Artist Profile: Alexis Rockman

Alexis Rockman’s baroque, psychedelic paintings capture our eroding environment.

Portrait & Studio Photographs by Christopher Garcia Valle

“I have a lot of anger and anxiety and sadness and also love,” Alexis Rockman says. The artist is talking about the environmental calamity that fuels his complex work, an oeuvre of ominous, baroque, pop art–inspired wildlife paintings, which evoke John James Audubon, if John James Audubon liked to watch Godzilla movies and drop acid. Rockman’s sitting on a bench in Tribeca, outside the same sparse, utilitarian studio he’s been occupying for the past 30 years. “Oh fuck you!” he screams to a passing off-duty fire truck, whose driver leans on the horn a few excruciating beats too long.

Rockman, 56, has reason to be irritable. It’s a sweltering summer morning, a Monday, and last week he buried his beloved dog of 13 years, a pitbull-lab mix named Padme, after the Star Wars princess. Today, he’s running on fumes thanks to the one-two punch of a late-night Chicago opening of his “Great Lakes Cycle”—five sprawling tableaux depicting the ecological evolution (and subsequent degradation) of North America’s greatest bodies of fresh water—followed by a delayed flight back to New York. After this interview wraps, he’ll be playing a game of hoops—something the former athlete does almost daily—and then he’s off with his wife and two children to Ménerbes, a hilltop walled village in Provence, where the restless artist has produced some of his best recent work.

Alexis Rockman in his Tribeca studio.

“If you make stuff about ecology and you’re living in New York City, how can you not be inspired by travel?” says Rockman, a New York native. His deadpan is inarguably charming.

Indeed, travel encompasses a large part of Rockman’s painstaking process, one that begins with a journalistic hunger for facts and truths, and ultimately leads to him embedding with archeologists, anthropologists, and various locals during extended, Indiana Jones–esque field visits. Over the years, these have come in the form of everything from far-flung death marches to midnight hikes in Madagascar with lemur conservationists.  

Rockman took a similar tack for his Great Lakes Cycle series. He sailed across Lake Michigan, explored the area’s defunct copper mines. He even joined U.S. Fish and Wildlife agents dispatched to control sea lampreys, a breed of bloodsucking, eel-like fish that invaded the Great Lakes in the mid-1800s and have wreaked havoc on the ecosystem ever since.

Rockman’s “New Mexico Field Drawings,” a collection of 76 works, all organic material and acrylic polymer on paper, on view at Sperone Westwater Gallery in New York through August 3.

Each of the resulting 12-foot-wide, wood-paneled oil paintings unfurls like a horrific hyper-lapse of the eroding millennia. On the left, you begin with pristine glaciers, schools of indigenous fish, migrating caribou; on the right, the inevitable destruction of sunken planes and ships, armadas of floating timber, the toxic green runoff of factory farms and cities. And while there are no humans present in any of these works, the message is clear: Behold the death and destruction mankind wrought.

“As someone said to me last night in Chicago, ‘You’re not really making paintings about the good news,’” Rockman says with a sardonic laugh. Even he admits to often feeling empty and depressed after dealing with the cruel, unvarnished truths depicted. “And that’s kinda the point. It’s like I don’t see any good news. If you’re into ecology, you’re in fucking dreamland if you think that there’s good news anymore.”

The artist’s natural selection of souvenirs and ecological ephemera.

He talks about climate change, over-fishing, the cognitive dissonance he feels being an environmental activist who still eats meat. But while Rockman’s ecological anxiety is ever-present in his work, there are other influences in play, too. Having grown up a city kid, Rockman loved escaping to Manhattan’s Museum of Natural History, marveling at the dioramas and dinosaur fossils. Yet he was equally content losing himself in the darkness of a theater, watching monster movie matinees and sci-fi flicks. If you look closely, this is evident in his work, too.

“I’m so comfortable with my unconscious,” Rockman says. While field research is key to his art, so is forgetting everything he’s learned and allowing his subconscious—one bursting with russet, post-apocalyptic sunsets, ruined cities, and creepy-crawly things that go bump in the night—take over the process. “It’s all the same bouillabaisse of stuff.”

Alexis Rockman “Bananas,” 2013. Watercolor and gouache on paper. Courtesy of Sperone Westwater, New York.

It’s this equilibrium of the methodical and the loose-on-the-reins that begets Rockman’s distinct and deliberate style, something he describes as “almost taboo, like very seductive paintings about decay and mortality.” What you’re left with are beautiful and intricate series like “Rubicon,” vibrant oils of animals—some familiar, some grotesquely mutated—taking over vast, abandoned cityscapes. Or “American Icons,” a lucid series of rotting landmarks including Disney World and the Hollywood sign, which to Rockman represent ideas about “tourism and disgraced symbols of American imperialism and success.”

