New York

Rosalyn Drexler, Ana Falling (Was She Pushed?), 1989, acrylic and collage on canvas, 80 x 40". © Rosalyn
Drexler/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

Rosalyn Drexler, Ana Falling (Was She Pushed?), 1989, acrylic and collage on canvas, 80 x 40". © Rosalyn
Drexler/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

Rosalyn Drexler

Garth Greenan Gallery

Rosalyn Drexler, Ana Falling (Was She Pushed?), 1989, acrylic and collage on canvas, 80 x 40". © Rosalyn
Drexler/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

Portrait of the Artist, 1989, finds Rosalyn Drexler crouched against a black rectangular background in a suit and tie. She wears a wrestling cap and a colorful mask; a toy airplane grazes her head and one manicured hand, in a fingerless glove, covers her mouth. In her other gloved hand she holds a paintbrush the way Holly Golightly held a cigarette. Out of the brush, a cloud of pointillist color flows, surrounding the framed artist like the confetti borders in many of Georges Seurat’s compositions. She is defined by art-historical reference but not contained by it.

At once revealing and elusive, this arresting image of creative selfhood in process is a kind of allegory for the entire show. Each of its eleven canvases included at least one character (its face masked or partially obscured) conjured from art, news, or Drexler’s own rich personal life, encouraging the viewer to parse fragmented narratives of visibility and disguise. The mask is also a motif that figures throughout her life as a writer (she has won three Obies for her plays), professional wrestler, and painter. Following on the heels of her traveling retrospective that opened at the Rose Art Museum at Brandeis University in Waltham, Massachusetts, last year, and with the sustained championing of Garth Greenan, her gallerist of two years, Drexler is enjoying a new level of acclaim more than half a century after her illustrious career began. And she continues to work, recently tweeting that she was thinking of starting a new painting after going for a walk.

The works in this show, dating from 1982 to 1989, were not as graphically arresting as the Mad Men–evoking canvases of her 1960s Pop compositions, whose silhouetted men in suits, gangsters, and film stars stalk large color fields that could be stand-ins for the blank screen, billboard, or poster. But like her earlier work, these newer paintings incorporated appropriated mass media with brio. Some narratives explicitly related to headlines of the era (such as the crumpled newspaper in Glasnost, 1988, referencing the Soviet political principle of transparency, materially thwarted at every turn in Drexler’s deft opacities of paint and collage); others delved farther into an archive of cover-ups. In suspending or obscuring a work’s origin story or original source via masks and isolated planes of color, Drexler intensified the terror underlying certain canvases, such as Nazi in the Garden and The Machine (Who Art These Masked Men?),both 1988, which suggest the dark mechanics of a male-run world history.

That suspension is most literally realized in one of the show’s best works, Ana Falling (Was She Pushed?), 1989, in which a female is launched from striated mauve and blue lines downward into a black abyss. While the title appears to allude to the artist Ana Mendieta, who fell to her death during a fight with her husband, artist Carl Andre, in 1985, the bikini-clad figure (whom I at first mistook for a wrestler knocked down in the ring) opens up a more universal question of women’s footing.In the painting’s details, Drexler suggests a kind of performative sexuality that reveals and disguises identity, from the arm covering the woman’s face to her gold nameplate anklet to her bikini, whose bottom has slipped to reveal a line of pubic hair and whose top bears a design of hands that seem to fondle her breasts.

A more hopeful figuring of the woman in art history was present in the show’s stunner, Sueño Revista (Rosalyn and Sherman in a Rousseau), 1989, which, like Drexler’s other self-portrait, finds her abandoning her trademark minimalist cool for a surreal dream state. Conjuring Henri Rousseau, another self-taught artist, with its tropical vegetation–filled scene rendered in rich reds, blues, oranges, and blacks, the nearly seven-foot-wide work is both a love letter to Drexler’s husband and a declaration of artistic presence. She inserts herself squarely into art history: Unmasked, she lounges on a couch amid the flowers, her shirt the same shade and botanical pattern as the painting blooming around her.

Prudence Peiffer