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Installation view, ‘Rosalyn Drexler: Who Does She Think She Is?’ at Rose Art Musuem, Brandeis University (photo by Charles Mayer) (click to enlarge)

WALTHAM, Mass. — Who Does She Think She Is? is a remarkable monographic exhibition of Rosalyn Drexler’s varied work. Organized by Curator-at-Large Katy Siegel and Curatorial Assistant Caitlin Julia Rubin at Brandeis University’s Rose Art Museum, the exhibition showcases Drexler’s better-known paintings in context with her collages, drawings, and sculpture, in addition to her scripts, screenplays, novels, and photographic ephemera. Drexler began producing this wide range of works in the 1950s, and together, they demonstrate her fascination with the duality of gender, the fluidity of identity, and the precise moment of action.

“All of Drexler’s work stresses character or role — her own included — over narrative as a naturalizing effect,” writes Siegel in the exhibition’s generously illustrated catalogue. Drexler’s interest in person over place is clearly articulated in the exhibition’s opening section, “Love and Violence,” installed inside the Rose’s first floor. Large but not histrionically so, these works teeter towards abstraction but prevail as figurative renderings of intensely private moments.

Drexler foregrounds her compositions with figuration, isolating people within abstracted color fields as if she’d plucked them from their lives and placed them into voids of paint. The figures are all caught in the middle of something: some action (a slap, a kiss, a struggle with a gun) or some manifestation of a private, interior presence (daydreams, mourning, fantasies). Many are framed by thin, boxy stripes of paint, which allow Drexler to focus our attention on these actualizations of emotion.

Rosalyn Drexler, “Put It This Way” (1963), Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC (© 2016 Rosalyn Drexler / Artists Rights Society [ARS], New York and Garth Greenan Gallery, New York) (click to enlarge)

Often, these take the form of kissing or loving motifs. In “Embrace” (1964), the figures melt into one another, their affections visible in their hold. But it’s her use of violence as a theme that is most powerful. In “Put It This Way” (1963), a man and woman are captured just as his hand strikes her face; the smack is felt through their contorted bodies. Perhaps the most vivid and potent work in the show is “Rape” (1962), a small picture of a man overpowering a woman, who, with her arms held down, attempts to defend herself with brandished teeth. Nearby is another small work, “Self-Defense” (1963), in which a partially bare-breasted woman struggles with her presumed attacker over a pointed gun, gnashing her teeth as she knees him and mashes his face. Likewise, in “I Won’t Hurt You” (1964) and “Love and Violence” (1965), men and women are portrayed at the exact instant in which tension flashes into violence. Over and over, Drexler confronts us with the mercurial nature of heterosexual relationships, stressing male physicality and its potential for bodily domination of women. She interrogates the essential differences between the sexes, questioning what distinguishes one from the other.

Installation view, ‘Rosalyn Drexler: Who Does She Think She Is?’ at Rose Art Musuem, Brandeis University, showing “The Syndicate” (1964) in foreground left (photo by Charles Mayer) (click to enlarge)

Descending into the Rose’s lower-level galleries, we’re greeted by “The Syndicate” (1964), a large, two-panel work that shows a mirrored set of seated, suited men. As if gathered for a meeting, the men surround two white, oval tables, their postures attentive but relaxed, expectant yet inactive. “The Syndicate” is visually simple, but it captures an essential concentration of Drexler’s: the inherent duality of identity. The piece expresses this duality all the way through: two panels, two sets of figures, two types of media, painting and collage. As with almost all of her paintings, Drexler cut images from magazines, posters, and other popular-culture print media and glued them to her canvas before painting over them. Looking closely at “The Syndicate,” printed Ben-Day dots are visible, as are drips of glue and paint, recalling both Jackson Pollock and Roy Lichtenstein. Yet Drexler subverts any overt stylistic reference or homage to these painters: She undermines the identifiers by making them nearly invisible and entirely inconsequential. Similarly, the men are represented as almost entirely identical, which challenges their identities as singular, powerful businessmen. Drexler is slyly skeptical here, presenting the figures at the table as authoritative yet emasculated by sameness and inactivity.

