstrong
A Prospect.4 exhibit
WHEN: Nov.18-Feb. 25
WHERE: The New Orleans Jazz Museum
Old U.S. Mint
400 Esplanade Ave.
INFO: prospectneworleans.org or (504) 568-6968