New York

Rosalyn Drexler

Grey Art Gallery

According to the show catalogue, Rosalyn Drexler’s original career as a painter occupied no more than a few years during the ’60s; by the end of that decade, her energies were concentrated on her performances as novelist and playwright—with a brief appearance as a wrestler—resulting in the persona with which we are most familiar.

Drexler’s retrospective exhibition, “Intimate Emotions,” forces us into some ironic art-historical contortions. What does not fail to arrest our attention is the work’s confrontation with marginality, and what this may say about the place of women artists at that time; and its uncanny coincidence with the visual effects of “pictures” painting that emerged some ten years later. Drexler’s figures, cut from media sources such as tabloid newspapers, magazines, and street advertising, were collaged onto canvas, schematically painted over, and contextualized by little more than a simple color field and economical but eccentric framing devices. A relation of bodily gestures defines the content of a quasi-narrative scene, or an arrangement of "frames.” Isolated figures, falling or twisting, or victims and assailants locked together, are caught up in the sex-and-violence clichés of the sensationalist press, B movies, and pulp fictions that have since become a commonplace of American painting.

While Drexler’s imagery has some sympathy with that of an early Andy Warhol, its tonality seems closer to the crepuscular vision of Edward Hopper than to the heraldic artifice of much of her American Pop art contemporaries. If the latter tended to echo what was manifest in popular culture—the fantasy of glamor and success—Drexler presented what was latent in or behind this scene, a tragicomic burlesque of the anxiety and failure of the American dream. Drexler’s personifications of culture, the hoodlums, rapists, punters, boxers, and James M. Cain lovers, occupy a gray zone of desperate living. In this bleakly fatalistic world, death stalks the victim at the very moment of his or her success. In Death of Benny “Kid” Paret, 1963, the boxer collapses hopelessly in the ring; in Marilyn Pursued by Death, 1967, the star blindly avoids an anonymous figure who is virtually on her back.

The catalogue essay suggests that the artist’s work has certain affinities with the more caustic wit of British Pop, much of which drew on Americana; to this we might also add French New Wave cinema’s ambivalent fascination with what it identified as the “noirish” elements of Hollywood. These outsider perceptions of American culture, formed from the collapse of America’s commodified and projected image of itself into Europe’s own fantasies, shaped a more distraught scene than that of official propaganda. Did American art need a European detour to produce its own revisionism in the late ’70s? In any case, this exhibition suggests that it was already in place, or, rather, displaced like Drexler’s figures (or the artist herself) at the margins of the frame. In the mise-en-scène of American Pop art we might imagine Drexler as another outsider, a painter in a milieu resistant to awarding success to a woman artist, and who as such could not be seriously contemplated as original. If her identity was not that of the castrating woman in Tryst, 1963, then it was that of the sex goddess nominated by the male referee in The Winner, 1965; her “real” identity was "criminal,” to be covered up like that of the mobsters avoiding identification in Study for No Pictures, 1963. She must therefore take what she can find from the eccentric place allocated to her. She does not appropriate; rather, she works over what is already given in culture, uncovering the intimate fears at the heart of the masquerade.

Jean Fisher