Alexis Rockman “Untitled (Cherry Blossoms)” 2013. Watercolor, ink and goache on paper. Courtesy Sperone Westwater, New York.

But Rockman’s work isn’t all so ominous. In 2009, he collaborated with Academy Award–winning film director Ang Lee on the trippy aquatic visuals for Life of Pi; more recently, he produced New Mexico Field Drawings, a collection of spontaneous and lyrical drawings of the high-desert flora and fauna outside Santa Fe. For each, Rockman bagged and tagged unique soil samples, then used their pigments for his sketches. It’s a technique he developed some 25 years ago when his art supplies ran out while traveling in the Amazon. Not only does it lend his work a sense of organic authenticity, but the materials allow him to return to the place he’s painting. “When I do the field drawings, I’m using the place I’m longing for,” he says. “The work is literally made out of that place.”

Alexis Rockman “Common Black Hawk” from “New Mexico Field Drawings” (2017). Organic material and acrylic polymer on paper.

Unsurprisingly, places are a preoccupation for Rockman. He rattles off those he longs to see, or see again: Tasmania, Borneo, New Guinea, Antarctica, numerous locales in Central and Southern America. Then, just as quickly, his mind is back in New York City. “Did you know there are jackrabbits at JFK [airport] under the runway?” he notes. Apparently, there were walruses at Jones Beach 10,000 years ago. “I revel in the idea of life in unexpected places.”  

As if on cue, Rockman’s attention zeroes in on a dragonfly. He stares in genuine wonder, and you can see him mentally cataloging the insect’s otherworldly anatomy, its crepe-paper wings, its pixelated compound eyes. “Hey, check this out,” he shouts at a passing stranger on the sidewalk, a flood of enthusiasm cracking his cast of cynicism. “There’s a beautiful dragonfly right here!”

The Cult of Dario Pegoretti

Super-custom, highly collectible steel bikes that look (and ride) like works of art.


Here’s a little-known fact the cycling industry would prefer you ignore: the bulk of today’s carbon-fiber racing bikes are made in Taiwan, spit out in the same automated factory. Yes, even those beautiful Italian models steeped in all that history. 

Pegorettis, on the other hand, are bikes of a different breed. Forged from steel, splashed in an array of colors befitting a Basquiat canvas, tailored to fit like a classic Neapolitan suit, every handmade Peg is—to those who still believe in the simple poetry of a bicycle—a timeless entity. So is the man who makes them. 

“The first thing a bike should do is give the rider a sense of familiarity, second a sense of security, and third a sense of trust,” says 62-year-old Dario Pegoretti, his raspy Italian voice rising and falling like a sonata. “Then we can start talking about performance. Already the first three things are difficult to achieve.”

The man himself. 

Dario should know. For over four decades, he’s been crafting the world’s finest bespoke bicycles. It’s something he likens to a love affair, one that began in 1975, when he apprenticed for legendary Italian frame builder Luigino Milani. Dario—then a university student—initially took the job because he needed money to go out on Saturday nights. It quickly evolved into his life’s calling. By the 1990s, he was secretly building custom bikes for that decade’s best racers, from five-time Tour de France champ Miguel Induráin to Italian climbing ace Marco Pantani, who slapped their own sponsors’ decals over Dario’s hand-welded frame sets.

Today, in a sport dominated by carbon-fiber construction, electronic gearing, and data-spewing fitness apps, Dario remains a throwback figure, a silver-haired savant who works in steel. Every day, he shuffles around his workshop in Verona—a concrete studio, housed in a former train depot—wearing a pair of loose-fitting jeans and floppy Birkenstocks, listening to jazz and blues records, sipping espresso as he builds a few hundred bikes a year along with his small staff. His clientele has shifted from racers to cultish enthusiasts, who flock to Verona from all over the globe to get their hands on one of the man’s coveted custom rigs. (Notable among them, the late Robin Williams; at one point, he purportedly amassed the largest Pegoretti collection in world.)

The workshop in Verona where Pegorettis are born.

Most customers fiendishly ride their bikes, marveling at its just-right fit, swearing that Dario’s steel can somehow read the road’s subtle textures and rhythmic turns. Others just mount their Pegs on the wall as art. Either way, these bikes are extensions of both builder and rider; a singular bond stems from the former’s dedication to the latter, and vice versa. One particularly besotted client even asked to have a few strands of Dario’s hair sealed into the bike’s clear-coat finish. 

