NEW YORK, NY.-
On April 1, 2022, Artnet News headlined an article: She Painted for Decades in Obscurity on a Remote Island in Maine. Suddenly, Collectors Cant Get Enough of Lynne Drexler.1 In addition, Drexlers Deciduous Empire, 1964 (private collection) was on the cover of Art & Antiques in December 2021January 2022, and her work was featured in an article in the issue.2 Such a recent surge of interest in the art of Lynne Mapp Drexler (19281999) is due partly to the new recognition of American women artists important contributions to the story of twentieth-century abstraction.3 It can also be attributed to the intensity, vivacity, and integrity of Drexlers work. While she adopted the methods of action painting and understood the role of gestureshe was a student of Hans Hofmann and Robert Motherwellshe was part of the second-generation of Abstract Expressionistsincluding Grace Hartigan, Joan Mitchell, and Larry Riverswho turned to the outside world rather than their inner selves for inspiration. In doing so, Drexler incorporated aspects of Impressionism and Post-Impressionism into her vivid, innovative paintings.
Drexlers inspiration derived primarily from Monhegan Island, the tiny, rockbound island off the coast of Mainelong loved by artistswhich she began visiting in the 1960s and where she settled permanently in 1983. She painted with both an exuberant and careful technique, featuring her signature directional and variously sized brush swatches. Her resulting canvases are reminiscent of the dazzling dissolved surfaces in the paintings of Gustav Klimt. Through the act of painting, Drexler expressed her responses to the physical, human, and spiritual aspects of her surroundings and explored her identity as a manifestation of her context. She was not a vanitas artist, dwelling on human mortality. In her work, the resonances of nature are always joyous, growing, and uplifting, as she embraced the moment.
Drexler was born in Newport News, Virginia in 1928, the only child of Norman Edward Drexler (18901944), a manager at a public utility, and Lynne Powell Drexler (18921963), a descendant of a distinguished Southern family; her ancestors included the second Royal Governor of Virginia and Robert E. Lee. By 1930, the family had moved to Elizabeth City, Virginia (now Hampton). Drexler began painting classes in her childhood, and she exhibited the rebellious and irreverent streak for which she was known even then: in an interview in 1998 she recalled that when she piped up in a seventh-grade class that her ancestor Robert E. Lee was a traitor, she was in considerable disgrace for a while. She commented about Lee: Well he was a traitor. . . . And if had never fought for the South the war would have been a lot shorter.4 A child of Southern privilege, Drexler attended St. Annes School, a private Episcopal girls boarding school in Charlottesville, Virginia (now St. Annes-Belfield School). In the late 1940s, she took classes at the Richmond Professional Institute, Virginia, and enrolled in the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia. At the same time, she took a night course with Maine artist Thomas Elston Thorne (19091976), who encouraged her to paint. In Williamsburg, she met the modernist architect Ward Bennett (né Howard Bernstein, 19172003), who had studied with Hans Hofmann. He implored her to go to New York. She was similarly urged by Peter Kahn, who was an art teacher at the nearby Hampton Institute. He suggested to Drexler that she study with his brother Wolf Kahn and with Hofmann.
In 195052, Drexler took two extended trips abroad, probably spending most of her time in England. In 1956, she moved to New York and enrolled in Hofmanns school. That April, she received a scholarship from Hofmann to attend his Provincetown summer school. Inspired by Hofmanns theory of push-pull, dynamic color relationships became the dominant force in her art, and Hofmann taught her to understand painting in terms of color, space, and form. After Hofmann stopped teaching in 1958, Drexler enrolled in a graduate program in studio art at Hunter College, so as to be able to teach. There she studied with Robert Motherwell and Gabor Peterdi. When Motherwell learned of her plans, he told her: Ill flunk you out of here before I see you go to teach. Youre too good a painter.5 Drexler followed his advice. She began exhibiting her work in the late 1950s, participating in shows at Sun Gallery, Provincetown (1959) and the Chrysler Museum, Norfolk Virginia (1960). Motherwells process-oriented approach to art influenced her painting philosophy and helped free her from the rigid tenets of Abstract Expressionism. By 1959 had Drexler developed her signature brushwork: swatch-like strokes in dense clusters, which allow color, not geometry, to triumph.
In this period, Drexler was part of the dynamic art scene in Greenwich Village. She frequented the Cedar Tavern on Tenth Street, a gathering place for avant-garde artists such as Jackson Pollock, Franz Kline, Philip Guston, Grace Hartigan, and Willem de Kooning. She attended the 8th Street Clubs Friday evening events, which brought together painters, sculptors, art critics, and philosophers, establishing a culture of vitality that bestowed the international stature on New York that had previously belonged to Paris. Drexlers first solo exhibition was in February 1961 at Tanager Gallery, an artists collective on East Tenth Street, in existence from 1952 through 1962.6 In Artnews, a reviewer stated: Drexler shows medium and outsized pastoral, florid, bleeding-edge canvases that are built up with swatches of tones that seem like so many technicolor galaxies with or without astral or floral connotations.7
That year, at a Halloween dance at the Club, Drexler met John Philip Hultberg (19222005), a painter born in Berkeley, California, who had moved to New York in 1949, gaining a significant amount of attention for his powerful, gestural semi-abstract works with Surrealist overtones. The two were married on May 25, 1962. At the time, Hultberg was represented by the art dealer Martha Jackson (19071969), who bought a house for him on Monhegan Island so that he could escape the pressures of the New York art world and his drinking problems. The few months the couple spent there in the summer after their wedding constituted Drexlers introduction to the place that would become so significant in her life and art. That summer she incorporated the scenery of Monhegan into her work, and she continued to translate her memories of Monhegan into her paintings in her New York studio in the winter.
