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Rosalyn Drexler: “You couldn’t have known my work. How could you?”


[Note — I spoke by phone with Rosalyn Drexler on Mar 17, 2004. Drexler’s work is on view at Rosenwald-Wolf Gallery. (for more pictures and a critique see my earlier post.)

RF Walking among your works I felt like they had a lot to say to a contemporary art audience. Themes of gender, television and the media, violence, surveillance. So why is it I don’t know your work? (top image is “This is My Wedding” 1963)

RD Laughs. You couldn’t have known my work. How could you?

RF But I read you’re in the Hirshhorn collection…the Whitney. Don’t they have your paintings out?

RD No, I think they’re in deep sleep

RF Have you seen the show at Rosenwald-Wolf?

RD The gallery itself is not as big as it looks. I had to show smaller works. Sid [Sachs, Rosenwald-Wolf Gallery Director] has two things in storage. They were too big. “Rub out” Also “Maui Wowie” It’s a picture of Basquiat and Warhol in a car going to Hawaii. I just liked the title. I didn’t know it was the name of a kind of marijuana. Also there’s a little cigar box [a sculpture]. He has one of those in the back [in storage] also. (image is “Nuclear Bomb Amusement Park” (1998))

RF I love the hot colors, the voids of space in the backgrounds. You’ve taken iconic imagery (movie stars, movie posters, news shots of criminals) and made it even hotter. You?re like the opposite of Alex Katz, you have a point of view and it’s political.

RD I love yellow. I don’t know why

RF Tell me a little about your technique — something that also seems fresh–the collaging, the photo-based and tv based imagery. How did you scale up your imagery in a pre-xerox, pre-Kinkos world?

RD I thought I had better get these blown up so I can see them. I was interested in posters, newspapers, magazines…they were very interesting to me. Some were very large. I found a place that would do it. You’re right there was no Kinkos. I told them don’t make it too clear or strong because I want to paint over it.

RF Why didn’t you trace the outline or project it…why did you go right over the image? (image is from the “Love” series in the 1960s. This painting has the Bob Thompson on the back.)
RD The reason I didn’t project the image is that I loved to feel the brush against the edge of the image. The most wonderful thing would be to encompass it…like it’s captured in paint.

RF Had you seen this before? Was anybody else doing this?

RD Nobody else was doing this. Tom Hess, a critic at the time somewhere, he wrote I was the first person to use photos – cut them out and put them on canvas.

Also I was hiding the image and giving it another face…like bringing the dead back to life in a strange way. I was very guilty about it – achieving something not out of your head. Little did I know it would become so hot.

RF Did you worry about copyrights?

RD It never occurred to me to worry about copyright. Who the hell knew my work?

Some people said ‘hey why don’t you just use it?’ What I enjoyed was changing it. I don’t think anybody steals from anyone. It’s all out there.

RF I loved the fighters and lovers themes. Fighters as lovers and lovers as fighters. I know you did some lady wresting. Were you interested in boxing or just boxing as a visual-metaphorical motif?

RD I published what I felt about boxing — that it was not good. There were other things for a black person to go into…

I think I did the first painting from television. [“Death of Benny “Kid” Paret” 1963] I may have even taken pictures of that and worked from that. I did a whole bunch of boxers…for a show. I probably just liked the way they looked spatially.


RF Sid Sachs told me that you made assemblage art to begin with. He pointed out your first painting (“God Shaves” 1961-2 above). Are your paintings an outgrowth of the assemblages or did you make a radical shift in your practice when you moved to paint?

RD My earlier work was found object sculptures. I used to find stuff in empty lots and on the beach. I had a show at OK Harris in Provincetown. It wasn’t driftwood, tho! They were bas relief and standing [pieces].

Rubin Gallery was my first show. A lot of people were there. George Segal, Lucas Samaras. Oldenburg. Rubin Gallery lasted one to two seasons. You know why? The woman [who owned the gallery] showed her sister’s work. We [other artists] just came in. And nothing happened with her sister and then it closed. (image is the Bob Thompson painting on back of Drexler’s painting)

Women were not bankable at that time. Every other male artist…other galleries came along. I received no offers. In my naivete I thought it was because I was not a painter so I must make paintings.

