“I’m known everywhere, believe me, but I’m not as well known as I should be,” painter Noel Rockmore said, eyes downcast and fingers curled around a cup of vodka.
A regular at Johnny White’s, a no-frills Bourbon Street bar where a wonderful painter who drinks all morning is unlikely to get much respect, the disheveled Rockmore went on in a deep and cultivated voice.
“I am one of the greatest artists of the 20th century, probably, right up there with Picasso, who hated me. The day I met him in Paris, Pablo was just outrageous.”
His eyes hidden by wrap-around sunglasses, Rockmore fortified himself with a slug of vodka. Standing at the bar in his old shoes, dirty jeans and uncombed hair, he was a veritable vision of decay. What are the odds that someone like him - who proclaims himself a genius at every turn - is, in fact, a genius?
Actually, in Rockmore’s case, the chances are pretty good. Few of his acquaintances in the art world, those who know the extraordinary scope of his work, dispute his right to the title. But geniuses do not always prosper, and at 11 o’clock on a weekday morning, Johnny White’s Bar is a far cry from Montmartre.
Badly shaved non-tourists drifted in and out. Rockmore, 66, knew most of them. A recent fistfight with one who slapped Rockmore’s puppy had given the painter a swollen, liver-colored wrist and a dull ache in his drawing hand. “I knocked the guy down the stairs 20 feet,” Rockmore said. “You do not hit a puppy, although I admit Igor does have a tendency to jump on people.
Why hello, Henry!” He called out to a tired-looking, hard-faced man who was passing through the bar the way a finger passes through the change slot on a pay phone, checking it for something free.
“Where-y’at, Rock-bottom,” came the man’s reply, cruel in its carelessness.
Rockmore, whose paintings hang in the Smithsonian Institution, grinned as if he were pleased. At Johnny White’s they speak to him not as one whose paintings sell for thousands of dollars, but as a barfly whose broken kitchen faucet in his squalid studio had been spewing hot water into the sink for weeks.
“Noel is not at his best right now,” said Shirley Marvin, a wealthy patron of Rockmore’s who owns hundreds of his paintings. “I’ll be out of town this weekend, so I asked him, ‘Noel, will you be alive when I come back on Monday?’” Who knows? As unhealthy as he looks and as hard as he drinks, Rockmore’s voice is steady and his head is reasonably clear. Obviously, he is a hard one to bring down.
Raised in New York, son of the prominent illustrator Floyd McMillan Davis and the portraitist Gladys Rockmore Davis, Rockmore was a true child prodigy. As a boy, he attended the Julliard School of Music. He sketched at his mother’s knee, played piano for Ernest Hemingway and violin for George and Ira Gershwin. Surrounded always by people of high attainment, Rockmore acquired the artistic essence that has uplifted and tormented him throughout his life.
“Art is war,” he said, pumping up with another swig of vodka. “I draw the way other people breathe. Money is important only because I need it to buy art supplies and to live, but I work because I am compulsive. It’s very simple really.”
He spoke commandingly to the bartender. “Lucy, please give me a black pen and a piece of paper. I feel like drawing a little pharaoh before I go. Amenhotep III, I’ve been thinking about him.” Rockmore pursed his lips and began to sketch a pharaoh that quickly took on certain insect qualities. Around the eye, Rockmore drew a triangle, Then as suddenly as he began, he stopped.
“ What is that noise?”
It was one of the managers, counting money.
“That is so irritating,” Rockmore said, putting the final touch to his sketch. “Well, there it is! A mere bagatelle!
“Amazing? Of course it’s amazing! I’m amazing! Before I was 23 years old, the collector Joe Hirshhorn had purchased 16 of my paintings and drawings. They became part of the Hirshhorn Museum and now they’re in the Smithsonian.
“One night Joe and I were in New York and he said to me, ‘Noel, get in the limousine.’ I got in and he drove me to this mansion at Fifth Avenue and 71st Street. He takes out a huge gold key. He opens the door, turns on the light and shows me the only original Leonardo da Vinci in America. Frankly, I didn’t think much of it. Da Vinci was not a great artist.”
Not surprisingly, in the past 30 years Rockmore has cut a wide swath through the French Quarter. Long divorced, he fancies himself quite a ladies’ man but has yet to make a permanent relationship with anything but art. At present, he lives above his studio on Dauphine Street, not far from Johnny White’s.
“As Norman Mailer once said to me, ‘The French Quarter has human scale,’” Rockmore said. “That’s why I like it, plus the fact that I don’t need a car in the French Quarter. I mean, the idea of my driving is psychotic.” “On my honeymoon, I hit a cow at 70 miles an hour in a Plymouth convertible while arguing with my new wife about her ex-boyfriends,” Rockmore said. “It was absolutely dreadful, but I was young and I was jealous. I got over being jealous.”
From down the bar, someone sniped: “You got over the young part, too, Rockmore.”
The artist took another slug. “Shut up,” he said.
Photo caption: Artist Noel Rockmore is reflected in a mirror in his French Quarter home, with “Whiskers” serving as a backdrop. His work also is in the Smithsonian Institution.