For more than 35 years, artist Alexis Rockman (BFA 1985 Fine Arts) has built an acclaimed body of work inspired by humanity’s more ill-fated interventions in the natural world. Growing up on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, Rockman gravitated not toward the Metropolitan Museum of Art but the American Museum of Natural History, and he counts nature and adventure films among his most formative visual influences. His past works include the “Great Lakes” cycle, a series about that vast and increasingly fragile ecosystem, and Battle Royale, which imagines a war between native and invasive species in the Louisiana wilderness; his future projects include Oceanus, an epically scaled painting inspired by maritime history for the Mystic Seaport Museum in Mystic, Connecticut.
Rockman’s current exhibition, “Shipwrecks,” is on view at the Peabody Essex Museum, in Salem, Massachusetts, through the end of the month, and at Guild Hall, in East Hampton, New York, from Saturday, June 12, through Monday, July 26. True to its billing, it offers dramatic scenes of waterborne disasters from throughout history, presenting the sea as a treacherous, unknowable place. Each painting, he says, is ultimately about a mystery.
“Until the 20th century and more mobile photography, so much of our ideas about these events are really through the lens of highly subjective so-called witnesses. Accounts are hearsay, rumor, exaggeration. So in a lot of ways they’re a lot like a fishing tale. Who knows what really happened?”
Rockman recently spoke with us via Zoom about the ideas behind “Shipwrecks,” his path to becoming an artist and his time at SVA.
How did “Shipwrecks” come about?
I had just finished the “Great Lakes” cycle, and I was making a body of work about Alfred Russel Wallace, the great Victorian naturalist. He had the misfortune of suffering a traumatic shipwreck early in his career, when he was coming back from Brazil after four years of collecting specimens to sell because he needed to make money, as he wasn’t wealthy. His boat caught fire and he lost everything except for a notebook. I made a painting of that, from the perspective of some of the animals that he had with him, that were either specimens or pets.
The morning after the opening of the show, at the Baldwin Gallery in Aspen, I was having breakfast with my dealer, Richard Edwards, and my wife, Dorothy Spears, and they both said, “You should do a body of work about shipwrecks next.” And I was, like, “Hell no, you can’t tell me what to do.” But then I thought, “That’s actually a good idea.”
The shipwrecks genre is pretty loaded. What’s more exciting than a disgraced genre? It felt exciting and risky and there’s obviously so much room to go right and wrong. And the history of human activity is tied up in ships: They’ve been the primary delivery system of humans, diseases, agricultural items, stowaways, invaders, animals, and so on and so forth. So that all sounded right up my alley. And that was in 2017.
I met [Guild Hall Executive Director] Andrea Grover a couple of months later, who asked “What’s your next project?” I was thrilled when she suggested that she curate the show and we have it at Guild Hall. Then she brought on the Peabody Essex Museum.
Of all the works in the exhibition, The Things They Carried seems the most topical, with its depiction of several animals that have been known to pass diseases on to humans. Can you talk a bit about it?
The painting is a sort of an amalgam. The whole upper part is based on Star of Bethlehem by Elihu Vedder, a very eccentric, interesting 19th-century painter. The figures are from Andreas Vesalius, an anatomist from the 16th century, who drew these neoclassical figures who’d been flayed to show their muscular and skeletal anatomy. Early on when I was thinking about this project my wife had mentioned Vesalius—he was in a shipwreck and ended up dying on an island near Crete.
So I had painted Vesalius’ figures in the clouds, and I was going to have Vesalius at the bottom as a figure in the waves with one of his books. Then COVID hit and I thought, “Let’s do something about the history of pandemics and animals that have, through no fault of their own, brought specific diseases to humans throughout history.” It made sense to revisit the idea of the Tree of Life, so I overturned that and made it a piece of driftwood on the open ocean. The animals clinging to the driftwood, from left, are Shamel’s horseshoe bat (Rhinolophus shamble), the black rat (Rattus rattus), the masked palm civet (Paguma larvata), the Javan pangolin (Manis javanica) and the black-faced langur (Presbytis entellus).
