Noel Rockmore Chronology
1928-1947: Early Life
Noel Rockmore grew up in New York City, the son of a painter, Gladys Rockmore Davis, considered the ten year wonder of United States Art. His father, Floyd Davis was recognized in 1943 by Life Magazine as the number one illustrator of that time period. Noel’s younger sister Deborah Davis was born in 1930 and demonstrated considerable artistic talent as well.
The family moved in a social milieu which included luminaries in all the arts such as Ernest Hemingway, Dr. Thomas Mann, George Gershwin, Leonard Bernstein, and the puppeteer Bil Baird. Noel was fascinated by the violin and began lessons at the age of five. He also learned piano and guitar with little effort. In 1935 both children contracted polio and Noel turned to painting as an artistic outlet. By the age of eleven he has begun to produce serious artistic works.
Noel had difficulty accepting the discipline in traditional schools and at Juliard where he worked briefly trying to master the violin skills he had demonstrated as a child musical prodigy.
In the early 1940’s while his parents covered World War II as art correspondents for Life magazine, Noel and his sister Deborah attended the progressive Putney School in Vermont. Noel graduated in 1947 where he was known as a talented, but difficult student. He also attended the Art Student League of New York with Julian Levi.
1948-1950: Career Beginnings
In 1948 when the artist was 19, Joseph Hirshhorn became his first major patron. He was encouraged by Henry Francis Taylor, director at the Metropolitan Museum as well as Raphael Soyer, John Koch, and Yasuo Kuniyoshi. His first studio was in the Cooper Union Complex in New York City where he painted the street people of the Bowery. It was here Rockmore developed the style of depicting the world around him as a voyeur without social comment.
He painted animals from The Museum of Natural History and in 1950 acquired access to the backstage of the Ringling Brothers Circus. Coney Island, Fire Island and Central Park all provided stimulus and inspiration for his drawings and paintings. He did early works in the “Old Masters Style” that were favorably reviewed by Stewart Preston of the New York Times. Xavier Gonzalez, Jack Levine, and Fletcher Martin all encouraged Noel Davis to ignore the art fads of the time, including abstract expressionism, and persevere in his own unique direction.
1951-1958: Married Life and Career
On June 20, 1951 Noel Davis married Elizabeth Hunter in New York City. On their Honeymoon in Valles, Mexico his car hit a cow and was demolished as they argued. The newlyweds were uninjured, although the bride was upset when Noel insisted upon sketching the dying animal. Upon their return to New York they settled into the typical life of a young married couple, living in various apartments on West 67th Street, ending up at the Hotel Des Artistes, the famous building designed for artists. Between 1953 and 1956, three children were born of this marriage.
Noel began showing his works at the Harry Salpeter Gallery and received awards and recognitions that according to Des Artistes fellow resident Stuart Davis put the Salpeter Gallery on the map. He did two Life Magazine commissions and was invited to join the National Academy of Design. He was in group exhibitions at the Metropolitan Museum, Whitney Museum, Museum of Modern Art, and The Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts. He won the Hallgarten Prize, the Tiffany Fellowship (twice: 1956 & 1963), and The Wallace Truman Prize.
He and his young family moved to Brooklyn Heights in 1957, but the marriage was failing and the couple were divorced in early ’58. That year Joseph Hirshhorn purchased an additional eight Noel Davis paintings bringing his total to 16 for the Hirshhorn Museum. Noel also had a one man show at the Salpeter Gallery in New York and the The Butler Institute of American Art in Ohio. Later that year he moved to Brooklyn Heights as his relationship with Harry Salpeter dissolved as well. He moved to Coney Island and then Xavier Gonzalez arranged for him to obtain a studio in the house of New Orleans painter Paul Ninas where according to Davis, he could “dwell in creative obscurity”.
1959-1960: Journey to New Orleans
While in New Orleans, Noel Davis decided to legally change his name to Noel Rockmore, adopting his mother’s maiden name. This caused consternation from his patrons, his dealer, and most notably his mother. It was unheard of for a major recognized artist in so many museums to change his name at such a point in his career. He would later go to the Hirshhorn Museum and get caught changing his name from Davis to Rockmore on one of his works. At this point he was banned from the museum. He was also accused of defacing a major work at a museum in New York City (possibly a Jackson Pollack).
