NEW ORLEANS — In the four-block radius where he painted and drank himself into frightening stupors, Noel Rockmore was known by the denizens of the French Quarter as an outrageous Pablo Picasso-like figure who combined the mythological and the real. He produced some 15,000 oil paintings, temperas, collages and sketches over his career and then died in obscurity.
His life was that of an American outsider and a throwback to Europe's great expressionistic and hedonistic masters.
In the 1950s, when he was still in his 20s, his paintings hung in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Museum of Modern Art and the Hirshhorn Museum. He was a bright young American artist who had a taste for Rembrandt and figurative paintings, with the outlook of an American social realist.
Then, the art world changed: Abstract expressionism — typified by the paint throwing of Jackson Pollock — became the rave. Rockmore, who admired draftsmanship in painting, detested it.
Rockmore changed: He left his wife and three children, changed his last name and headed to New Orleans in 1959, where he would eventually get lost to the New York art world.
The story of Noel Montgomery Davis (his real name) is getting a long-overdue audience outside New Orleans, a city that is enjoying something of an art renaissance itself six years after Hurricane Katrina. From now until the end of January, his works are on view at the LaGrange Art Museum in Georgia. The retrospective is called "Creative Obscurity: The Genius Noel Rockmore."
"He was kind of an art hobo," said Ethyl Ault, interim director of the LaGrange Art Museum.
She said Rockmore was an overlooked genius. "Was it politics? Did he offend people? Why was he so popular in New York when he was younger, and then he leaves, changes his name and then goes on into his fairy tale land?"
The show is based on nearly 1,500 Rockmore artworks retrieved from storage units in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. For 25 years, Shirley Marvin, an octogenarian Baton Rouge patron, had been saving Rockmore artworks and memorabilia with the intention of making him famous one day.
But she had forgotten about the collection due to short-term memory loss, her family said. Marvin was one of Rockmore's most devoted fans. She saw genius in him — like many others in New Orleans. The extraordinary collection was gathering dust when her son, Rich Marvin, took her down to New Orleans in October 2006, a year after Katrina, to get "a few paintings," as her mother described it. Instead, they found the units packed with remnants of Rockmore's life.
In the wake of the collection's discovery, Rich and his wife, Tee Marvin, have become Rockmore's biggest impresarios — the agents Rockmore famously refused to have throughout his life as he willfully lived on the edge of the art world. He was notorious among art galleries for his temper and fits of outrage. His friends say he suffered emotional problems for much of his life.
The Marvins — working with Rockmore's family and art dealers, collectors and museum curators — have begun cataloging his works and promoting him. They estimate he produced about 15,000 pieces of art and conservatively 750 to 1,000 of those are masterpieces.
"At first we thought my mom was crazy," Rich Marvin said. "When a museum or gallery lines up his top 200 exquisite works, people will be as stunned as we are."
Rockmore was born in 1928 in New York to a family of artists. He was supertalented. A child prodigy, he played the violin well by age 8. After suffering polio at age 10, he turned to painting. He studied briefly at The Juilliard School and had a studio at the Cooper Union. Family friends included Ernest Hemingway, George Gershwin and Thomas Mann.
His 20s were prolific as he painted the bums of the Bowery district, monkeys and elephants in the backstage of the Ringling Brothers Circus and parables of Central Park and Coney Island. He was a social realist, akin to Depression-era American painters such as John Steuart Curry, but these early works contained themes and artistic styles that would stay with him: death, violence, sex, the surreal and the allegorical.
In retrospect, it was the ghoulish and morbid in Rockmore that defined him, making him a kind of American Hieronymus Bosch.
In the 1950s, Rockmore became fed up with the wave of abstract expressionists then taking hold of New York — the flat tones and humanless canvases of Willem De Kooning, Pollock, Mark Rothko and Barnett Newman. During this period he drank heavily and his wife kicked him out because of his wildness, his daughter, Emilie Heller-Rhys, said.
At age 31, he moved down to New Orleans and began working with Larry Borenstein, an art collector, and Allan Jaffe, a business school graduate and tuba player. In the 1960s, Borenstein employed Rockmore as a kind of resident painter for a new society he'd formed with Jaffe to preserve traditional New Orleans jazz music. The society would become Preservation Hall.