Siegel and Rubin have divided the lower gallery, one floor below, into two thematic sections, “I Am the Beautiful Stranger” and “Bad Guy.” The latter features several movie posters that served as Drexler’s source material, one for the film Twist Around the Clock, another for FBI Code 98. The posters, which present vignettes of narrative, inspired Drexler’s iconography and compositions, and their influence is present in almost all the nearby work. But unlike the posters’ attempts to tell stories, Drexler hones in on the male figures, extracting them from their pop cultural homes and examining them in isolation, picking apart the allusions to character and reducing them to mere men.

Rosalyn Drexler, “Men and Machines I” (1965), collection of Gilbert and Doreen Bassin (© 2016 Rosalyn Drexler / Artists Rights Society [ARS], New York and Garth Greenan Gallery, New York)

In “Bad Guy,” Drexler is particularly absorbed with the depiction of the male hand. “Over There” (1960) features a large hand dominating a small composition; the cuff of a business suit identifies it as male. With its forefinger extended, the hand points beyond the edge of the work; it is strong and authoritative but dwarfed in scale. In the Men and Machines series (1962–66), which depicts both of the titular subjects at work, Drexler gradually loosens her representation of the male hand into a more relaxed, painterly form. She’s still interested in the form some 20 years later in “Money Mad” (1988), which is foregrounded by overlapping grey and white hands. Drexler’s continued, emphatic imagery of hands demonstrates her underlying awareness of this body part as a connector, a communicator, a harmer, and a protector.

Drexler seems most captivated by hand-to-hand contact, as boxing subjects dominate her visual, literary, and theatrical work. Observing how Drexler evolved her perspective of boxers from close-up to long-range, Allison Unruh suggests in the catalogue that the artist is compelled by not only fighters, but their spectators as well. In her most recent work included in the show, “In the Ring” (2012), two boxers paused between bouts are almost completely subsumed by their audience, which is represented by yellow flickers in a black void. Though the spectators are entirely reduced, we sense their presence and enthusiasm as they excitedly anticipate the next jab or punch. This, coupled with the small scale of the work, intimately draws us in as spectators ourselves, forcing us to question our own feelings towards the commercialization of violence as entertainment. Drexler here seems just as interested in boxing as a spectator sport as she was in the 1960s, but her focus has shifted from the ruthlessness of the competitors to the bloodlust of their audience, and what that means to society at large.

Rosalyn Drexler, “Portrait of Rosalyn Drexler ” (1960), acrylic, plaster, and wood, 24 x 8 1/2 x 1 1/2 inches (courtesy the artist and Garth Greenan Gallery, New York) (click to enlarge)

Such introspection and reflection continue in the section “I Am the Beautiful Stranger,” which is dominated by Drexler’s self-portraits or portraits of the artist made by others. The most poignant of the latter is “Amazon” (1965), the late Sherman Drexler’s portrait of his wife from behind, lithe and mid-dance and painted in varying shades of pink. This section also includes tenderly quirky sculptures, which Drexler began creating in the mid-1950s by assembling various items from her own household. Robust and tactile, these sculptures seem to hedge towards the human form while never fully materializing it. “Portrait of Rosalyn Drexler” (1960) offers an apparition of the artist as a disembodied head attached to a thin length of wood; her face can be found in the round of a soup spoon. Pieces of Drexler as a woman, wife, mother, competitor, athlete, chain-smoker, and writer are here, but they remain just that: particles that float separately even as they hang together.

In To Smithereens, Drexler’s 1972 semi-autobiographical novel about her career wrestling as “Rosa the Mexican Spitfire,” a frustrated art critic, Paul, struggles to define new art of the 1970s. Groping for words as powerful and elemental as “pop” or “minimal,” Paul sometimes uses the phrase “Stop Art.” The expression is appropriate for Drexler’s works, which, be they painting, drawing, collage, performance, or writing, arrest action, catching and freezing one particular moment. Such moments, collected, are the essence of Drexler’s visual work, which from the mid-century onward has questioned identity as a series of characters performed. Drexler’s own stint fighting as Rosa, as well as her work as a screenwriter and her roles as wife, mother, and lover — the stuff of her character — are similarly palpable in quicksilver flashes that elude easy definitions. These pieces of performance come together, creating a chorus of identities that harmonizes in a conflicted but coherent whole in Who Does She Think She Is?.