In 1963, Drexler accompanied Hultberg to San Francisco, where he had been hired as an instructor at the San Francisco Art Institute. The couple spent the following three years on travels to Mexico (where Drexler and Hultberg showed together in 1963 at the Galleria in San Miguel Allende), to Portland, Oregon (where Hultberg was artist-in-residence in 1964 at the Portland Art Museum), to Los Angeles (where Drexler had a show at Esther-Robles Gallery in April 1965), and to Honolulu (where Drexler had a show at Nuuana Valley Gallery in 1967). In those years, Hultberg and Drexler continued to spend time in the summers on Monhegan. In a review in the Los Angeles Times of Drexlers show at Esther-Robles, Betje Howell stated that the works on displayfrom the smallest preliminary crayon drawing to the largest canvasshowed the same strong, purposeful approach, revealing Drexler to be a talented young artist with great potential significance, who could not be dismissed lightly. Howell remarked that Drexler was a true colorist, and noted that her art usually reflects the world of nature, [consisting mostly of] land- and seascapes painted in a vigorous and forceful precision in an idiom all her own. By this time, Drexler had already developed her characteristic geometric forms and swatch-like brushstrokes, applied with Pointillist intentionality, to create organic explosions within structured totalities. Howell incisively observed the sense of joyous and pulsating growth, filling works that never presaged death or decay.8
When Hultberg and Drexler returned to New York in 1967, they moved into the legendary Chelsea Hotel on West 23rd Street (opened in 1884), whose owner was an art collector and whose tenants included prominent musicians, actors, artists, and writers. At this time, Drexler began regularly attending the Metropolitan Opera. She often created crayon sketches during performances, including a series of works based on Wagners Ring Cycle. Opera and classical music were sustaining passions for Drexler, to which she often listened while working. In February 1969, she had the first of several solo exhibitions at Alonzo Gallery at 26 East 63rd Street. A reviewer for Artnews described her surfaces as encrusted with tiny impasto shapes packed together in homogenous groups, some of which hold the plane while others swell and spill out in front. However, what caught the reviewers eye most was Drexlers high-keyed color mixtures that were aggressively designed to dazzle, along with strained contrasts that sometimes impart a competing physicality in the different areas.9 Arts magazine also reviewed the exhibition, commenting, The father of Expressionism, Van Gogh, is the first painter one thinks of upon seeing all the swirling serpentine striations of color which dominate these canvases.10 The critic also saw aspects of Pointillism, Futurism, and German Expressionism in Drexlers paintings. Her shows at Alonzo in February 1970 and November 1971 were again covered in Artnews. Of the former, a critic noted: Tiny bare canvas flecks flicker, recalling both the patchiness of Prendergast and the intensity of Soutine.11 The latter show consisted of abstract landscapes, described as images in which the particles, consisting of compacted arcs, bows, and stipples, fight the compression and begin to whirl and flame up, shaping landscapes with the drive and irresistibility of magnetic currents.12
Although Drexler had a handful of exhibitions in the 1960s, she began to feel alienated from the New York art scene, especially as Pop Art prevailed. At the end of the 1960s, she became colorblind for six months. When her depression reached its nadir, she attempted suicide. She had recovered by 1971 when she and Hultberg began spending more time on Monhegan. There they purchased the house given to Hultberg by Jackson. In the following year, they moved from the Chelsea Hotel to a loft in Soho at 495 Broome Street. While working abstractly, Drexler incorporated the influences of New York architecture and nature on Monhegan into her paintings. For the latter, she often got ideas from snapshots she had taken on the island.13 Drexlers last show at Alonzo was in April 1975.
In the early 1980s, Drexler not only painted on Monhegan during the summers but also relied on her sketches and memories of the island in the winters in New York. In 1983 she and Hultberg decided to move permanently to Monhegan, but he only lasted one winter, visiting afterwards just in the summers, and eventually the couple separated. Although Drexler painted in her studio rather than in the outdoors, she felt it was important to live full-time in nature, immersed in its cycles and deriving inspiration from the strength and power of her surroundings. Her style was both unique in its brushstrokes and its amalgam of many influencesImpressionism, Post-Impressionism, Symbolism, and Fauvism. However, she preferred Impressionism, as she told Eunice Agar in 1988 for an article in American Artist.14 Her Impressionism went beyond stylistic factors; she embraced the Impressionist idea that nature does not possess its own reality but is instead a manifestation of subjective experience. Drexler affirmed this idea in her desire to draw people into her paintings so they could enter into the world she had created. Her works have that impact; they demand to be seen in a certain way rather than to be open to many interpretations.
Drexler enjoyed her solitude on Monhegan, but she also made connections in the year-round community. Of her life on the small island, she stated: There is no isolation in a place like thisbut solitude is respected.15 During the last two decades of her life, Drexlers art became more figurative, in works including elements of her coastal surroundings, still lifes, and a series of paintings incorporating dolls and folk masks. In her later years, Drexler developed more renown locally than in New York, with solo shows held in 1989 and 1994 at Gallery 6 in Portland, Maine, and in 1998 at Lupine Gallery on Monhegan. That show turned out to be the last of her lifetime.
When Drexler learned she had terminal cancer in 1998, she did not allow her island friends to be gloomy or sorrowful. At her seventieth birthday party on May 21, 1999, she delighted in being the center of attention. She died on December 30, 1999, while listening to Mozarts Don Giovanni, which she loved. Admiration for her art gathered steam in the years following her death, when solo exhibitions of her work were held at the Bates College Museum of Art, Lewiston, Maine (2003), the Monhegan Historical and Cultural Museum (2008), and the Portland Museum of Art, Maine (2009). View Footnotes
--Lisa N. Peters, Ph.D.