“In recent years, I’ve finally learned to say no,” Dario says. He seems confounded, almost—not only by the off-the-wall customization ideas, but at the sheer fanaticism of his devotees. “Now, when a customer’s request doesn’t match what I think I am able to do, I say no. This happens a dozen times each year.”

And yet, despite his reticence to bend to buyers’ whims, despite his propensity to only work with those who trust his old-school methodology, despite the cancer that nearly killed him in 2007—a form of lymphoma that triggered a collective freak-out among his many fans—Dario is anything but standoffish. 

His process, much like his persona, is laid-back. Tranquillo.

“He’s literally smoking a cigarette and has a tape measure and is jotting your measurements down with a pencil,” recalls Ian Harris, a 29-year-old former bike racer.

Four years ago, Harris made a pilgrimage from his native New York to get fitted for his first Pegoretti. Ian’s father, who’d ridden a Peg for years, sold his son on the idea of owning a bike that would last forever, rather than some trendy technology piece.

“I was a little worried,” the younger Harris admits. For him, the Dario Experience included a dog yapping at his feet and a bottle of single malt whiskey. “Here I am about to drop the most money I’ve ever spent on any single item and this guy seems to be eyeballing it.”

Harris’s misgivings faded as soon as Dario went to work. The craftsman begins with a conversation; invariably, it goes well beyond bike geometry, bleeding into food, art, music, charming even the most skeptical of skeptics. In the end, Harris even opted for Dario’s “Ciavete” paint job, one that gives the legendary builder carte blanche to cast your brand-new, one-of-a-kind machine in whatever color scheme he feels like on that given day.

“The paint scheme reflects my mood,” Dario says. He can be influenced by anything, from recent photography exhibits to a “lady’s magazine” he flipped through at the hairdresser. “If it’s not a perfect day, the black color will flow a lot along the tubes. In contrast, the white and yellow will flow if the day is okay. Sometimes, I think that a rainy or sunny day affects what I do.”

“The paint job, I told him, ‘You take care of that,’” says Aldo Sohm, Chef Sommelier at New York’s three-Michelin-starred Le Bernardin. “I’m not going to tell Michelangelo how to paint the Sistine Chapel.”

Sohm, an Austrian native, was bitten by the cycling bug four years ago, and quickly began amassing a trove of high-end Italian racing bikes.

“It’s like buying watches,” he says. “You buy the first one, then you buy the second one, and you’re hooked.”

His burgeoning obsession eventually led to Pegoretti; he was fitted for a bike when Dario was visiting New York. The two met outside a barbecue joint in Brooklyn (Sohm suggested this, having heard about Dario’s love for meat and American cuisine, a habit that—along with his smoking—must grate his oncologist), and Dario measured him right there on the street. The finished product soon became Sohm’s favorite ride, outperforming all the modern bikes in his collection. 

“When you descend on a Pegoretti, it’s like you’re sitting on a razor blade,” Sohm says. “It’s just so precise. And if you go over cobblestones, you just glide over them.”

Next on Sohm’s agenda is organizing a ride for local Pegoretti owners in New York City. Unsurprisingly, they’re a rare breed, which is probably what engenders such a feeling of clubbiness among them.

“What’s the expression?” Harris says with a laugh. “Game recognizes game?”

He says he’ll always get waves from fellow Peg Heads, the requisite nod and nice bike! Once, he was chased down the west side of Manhattan by a guy in a car, who rolled down his window to say that he, too, owned a Pegoretti.

“It’s like having a very obscure, vintage Tag Monaco,” says Harris. “If you see someone wearing it, you think, ‘This guy must know a lot about watches.’”

Creating a Timepiece Worthy of the Tour de France

How a former Formula One champ turned cyclist helped Richard Mille design his latest ne plus ultra watch.


By James Jung

Formula One legend Alain Prost with British procyclist Mark Cavendish. (Photo: Antonin Vincent / DPPI)

Richard Mille may be one of the world’s most preeminent watchmakers, but he’s almost as famous for his obsession with race cars. Ever since bursting onto the scene in 2001 with his radical and highly technical take on the classic, barrel-shaped tonneau, the charismatic Frenchman has drawn inspiration from the high performance machines of Formula One. 