Rockmore was commissioned to paint the old-time musicians. He captured the mood, scent, touch and smoke of New Orleans jazz and its musicians — Punch Miller, Percy Humphrey, Louis Nelson, Sweet Emma and Billie and DeDe Pierce, and scores of others.
His output was staggering. He'd become fixated by a subject — New Orleans' Carnival traditions, the frenetic Port of New Orleans, the characters of the French Quarter, alien beings, ancient Egypt, voodoo — and mined it artistically.
Some of his most cherished and memorable pieces are of the Quarter's Bohemians, fellow outsiders: Ruthie the Duck Girl; Gypsy Lou; O.M. (standing for "Old Man"); Mike Stark; Johnny White; and Sister Gertrude Morgan.
Yet, his life was pierced by that dark side.
"He was a brilliant artist, and I don't use those words lightly," said Stephen Clayton, a New Orleans art collector who did not know Rockmore and does not own any of his works. "He chose to come here, came to the Quarter, climbed in a bottle and never got out."
From his morning vodka, Rockmore kept going all day, muscling his way through sketches, wall-sized oils, nudes in charcoal, sculptures and mixed media and calling it quits at one of his favorite bars, often The Alpine, within shouting distance of the St. Louis cathedral and his bed.
There are stories of him trashing art galleries and studios. Handcuffing a woman to his stove. Sticking a mummified cat in one of his works. Going on lithium and alcohol binges that left him a wreck. Cursing at tourists viciously. Sitting in streets with his muddy tennis shoes and rumpled clothing, looking like a bum. Drawing on napkins, grocery bags and just about anything else he liked. Sitting in bars, drinking and trying to get women to go to bed with him.
One of Rockmore's closest friends, Andy Antippas, a former Tulane University poetry professor and art gallery owner, recalled going into Rockmore's apartment during one of his lithium binges and finding his studio in a state that resembled the home of Charles Manson.
"It was trashed," said Antippas, who found pages from Playboy magazine littering the floor and feces from his two dogs in the middle of his bed. "He'd obviously been sitting in one place and drinking and painting for hours."
"Noel was an autodidact of the highest order," Antippas said. "There was probably no artist more prolific than Noel — except perhaps Picasso."
Antippas is like many Rockmore fans. He believes he was a genius, a master who ranks among the greatest.
In his home on St. Claude Avenue — cluttered with books, paintings, decorated human skulls, African masks and paintings galore — Antippas stood in front of a large subdued painting hanging on the wall near his desk. He looked at it and said he owned what he believed to be "one of the finest paintings, if not the best, painting in Western civilization, a nude portrait of his father. It's the only such painting ever done."
"He couldn't relate to the real world. He lived in his own world; he was driven by his own work," said Rita Posselt, a 59-year-old fine art photographer who lived with Rockmore between 1978 and 1984 and frequently posed for him. "He would wake up in the morning and go to bed at night, and in between those hours there was a lot of torment for him."
"He wanted somebody to recognize his talent, and he wanted important people in the art world, museums and such, to do so, but he didn't want to jump through hoops and parties to make it happen."
During his life, and still today, Rockmore was a kind of New Orleans project.
He is woven into the city. Anyone who has stepped into the gloom of Preservation Hall has seen Rockmores — they're the haunting oil paintings of jazz greats on the walls. A Rockmore hangs in Johnny White's bar. It's a football scene, a token of appreciation for the bar owner, Johnny White, and typically Rockmore: There are three teams on the field. His paintings hang in the Old Mint, the New Orleans Museum of Art, the Ogden Museum of Southern Art, and on the walls of galleries and homes throughout New Orleans. And who knows where else.
"My feeling was that Noel was the most democratic painter," Antippas said. "Every waiter, bartender, in the Quarter has a Rockmore. God knows how many Rockmores are hanging on walls throughout the city."
Rockmore died in 1995 at age 66 of an untreated infection. When he was taken to the hospital, according to friends, he was admitted as a "street person." According to his friends, he sat up on the gurney and declared, "I'm not a street person, I'm a great artist."
"I always say that he is America's Picasso," said Heller-Rhys, his daughter and an accomplished artist herself, as she stood during a recent visit outside the Skyscraper building, an 18th-century apartment building where Rockmore — and many other artists, including Charles Bukowski — stayed in the 1970s. "And America has to come to terms with that."