A lot of those males [artists] were not taken up with family life. It invades everything…making sure there’s food. You do the laundry. I had to fit in to the interstices. Luckily I had energy for it all.

RF Where did you learn to paint?

RD I’m self taught. I went to the high school of music and art [in New York]. I was a voice major. I was a singer. I had a voice and was musical. I went to Hunter College for one semester and then I got married. (image is “Is it true what they say about Dixie” 1966)

RF Sid showed me the Bob Thompson painting on the back of your big, red “Lovers” painting. [Thompson was an African American musician and artist active in the 1960s] How did you get the Thompson canvas and did it influence what you put on the reverse of it? Did you know him?

RD I didn’t know him. I lived on East Broadway. A lot of artists did. Bellamy lived there too [a gallery owner] Everyone was close by. There was this stretched canvas that was not used. Thompson either left or died. He was a musician and he went to Paris. He was a heroin user. I paid absolutely no attention to the back. It was kind of like a gift. It was just an empty canvas. I was glad to have it. I don’t think he [Thompson] liked the painting.

RF Tell me about “Is it true what they say about Dixie?” a 1966 painting that reminds me of the advertisements for Reservoir Dogs, the Tarrantino movie (image left). The piece, which shows a gang of white men walking towards you, one wearing a red tie, is full of menace.

RD There was a song. You know the song? [Sings a couple verses of “Is it true what they say about Dixie?” — [It’s a saccharine song with Gone with the Wind type sentiments about the beauty of the south]

RF Did you think of yourself as a pop artist?

RD We were all working. We didn’t call ourselves that – like we were under one umbrella. We were all different. I suppose I am a pop artist…popular.

Ana Mendieta
RF Tell me about Ana Mendieta. Your painting “Art History: Ana falling” is about her. Did you know her?

RD I met her. In Iowa. She was living with a guy teaching art there. It was at a party. I was friendly and she showed her work. They were scary – dirt and things. I didn’t know why she’d do it. I didn’t know her. Next I heard, she fell or was pushed…what a thing.

She was very ambitious, eager for understanding. She had all her work out for me and she was so happy to show me.

My painting is not her image. It’s a reminder of her falling. The picture is from a news story of a lady and child who fell down from a fire escape. The lady fell first. the child was saved because she fell on top of the lady.

Andy Warhol
RF You were friends with Andy Warhol…and you painted him and Basquiat in the 1988 “Hello and Goodbye.” (image)

RD I had an artists’ series – Ana and Andy. The purple spots on Michel is AIDS. I think Andy felt he needed a young person to work with.

The reason I didn’t hang around Andy. There were a number of them. He wanted me to be in a play – “Kitchen.” I was supposed to murder someone or be murdered. and I was not into drugs. Everyone was doing drugs. And I didn’t want ot be in a big group of people.

Here’s an Andy story. The first time I received a Rockefeller grant to travel, Andy came over with his entourage and started packing and repacking my suitcases. Andy called and said “I really have got to help you.” He insisted I take these two heavy gowns. It was odd. Believe me they [the gowns] were heavy. I had no idea. I’d never been to England and France. I tried to see theatre but every one was gone. In Paris they go away in the summer. You know, he painted me in a wresting picture.

RF Did you ever get to wear the gowns in Europe?

RD No.

RF Tell me about being a lady wrestler

RD Rosa Carlo the Mexican Spitfire, that was my [wrestling] name. (image of Drexler as Rosa Carlo) When I came on everybody said things in Spanish that I didn’t understand. Probably it was “Kill ’em” or “Go get ’em.” It was a strange thing for a young woman to do. I was married, had a daughter, four years old. I stayed home with my husband.

I went to the gym on 42nd St. I used to work out. The carney people used to work out there (acrobats ) and wrestlers

RF Wasn’t that ahead of the times? How many women worked out at a gym back then?

RD These were show business people. I was learning Judo. I thought it’d be interesting to learn some Judo. I heard about a guy who was organizing a women’s wrestling team. It consisted of walking around in a bathing suit. They asked “Will your husband let you?” So they called and they needed someone in Florida so I went. “To Smithereens” is a book about it. Now people are interested in wrestling and I can’t get the book re-published. The book was reviewed in the New York Review of Books. They said “There’s hope for literature yet.” It was a rave.