Once in New Orleans he observed that he need only to record what actually existed to convey the moods he wished to express in his art. He met E. Lorenz Borenstein, gallery owner, Pre-Columbian artifact dealer, Preservation Hall co-founder, and real-estate entrepreneur. He also meets Bill Russell, composer, jazz historian, and New Orleans merchant and they began a lifelong friendship that would be punctuated by Rockmore's depiction of Bill in numerous paintings and watercolors throughout his life. While in New Orleans, Rockmore found a new list of patrons that truly admired his work including Shirley Marvin and The Faubles who would become his patrons for life.
Rockmore spent 1959-1960 painting New Orleans, specifically the French Quarter and the black residents of the city as they were. Paul Ninas, Rockmore’s landlord writes a letter to Salpeter in New York reporting that Rockmore is cavorting with young female companions, wearing western boots and tight jeans, using Castor oil in his hair and drinking for days on end.
1961-1963: Return to New York
Rockmore returns to New York and his arrangement with Harry Salpeter is slowly dissolved. In 1961 he begins to exhibit his work with Greer Gallery which offers him greater exposure. While in New York, Rockmore, recently single, paints and pursues many relationships with young, well endowed beauties, which became a trademark of both his paintings and his public persona.
1963-1965: New Orleans - Preservation Hall Years
Upon Rockmore’s return to New Orleans, Larry Borenstein has found a young couple, Sandra and Allan Jaffe, who have turned Preservation Hall into a going concern featuring old jazz musicians. Borenstein commissions Rockmore to document all of these musicians as fast as he can. Rockmore responds with 300 oil portraits and over 500 small acrylics in less than two years. The Portraits include the following jazz musicians: Billie & DeDe Pierce, George Lewis, Odetta, Dizzy Gillespie, Jim Robinson, Cie Frazier, Louis Nelson, Punch Miller, Oscar Chicken Henry, Kid Thomas Valentine, Joe Robichaux, Narvin Kimball, Danny Barker, Alcide Pavageau, Kid Sheik Cola, Percy Humphrey, Willie Humphrey and Emma Barrett (Sweet Emma the Bell Gal) to name a few.
Rockmore works with a framer, Bruce Brice, whom he mentors and encourages on his career path and eventually becomes a respected American Folk Artist. Rockmore, Borenstein and Bill Russell collaborate on a book, "Preservation Hall Portraits", which features Rockmore’s works and is published in 1968. After 1965, much to Borenstein's disappointment, Rockmore chose to do new series including shipyards and construction sites In New Orleans. Borenstein had experienced much success with selling Rockmore’s jazz pieces and wished him to continue the winning formula.
In 1965, another relationship is formed with Jon and Gypsy Lou Webb publishers of “The Outsider”featuring Charles Bukowski. Their company, Lou-Jon Press published “Crucifix in a Death Hand” featuring Bukowski’s poetry and Rockmore’s art.
In 1963 Rockmore creates a series of works based on his travels in Mexico and in 1965 he does the same on his travels to Morocco.
In 1964 He wins a Ford Foundation Award that results in a show at the Swopes Art Museum in Terre Haute, Indiana where he is artist-in-residence.
1965-1969: New York, New Orleans, & San Francisco
In 1965-1966 Rockmore decides to do a series of family portraits of his aging parents, Floyd and Gladys Rockmore Davis. At this time Rockmore is also involved in scandals with several underage women, one such scandal in 1966 lands Rockmore in court in NYC on charges of which he is eventually acquitted. Another incident involves a 16 year old New Orleans girl Rockmore nicknames Saki and of whom he paints a full nude portrait that is discovered in Borenstein’s Gallery by the girl's father. Saki and Rockmore’s relationship would continue in secret for nearly a year before she decides to break it off.
In late 1966 Rockmore’s father Floyd Davis dies, shortly thereafter in early 1967 his mother Gladys Rockmore Davis passes away as well. Rockmore retreats to San Francisco to be with his sister Deborah, painting San Francisco and Haight-Ashbury as well as Eldredge Cleaver, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, and Allen Ginsburg.