Installation view, ‘Rosalyn Drexler: Who Does She Think She Is?’ at Rose Art Musuem, Brandeis University (photo by Charles Mayer) (click to enlarge)

Rosalyn Drexler: Who Does She Think She Is? continues at the Rose Art Museum (Brandeis University, 415 South Street, Waltham, MA) through June 5.

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Leah Triplett Harrington

Leah Triplett Harrington is a Boston-based writer and independent curator specializing in modern and contemporary art. She serves as senior editor of Big Red &...

10 replies on “Caught Up in Rosalyn Drexler’s Dramatic Moments”

  1. THE PORTRAIT OF ROSALYN DREXLER : I DID THE FORM OF WOOD AND PLASTER, SHERMAN DREXLER PAINTED THE FACE. IT WAS A COLLABORATION.

  2. Rosalyn, you are crazy. Wonderful crazy! I just wish that I had had the good fortune of meeting you during the late sixties when we were living in the East Village. Why didn’t Martha Jackson grab you for her stable? Your work would have been right down her alley — that thought just brought to mind Allan Kaprow’s “Yard” in her back yard back in ’61 (first Happening ever, I think, by the big daddy of Happenings).

    You rule, sweet lady.

    Sid

    1. Sid,
      How can I see pictures of your work? You are certainly not the water colorist or the DDS. or musician that pops up. Do you have a blog? Or an e mail? Or how do I shoe you out on the internet?
      sincerely
      You know who.

      1. Oops, I placed my comments in the wrong place. Rosalyn, please look below for my initial comments on setting up an email contact.

  3. Rosalyn, I’m still trying to figure this out. I’m thinking that I will open a Yahoo email account to get us going and, then, dump it right away. Oh, yes, and I do not have a blog — do you?

    1. Sid…I do not have a blog…I use the eMail, and I’m still working on a kind of book (it’s been about ten years.) And. I think I have to rethink the whole thing, or just put it to sleep. It’s not a novel. It’s supposed to be the first attempt at writing by a talented, but messed up guy who also has an incurable, but controllable illness. He talks about the neighborhood he lives in, his neighbors, his doctor, a whore he’s attracted to, her little girl, his father, mother, sister, the meals on wheels guy, and his hopes for a future he doesn’t believe will come. HIs doctor is also an amateur (book) critic who offers advice as if he really knows what he’s talking about. There is also a Punch & Judy rewrite, an investigation into the life of Tommy the Turd, and an invitation to Tommy to join the Brown Shirts (a right wing political party). To complicate this unlucky guy’s life there is a water leak from the apartment above, an aggressive drunk who causes a commotion and falls asleep against his door, trapping him inside, the arrest of an unlicensed vendor of imitation brand-name pocketbooks, the instant friendship he makes with a Japanese street artist who gifts him with a sketch of his face, his childhood as a musical prodigy, and his emotional connection to The Little Fir Tree by Hans Christian Anderson.

      1. Wow, Rosalyn, your imagination is entirely boundless. Great characters. Respond to the following “throw-away” email account so we can communicate without boring the dickens out of everyone else here: texas_shitkicker@yahoo.com .

  4. A TOUGH SITUATION is the working title of the book I’m working on. (see below). I’ve just bought all the so called young writers I should know about, like Chabon, Franzen, Lethem, etc. But found myself drawn to the poetry of Stanley Kunitz: a poem about his father had me weeping. His father committed suicide and was found under water. Stanley was just 3 years old.
    I think I was in some avant-garde show part two (martha Jackson?) I dug up a dirt caked leather book bag I found under a park bench I was sitting on, and it went into the show.
    enough for now. It’s 4AM. If you tell me how old you are, I’ll reveal my age. It’s old. I don’t like it. My body is getting even with me for mistakes I made in the past (such as lifting really heavy weights, and indulging a truly healthy appetite).

    1. A TOUGH SITUATION is a compelling title for a novel — lots of interesting associations for almost anyone. I like it very much.

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