There was a big book opening. the guy for the publisher was jealous of the publicity so they killed the book.

I did wrestling for about three months then I had to come back and take care of my family.

RF Tell me more about writing. You didn’t go to college. You’re self taught as an artist. Somewhere along the way you picked up writing skills. You have an Emmy, Obies…novels…

RD Through reading. Reading was an education.

RD My first play, “Home Movies,” won an Obie. It was the first play to go from off off Broadway to off Broadway. Orson Bean loved it. I married in 1946. I have a daughter and a son.

Alex Katz

RF Did you know Alex Katz?

RD I knew him. Not intimately, It’s hard to know him intimately. I appreciate him and he appreciates me. He’s done fabulously well. A lot of the men were very political and were aware of how to promote themselves. I on the other hand said I really like doing this. I had no clue as to a career. What can I say? It’s different now, thank God. Women know how to promote themselves. (image is Drexler’s 1996 novel, “Art does (Not) Exist.”)

I had an interview with Elaine deKooning [for the magazine piece “why are there no good women artists”?] Elaine thought there were no problems but she knew how to promote herself.
RF I understand Uarts students performed two of your plays on Mar. 3. Did you see the performances?

RD To me it was like – to tell you the truth – it was lovely. The stamping, cheering, laughter. These people got it. I was so happy. It was a new beginning. They liked the humor, the whole ridiculousness of it.

RF Sid says you did some rewriting of the plays for the occasion?

RD One of the plays I worked with Jean Turoso. He’s the head of the theatre department. He asked me questions and I rewrote it. It was a terrific collaboration. I hope I get to feel that again.

RF Sid told me they’re going to do the plays for the Philadelphia Fringe Festival.

RD I hope so.

RF You?re coming to town to do a reading on April 14. What are you going to read?

RD I was thinking of a novel. “Starburn” [1979 Simon and Schuster] about a girl group that is like the great mother goddess group. There’s word play and song lyrics. A version was done as a play. John Vacarro directed it in 1983. (image is “Manny and Dick” 1997-98)

RF Have you ever done any teaching?

RD I’ve done a lot of teaching. I love teaching. I love the interplay between teacher and students.


RF tell me about that Emmy

RD I worked with Richard Pryor and Lily Tomlin. All these people were in this special. A Lily Tomlin special. I was one of the writers. It was wonderful to work with her. Every day she’d come in and read aloud what you wrote.

When the Emmy was announced about 30 people jumped up [to receive it at the award ceremony]. I never saw them when I was working. I didn?t know who they were. They weren’t the heavy workers. Lorne Michals was one of the writers. He hadn’t even begun Saturday Night Live.

George Segal

RF Sid says you posed for one of the figures in George Segal’s laundromat sculpture.

RD George is a friend of ours. He asked me to pose for it. I went up to the old chicken farm – his mother’s farm was close. He had coops but they were empty — there were no more chickens.

Robert Frank made a movie up there, “The sin of Jesus.” Julie Bavasso, the actress, she refused to kill a chicken hanging upside down, so he asked me to do it. With a rusty knife. If you see a hand and a knife, [in the film] that’s me.

He [Segal] wanted to give me something, a pastel or a bas relief of me. I chose the George Segal bas relief of myself. It reminds me of a death mask…it’s very beautiful. (image is Segal’s “Girl Resting”)

I remember how wonderful it was when the plaster was cold and then warm and then cold. Some people don’t like it but I loved it.

RF do you think people are born artists?

RD I do. I have the same involved subconsious feeling – of belonging of being there – in the art… That’s really where I want to be. I feel like an expatriot – an interloper – as a wife, shopper, mother. I love being in my head. I amuse myself.

Louise Nevelson once was asked when did she decide to be an artist. She said “I was born an artist. I’ve always been an artist.”

I think so. It’s a different mindset. It’s a definite way of being.

RF What are you working on now?

RD Small things that I can make bigger in my printer. With stories. Also I’m writing “Bellagio, a faux journal.”

RF Have you been there, to Bellagio?

RD No. … I’m writing something really funny.