In the stone-and-timber garage of his 18th-century château in Brittany, you’ll find one of the world’s most coveted vintage-car collections (replete with iconic open-wheel McLarens and Ferraris), while his eponymous brand name can be spotted scrawled across racing grids the world over. But it’s in Mille’s unmistakable skeleton-dial watches that his obsession truly manifests itself. From aluminum-and-carbon fiber casings to shock-resistant movements as precise as a four-stroke turbocharged V6 engine, the similarities between Mille’s sleek, ultra-luxe watches and the world’s most bleeding-edge racing cars are striking.

And yet, for his latest limited edition timepiece, the bearded, rakishly stylish 66-year-old  turned to an unexpected inspiration: cycling. It’s a sport that Mille—like any self-respecting Frenchman—grew up with, and one that has recently joined his ever-growing list of passions. 

Worn on the right wrist, the new RM 70-01 is designed for ultimate legibility while cycling. (Photo: Antonin Vincent / DPPI)

“I am stunned by the power cyclists churn out,” says Mille, who can be found logging serious miles on his local country lanes when he’s not bombing around those same roads behind the wheel of his Lancia Stratos rally car. He has also been following the Tour de France in person, often in the backseat of a commissioner’s car embedded in the fast-moving peloton. In 2016, after Mille struck up a friendship with professional cyclist Mark Cavendish, he gifted the Welshman his personal Felipe Massa Flyback Chronograph. The decorated sprinter won his 29th Tour de France stage the following day, the timepiece strapped firmly on his wrist. 

Such are the fortunes of a man who has built a business based as much on spontaneity as on rigorous devotion to detail. But, as befitting any true gear head, it was the technical innovations of modern racing bikes that most intrigued Mille. “The introduction of composites, the lighter materials, the performance gains in gear assemblies, these were revolutionary,” Mille says. “As a tech fanatic, I appreciate the many subtleties involved.” 

To create a Tour de France–worthy timepiece, Mille knew he needed a collaborator. But rather than looking toward any number of world-class cycling companies for this venture, the watchmaker returned to his first love—Formula One. As it turned out, Mille’s longtime friend, four-time F1 champ Alain Prost, had been bitten by the biking bug as well.  

“Richard is the one who had the idea for this watch,” recalls Prost, who at the height of his career was known as “The Professor,” due to his cerebral approach to car racing. “He wanted to blend automobiles and bicycles.” Prost himself began cycling at the behest of his trainer more than two decades ago. (The idea was that the sport would help better condition him for the demands of F1 driving—a sport where heart rates consistently exceed 160 bpm.) Today, Prost rides upwards of 200 kilometers a week, and regularly competes in races like the vertiginous L’Étape du Tour and the prestigious Masters World Cycling Championships. 

The RM 70-01 Tourbillon Alain Prost—which is limited to 30 collectors’ pieces—is the result of Mille and Prost’s three-year collaboration. On it, you’ll find numerous nods to cycling. Take, for instance, aesthetic details such as a barrel ratchet resembling a spoked wheel and a dynamometric crown evoking a pedal. For those more concerned with engineering, there’s the Grade 5 titanium used for both the baseplate and the Allen screws, which provides a stiffness capable of withstanding the roughest of road conditions, whether the local tarmac or the cobblestones of Paris-Roubaix. 

Of course, this being a Richard Mille creation, form always follows function. So, much like he’s done before for athletes including tennis star Rafael Nadal, golfer Bubba Watson and Jamaican runner Yohan Blake, he’s created a watch perfectly optimized for the day-to-day demands of sport. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the tonneau’s rectangular and asymmetrical carbon cage, which molds to the wrist without ever digging into the skin no matter where you grip the drop bars on a road bike. 

The biggest innovation, however, belongs to the titanium odometer, a five-digit roller readout that allows riders to easily add the day’s distance to their ongoing tally. Cyclists live and die by their metrics. But while most will rattle off figures like their maximum heart rate or the average amount of watts they can generate in an hour, Prost found that few can recall the total mileage they’ve logged at the end of the season. The RM 70-01 solves that problem. By pressing the pusher at 2 o’clock, a cyclist can activate any of the odometer’s five rollers, while the pusher at 10 o’clock allows the rider to increase the number by increments of one. And there’s no danger of slipping up, thanks to a spring-lock neutral position that protects you from accidentally moving the wrong roller. 

(Photo: Didier-Gourdon)

Sure, most cycling computers offer an odometer—one that automatically calculates total miles—at ten-thousandths of the cost, but anyone who’s resorting to basic bean counting clearly isn’t in the Richard Mille demographic.

For those who are, the RM 70-01, which is priced at a cool $815,000, comes with an added bonus: a hand-built Colnago carbon racing bike with an electronic Campagnolo drive train and thoroughbred Italian pedigree that evokes the spirit of Formula One.