Washington For more than 25 years, Alexis Rockman has been making lush figurative paintings depicting dubious moments in human and natural history, from the Industrial Revolution through today’s unfolding eco-disasters. Informed by his entwined passions for art history, activism and the natural sciences, the work reflects a persistent questioning of painting’s possibilities, both as a historically charged narrative medium and as a vehicle for raising social and political awareness.
“Alexis Rockman: A Fable for Tomorrow,” the first major survey to trace Rockman’s career from the mid-1980s to the present, opened last month at the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington, D.C. Among the exhibition’s 47 works are Rockman’s first mural-size painting, Evolution (1992), and his most recent, Manifest Destiny (2004), commissioned by the Brooklyn Museum of Art, which depicts that New York borough projected 3,000 years into the future, submerged as a consequence of global warming.
Born and raised in Manhattan, Rockman attended the Rhode Island School of Design (1980-82), earned a BFA from New York’s School of Visual Arts in 1985 and has since presented over 50 solo exhibitions worldwide. An early career turning point was the 1985 group exhibition “From Organism to Architecture” at the New York Studio School, organized by Ross Bleckner, in which Rockman’s work was displayed alongside paintings by Max Beckmann and Cy Twombly.
During his childhood, his mother, Diana diZerega Wall, an anthropology professor at the City College of New York, worked at the American Museum of Natural History. The museum, with its dramatic dioramas and dark, labyrinthine halls, became Rockman’s playground. He credits his stepfather—the late Russell Rockman, an Australian-born jazz enthusiast—with teaching him the value of being a specialist, of cultivating one’s own territory and of practicing. He also introduced the young Rockman to science-fiction movies.
As a teenager, Rockman considered channeling his interests into a career in the film industry, possibly creating stop-motion animations. He eventually concluded that being a painter would better suit his temperament, but recently an opportunity arose to revisit his childhood aspirations. Rockman received a call from filmmaker Ang Lee, who asked him to create a series of inspirational drawings—watercolors to help visualize the appearance and atmosphere of various scenes—for Lee’s film adaptation, currently in production, of Yann Martel’s best-selling novel The Life of Pi, a fantastical story about the adventures of an Indian zookeeper’s precocious son.
I first met Rockman on a visit to his Tribeca studio in March. We talked at length again in late June, as he intermittently worked on a new painting.
DAN TRANBERG Almost everything written about you mentions your mother and your experience growing up running around the American Museum of Natural History, as that connects to the subject of your work and its populist flavor. I wonder if you can tell me about your stepfather and his influence on you as an artist.
ALEXIS ROCKMAN My stepfather was often in his own world, “doing his thing,” practicing and listening to the music he loved, which was a very specific kind of bebop. He taught me that it mattered to have your own interests. There was the idea of one’s subjectivity, but also the idea that there is such a thing as greatness, and that it’s a combination of intellectual rigor and feeling. You have to be in the moment, but you also have to be prepared for the moment. So, repetition is a big part of learning to be a jazz musician, and that was an important lesson for me as an artist. On the other hand, I rebelled against jazz in general because I really didn’t relate to it as music. It wasn’t that accessible. But I admired his love of it.
DT The dioramas you saw at the natural history museum have plainly informed your work, providing a model for creating a dramatic and engaging way to communicate to a broad audience. How else did the diorama format inspire you early on in your career?
AR One of the things about the diorama that always seemed like fertile ground to me, in terms of being an artist, was that it influenced how I saw the world. I also noticed that not many artists regarded the diorama format as an opportunity. Because I felt so close to it, I was really overjoyed to feel that I could stake out that territory as my own in the early ’80s.
DT Because no one else was using the diorama?
AR No one else was using it for painting. I was very encouraged that Robert Smithson had alluded to the implications of the format in natural history museums in his early writings. He talked specifically about looking at dioramas at the Museum of Natural History, and then going to Central Park and seeing garbage in the pond and imagining that as a primordial landscape. So, I felt an affinity with him even though my work wasn’t anything like his.
DT Were you interested primarily in the subject of natural history, or did you also feel that the diorama offered formal opportunities as a model for your paintings?
AR It was both. I felt that using it as a format for painting had so much potential—for being about a specific place, but also being a very theatrical type of space that has a foreground, a middle ground and a background, and often a miraculous vision of above and below.
DT That kind of theatrical space is very apparent in your early work, but in your most recent series of paintings, “Half-Life,” the background has gone from a scenic image to a Color Field painting. Tell me about that.
AR I have always seen the background, or the space behind whatever I’m painting in the foreground, as a piece of history. You could see it as a diorama background or just the wall behind the object, but I’ve never really believed it as space. It’s always a placeholder. That’s why the background in my paintings can appear to be a Hudson River School painting, a Color Field painting or a even a photographic blur.
DT In your early work, there seems to be a more direct connection between the imagery you’re presenting and what we typically see in dioramas. For example, the distant background will often clearly appear to be the sky beyond a scenic terrain. When you put a Color Field painting in the background, doesn’t the implication change for the audience, or for the kind of conversation you’re encouraging?
AR No, it’s just that the background is a placeholder for a different history, a different place or a different geography. Color Field painting is a post-WWII American idea. Looking back even further, it’s a type of space that became possible only after the Industrial Revolution. From my perspective, it’s about toxic by-products, and things like the development of acrylic paint, which first became commercially available in the 1950s but arose from wartime technology. When acrylic paint first came out, it quite literally was toxic. It killed people. So for me, Morris Louis is the toxic sublime. Color Field painting represents technology as opposed to retinal vision. I never really thought of the scenic backgrounds as space—they’re always history.
DT What happens when the viewer has absolutely no idea who Morris Louis is?
AR I think, whether you know who Morris Louis is or not, you can still get the sense that it’s a trippy, psychedelic, hallucinatory space. I’m interested in the idea that children and the non-art-going public will be able to understand that regardless of their education. When you’re having a show at a place like the Smithsonian, you understand that at least part of the audience is outside of the art world. I think, because of my reaction to my stepfather’s elitism, and because I couldn’t relate to jazz, I’ve always felt that I don’t want to do that to, or be that for, other people. So if you don’t know anything about Color Field painting, that’s fine. You can see those backgrounds as toxic spills.
DT A lot of writers tend to regard your work as illustrating an environmental position. How do you feel about that?
AR It’s a mixed blessing. There are times when I feel it’s a ghetto, but it’s part of the baggage that comes with being direct. That’s the history of activism. You have to be blunt.
DT When things like the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico are happening in the world, it’s hard not to make a connection with your images.
AR That’s just one piece of the puzzle. There are versions of that happening in dozens of places all over the world right now, and there’s such a long history of this stuff. It’s human history. It’s been the story ever since humans crawled up and jogged out of central Africa.