In 1967, Luba and Victor Potamkin, the Cadillac dealer from New York and Sergio Franchi, world famous tenor, decide that they will manage Rockmore. They arrange for his biggest show ever; set to take place in New York City in November 1967 at Greer Gallery. The big opening where all of the New York critics and important people, including famous art collector Vincent Price, had been invited is completely shut down by an anti-war riot at the New York Hilton where Dean Rusk was to speak. Vincent Price was eventually to become a collector of Rockmore’s works and also sat to have his own portrait done.
In early 1968, Potamkin and Franchi send Rockmore to Israel to produce a series for his next big show. The works capture much of the tension and anguish in Israel at the time and a show is held at the Crane Korchin Gallery in PA in May. At this time Rockmore takes up with a young girl, Robin Levine, whom he marries but is divorced from by the end of the year.
Rockmore also paints a portrait of the writer Henry Miller for a Lou-Jon press book which is rejected when the Borenstein negotiation with Lou-Jon goes bad. In early 1969 Rockmore parts ways with Potamkin and Franchi and returns to San Francisco to visit his sister and paint a new series.
1969-1973: Return to New Orleans & Jazzfest
At the end of 1969 Rockmore returns to New Orleans and reunites with Larry Borenstein who gets him a commission from George Wein to create posters for sale to commemorate the very first New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival. Rockmore is also included by Wein on the inaugural JazzFest committee and commissioned to do a watercolor series of the event.
The first two New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festivals in 1970 & 1971 were held in Louis Armstrong Park, then known as Beauregard Square, in the area of the park known to be the historic Congo Square and the adjoining New Orleans Municipal Auditorium. Artist Noel Rockmore and Bruce Brice did posters for the first New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festivals in 1970.
At this time, Rockmore begins a relationship with folk artist Sister Gertrude Morgan and paints and works with her throughout 1970. He embraces and paints many famous characters from the French quarter, including Mike Stark and his Free Head Clinic, Ruthie the Duck Girl, the jazz musicians, Bill Russell, Gypsy Lou, and his new girlfriend Riva Segall.
In 1971, he is commissioned by Time Magazine to do a cover portrait of then Governor Jimmy Carter, which is rejected as “too realistic” for Time. He is also commissioned by Time to do a Portrait of Arial Sharon. In 1971, Rockmore does a Civil War series and a Victorian Scrapbook series where he transports himself back in time in order to paint periods he has researched.
In 1972, George Wein commissions Rockmore to go to Paris and Venice with girlfriend Riva in order to create a series of works for Wein’s personal collection. Rockmore and Riva part ways at the conclusion of the trip and after a brief stay in New York, Rockmore return to New Orleans where he takes up with Mickey Cahn for a year. By now Rockmore is working with Bryant Galleries in New Orleans having permanently split with Larry Borenstein.
1974-1977: Final Return to New York City
In 1974, Rockmore moves back to New York and starts on a series of large murals throughout the city. McGlade’s bar and Café des Artistes becomes his hangouts and places where he displays his art. In late 1974, the Lakeview Center for the Arts in Peoria, IL puts on the retrospective “The World of Noel Rockmore” with a black and white brochure of major works Rockmore could procure for the show. In 1976 Rockmore has his last New York City show at the Forum Gallery. He takes up with a young Andrea Lannin and reunites with one daughter and his son. In 1977 Rockmore sells his West 67th apartment in New York and leaves the city for the last time.
1977-1987: Final Return to New Orleans
In 1977, Rockmore returns to New Orleans with girlfriend Andrea Lannin, and two of his children, now young adults, come to stay with him as well. By the end of the year Lannin has moved on and Rockmore has re-engaged himself with Bryant Galleries. He begins a series of prints, etchings, and posters, including the famous Muhammad Ali & Leon Spinks Fight Print of 1978 from the Superdome.
He does a Jonestown Triangle painting which depicts Jim Jones and the Jonestown suicides. He is commissioned by George Wein to do an “Homage to the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival”, and also begins a five year intimate relationship with Rita Posselt.
By 1981 he has split with Bryant Galleries and is now represented by the Sandra Zahn Oreck Gallery and has three very successful shows during the next three years that include his “Mardi Gras Backstage series” from the Blaine Kern warehouses. Sandra Zahn Oreck closes the gallery in 1983 and Rockmore is represented by Bryant Galleries once again.
