Call it his Chinese restaurant conversion. Nearly two decades ago, as a 21-year-old art student in New York City, Alexis Rockman sat at a formica table, green tea in hand, staring at the eels in the restaurant’s fish tank. It was nearly midnight. He’d just completed a painting, one of those colorful, emotionally wrought abstracts popular in art circles. But instead of being filled with joy, he was depressed, a feeling he knew a thing or two about. A few years earlier, he’d suffered a nervous breakdown. “It was like being on an island gradually engulfed by water,” he recalls, as if mental collapse might result from global warming.
Then, in the eerie orange light of the restaurant, Rockman found an inner resolve. I hate abstract paintings, he finally admitted to himself. Why don’t I have the courage to paint animals?
Kudos to Rockman for framing his choice of subject matter in this way. Think of how another artist might have framed the same decision to illustrate fantastic animals. They’d say, Animals were always around me–they were so colorful and varied and they drew my interest more than any abstract art. But Rockman does not claim personal preference–he instead claims to have taken a righteous, courageous path. By extension, abstractionists lack the gumption to work realistically, or perhaps they lack the gumption to step off the abstract bandwagon and to follow their hearts.
I’m not saying I believe this. I’m not sure Rockman himself genuinely believes this, but he has masterfully framed his chosen direction as an artist.
This reminds me of Rothko, who, when asked how long it took to complete one of his paintings, replied I’ve been working on this painting my whole life. And of course he had not been literally been working on any painting his whole life, but the underlying message to the critical challenge was, My work has immeasurable value because no one but me could have brought this artwork into existence.