The first full retrospective of Rosalyn Drexler's over 60-year-long (and counting) career opens with a provocation: "Who does she think she is?"
Taken from a 1974 art film of the same name, the exhibition's title invites multiple readings. Posed with a certain attitude, the query can come across as dismissive. And yet there is knowing wit to it as well. It's as if Drexler herself is winking at us, challenging us. Any conclusion we arrive at will be far less interesting than our search for it. For, as this exhibition ably demonstrates, Drexler is a constantly moving target. A self-taught artist, she began sculpting in the mid-1950s, only to switch to painting—a more commercially viable medium—in the early 1960s. All the while, Drexler also wrote prolifically, producing long-form pieces for magazines like Esquire, publishing several novels, winning three Obie Awards as a playwright, and even garnering an Emmy Award for her work on Lily Tomlin's groundbreaking 1973 comedy special, Lily.
Less well known than her contemporaries, Drexler nonetheless worked and exhibited alongside Pop Art luminaries like Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein. In its opening space, the exhibition introduces visitors to some of Drexler's earliest works. Bold, punchy colors. Imagery culled from mass media. Ben-Day dots. The ingredients for Pop Art are all on full display, even from the beginning. But Drexler and her work defy tidy explanations. She exceeds categories. And here, the exhibition begins to mount the case for her distinctiveness. Drexler works in a Pop mode, but she is not limited by it.
In Drexler's early paintings, starting with Lovers (1963), she presents a complicated and unresolved picture of male-female relationships. Set against a flaming red-orange background, two couples are dramatically wedged into the lower left-hand corner of the canvas. As one couple lovingly embraces, the other appears to quarrel. The man looks down despondently, head in hands, while his female partner turns away, unable to even acknowledge him. Are these two separate stories? Romance and romance failed? Or, do we witness one narrative, the dissolution of a single relationship? Drexler leaves it up to the viewer to decide. Rather than the easy, slightly parodic passion of Lichtenstein's Kiss II, also from 1963, Drexler offers a far messier vision of romantic relationships.
Drexler unites the two scenes in Lovers with a riot of cut paper. Colorful clippings and fragments of text surround both couples, whose figures are also drawn from castoff, B-list movie posters. Drexler cuts and then pastes these scraps directly onto the canvas, painting over and around the collaged paper to varying degrees of opacity. The result is a more tactile and thickly material painting than some of the works produced by Pop artists of her generation.
Though Chubby Checker and Dean Martin make appearances, you will not find a Kennedy, whether Jackie or John, or a Marilyn. Celebrity holds little appeal for Drexler. Instead, the artist finds drama and nuance in the stock figure. The spurned lover. The gangster. The company man. One of the only works from a local collection to be included in the show, The Syndicate (1964) limns the space between individual and group. Cast in a caution-tape palette of deep yellow and black, the painting features a sea of suited men huddled in conversation around a long white table. As the table extends into the far distance, it becomes increasingly difficult to discern where one man’s body ends and another begins. Their forms appear fused into a single undifferentiated mass. Drexler doubles the scene, creating a mirror-imaged diptych that is often likened to a Rorschach test. What brings these men together? What is their business? The painting’s title, The Syndicate, only adds to the sense of ambiguity at play. Drexler’s work calls to mind both corporate gatherings and organized crime, and charges viewers to consider the distance, or lack thereof, between these two worlds. Like a Rorschach test, The Syndicate offers no single judgement, only an opportunity for self-interrogation and contemplation.
Though the Kemper's exhibition largely focuses on Drexler's career as a visual artist, it is difficult to divorce her writerly and painterly sensibilities. Indeed, Drexler largely abandoned painting during the 1970s in order to focus on her writing career. It was only in the late 1980s that she returned to the medium, this time infusing her Pop aesthetic with a shot of Neo-Expressionism. If there is an invisible thread that yokes together Drexler’s polymathic career, it is her sensitivity to drama and storytelling. Like a play or a film, her paintings are expertly staged and directed. As kinetic stills, they represent a contradiction in terms. One of many contradictions posed by the artist. Rosalyn Drexler? Who does she think she is?
Rosalyn Drexler: Who Does She Think She Is? runs through April 17 at the Kemper Art Museum on the Washington University Campus. Next month, the Kemper hosts a film series on her work March 7 through 9, as well as readings of two of Drexler's plays on March 24. There will also be a collage workshop inspired by her work. For more information, go to kemperartmuseum.wustl.edu.