I’ve read that your work is influenced by your love of movies. There’s obviously a narrative or cinematic quality to the “Shipwrecks” paintings, but has film influenced your work in any other way?
I’m so hardwired by media. It very much set my sensibility, the way I frame or see images.
I grew up in Manhattan and wasn’t particularly interested in art history or the art world—or certainly not contemporary art in the ’70s, which I felt was a big snooze. But I would watch a ton of movies and documentaries—stuff like National Geographic or Mutual of Omaha or Jacques Cousteau—and I always thought I’d work in the film industry somehow, making images. Very much like William Cameron Menzies or later Syd Mead, Ralph McQuarrie, Rob Cobb ... people like that. Ray Harryhausen was a big influence. And King Kong, of course. But, you know, to tie it all together, King Kong is really about a trip by boat to an exotic other world, a lost world.
Did you spend a lot of time outdoors when you were growing up?
No. I mean, I went to camp and stuff. My stepfather was Australian so I would go there and be outdoors there once or twice a year, diving or something.
But I was very conscious of plants and animals, through spending time at the Museum of Natural History or looking at books. I was obsessed. I collected animals when I was a kid. I always loved, especially, reptiles and amphibians, their behavior and history. There was a moment when I thought it would be a herpetologist, but I don’t have the chops to do the math, so to speak. I really just want to draw them. But no, I didn’t spend much time outdoors.
Is it true that you initially considered a career in animation?
How, or why, did you make the switch to art?
When I started at SVA I was in illustration, and I was a fan of Marshall Arisman. I thought he was making interesting images in the early ’80s, and when I met him, he was very generous and kind to me. Then [BFA Fine Arts Chair] Jeanne Siegel called me into her office and said, “You know, you really should be in fine art. You’re too rebellious and restless to listen to other people’s ideas.”
And I did switch, and I started painting because one of my teachers, before I switched, taught a class where we copied Old Master paintings. I can’t remember her name. But I had copied this [Gustave] Courbet portrait. I had never made a painting before, and I enjoyed it enough to think, “Well, maybe painting is it.”
I was sort of intuitively aware that painting was happening around the East Village and stuff like that. And of course the SVA celebrities at that point were Keith Haring and Kenny Scharf. If they can get their shit together and make a living, then why not me?
Were there any other faculty who had an impact on your work or how you thought about it?
Lorraine O’Grady showed me that there was a way of framing art history through this intellectual lens that appealed to me. My mom was an archaeologist and academic, and I wanted the support of ideas behind what I was doing. I don’t know if it’s justified, but there’s a lot of baggage with painting, like it’s only done by idiots or narcissists. I wanted my work to be, like, “social activist” and smart. The other teacher I had who was very influential was the late Lisa Liebmann.
They would introduce me to the post-structuralists and the Frankfurt School and Roland Barthes and people like that, who were very fashionable with some of the younger artists in the East Village, and I sort of ended up migrating down to Nature Morte and International with Monument and galleries like that.
How did your career start?
I first showed at a gallery called Patrick Fox in 1985 and sold most of those paintings. Then I was friendly with Jay Gorney, who was the director of another gallery. Several other artists encouraged him to open his own gallery, which would be showing so-called “smart” paintings and post-conceptual objects. I was in the opening group show there in 1986 and that was the beginning. I was 24.
I’ve been very lucky that people were interested in what I was interested in. Like two months after I started painting, someone wanted me to make a painting for them. Then I was [former SVA faculty member] Ross Bleckner’s assistant, and got to see how a professional studio worked. Then before I knew it, I was sort of around people like Julian Schnabel and Barbara Kruger and Troy Brauntuch and David Salle. All these people were sort of in the air, and [the art world] didn’t seem like this far-off place. It seemed like just a matter of time before I was going to be in the same position.
Now, obviously you could be delusional and very sorely mistaken. But I just had the will and the work ethic to do it.
Is there anything that you want to tell current students?
The thing about being in the city is that it’s so great to be in school and doing whatever you’re doing, and then literally you can walk down the street and see a place where you want to end up, professionally. I think so much of being or doing anything in life is really about having the imagination and belief that it’s possible.