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Manifest Destiny

2004 Alexis Rockman Born: New York, New York 1962 oil and acrylic on wood overall: 96 x 288 in. (243.8 x 731.5 cm) Smithsonian American Art Museum Museum purchase through the Luisita L. and Franz H. Denghausen Endowment © 2004, Alexis Rockman 2011.36A-D Smithsonian American Art Museum
3rd Floor, East Wing


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Alexis Rockman (b. 1962) has been depicting the natural world for more than two decades. Rockman spent his childhood exploring the halls of the American Museum of Natural History in New York City, where he developed an early passion for the natural sciences. He began painting at the age of twenty-one and quickly established himself in the New York art scene with eerily seductive paintings of organic processes and teeming life-forms. Since then, Rockman has gained international acclaim for his unique synthesis of art and science. Each meticulously rendered painting is an amalgam of historical research, scientific observation and unbridled imagination. Rockman's sources include botanical illustrations, habitat dioramas, nineteenth-century landscape painting, sci-fi film, and first-hand field study.

In recent years, Rockman has focused more explicitly on environmental issues, combining empirical fact with plausible fiction to proffer an apocalyptic vision of the future. This is nowhere more evident than in his masterpiece, Manifest Destiny. While Rockman has always dealt with the fracture between the nature and culture, Manifest Destiny is his first work to confront the climate crisis. The painting comprises four contiguous panels extending twenty-four feet in length, and depicts the Brooklyn waterfront several hundred years in the future. The composition is framed by the ruins of two bridges. On the far left panel a futuristic suspension bridge lies beneath the elevated waters of the East River, where the Manhattan Bridge once stood. The historic Brooklyn Bridge stands in ruinous decay on the far right panel of Rockman's painting, a victim of its own aging infrastructure. But the end of modern civilization does not mark the end of all life. On the contrary, Manifest Destiny is teeming with organic growth. Rockman uses the image of urban decay to demonstrate the adaptive powers of nature. The presence of local flora and fauna confirms that life, in many forms, will persist even if humanity does not.

This is a seminal painting by Rockman. In addition to being a technical tour-de-force, it represents four years of intensive research and collaboration with engineers, architects, and climatologists. It is a painting steeped in art historical reference, but profoundly forward-looking. The Smithsonian American Art Museum offers an ideal context for such a multivalent work. Not only does it connect to works, like Walton Ford's Tur, but it also relates to the museum's collection of nineteenth-century landscape painting. And the Smithsonian-wide emphasis on natural science and biodiversity affords a still richer framework for understanding this work.

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