Bryant Galleries sends Noel and Rita to document Haiti, where he captures the Haitian culture, particularly the Haitian Vodou aspect. By the end of 1983 Noel and Rita have separated and in 1984 Rockmore gets a puppy that he names Remby who will be with him until right before his death in 1995. He begins work on fantastic vodou pieces, sculptures, and three-dimensional collages.
In late 1984 takes up with a local entrepreneur, William May, originally from LaGrange, GA who will attempt to manage Rockmore back to New York for a big show. William May sequesters Rockmore away in a house in Mill Valley, CA and supplies him with canvas’, paints, materials, and money to live on. May is unable to procure the New York show and has to settle for the Chattahoochee Valley Art Association of LaGrange, GA.
Rockmore, now 56, returns to New Orleans and begins a relationship with his final significant girlfriend, Mary May Impastato, an eighteen year old girl from the French Quarter. One of his painting from the Mill Valley series is purchased by Jimmy Buffett who attributes his song “Bring Back the Magic”, which reached #24 on the charts, to Rockmore’s painting that he purchased. By late 1985 Noel is represented by the Posselt-Baker gallery of New Orleans (Rita Posselt is his former girlfriend).
In 1986-1987, Rockmore is frustrated by his lack of recognition and funds, his drinking escalates and his relationship with Mary May starts to deteriorate. Nevertheless, his work output continues with the creation of several new series including the Ceasarian series, French Quarter pastels, and a new Grid series inspired by the football betting cards. He attends Alcoholics Anonymous and works hard to reconcile his relationship with Mary May, but by the end of 1987 she has gone and Rockmore is once again alone and without a gallery.
1988-1995: The Final Chapter
In 1988 Rockmore is in despair and it is reflected in his works. He signs a deal with Bryant Gallery in order to get a regular paycheck and is befriended by Dr. Hava, a Psychiatrist and drinking buddy from Johnny White's, his favorite watering hole in the French Quarter. Dr. Hava puts Rockmore on Zoloft in order that he may regain his focus and control his behavior. It seems to work and Rockmore begins working out at the YMCA, his new found motivation allowed him to move forward and produce an entirely new “Ancient Egyptian” series in 1990. In 1991, he has a well received Egyptian show at Bryant Galleries.
In 1991 his long time patron Shirley Marvin had the professional documentary “Rockmore” produced in New Orleans, featuring Rockmore and narrated by his daughter. In 1992 he begins work on an “immigration series” featuring Ellis Island but is hospitalized that summer with an intestinal disorder. While hospitalized he undergoes detoxification from alcohol and is able to remain sober for a month and half after being released. He completes the “immigration series” and has his final exhibition at Bryant Galleries at the age of 64.
In 1993 he begins a dramatic series of huge works and collages that detail his march towards death. By late 1994 he is quite ill and creates his “final” self portrait. He refuses to go to the hospital despite attempts by his friends to intervene. He chooses instead to go to the home of his friend Dr. Hava, who he depicts as Dr. Jack Kevorkian in one of his final works.
On Friday February 17, 1995 an open house is scheduled at Dr. Hava’s but does not occur. Rockmore is put in a cab and the cabbie is told by the doctor that Rockmore is a street person to be dropped off at St. Jude Medical Center in Kenner, LA. According to the admitting nurse in a letter to Rockmore’s sister, as Rockmore is put on the gurney to be admitted to the hospital he hears that he is thought to be a street person, and he raises himself up and says “I am not a street person, I am a great artist.” Noel Rockmore lost consciousness after that and died, two days later, on February 19, 1995 at the age 66. His body was donated to medical science.
In 1998 a retrospective is held at the New Orleans Museum of Art sponsored by Shirley Marvin, Preservation Hall, and NOMA. The show “Noel Rockmore: Fantasies and Realities” is presented by curator Gail Fiegenbaum and includes a brochure and panel discussion with George Wein, Shirley Marvin, and Rita Posselt.
In November 2006, one year after Hurricane Katrina, Rich and Tee Marvin, Shirley’s son and daughter-in-law, discover over 1400 Rockmore works in Shirley Marvin’s storage facility in New Orleans. They also find 35 years worth of correspondence, every Rockmore brochure and news article, as well as a documentary film all related to the life of Noel Rockmore.