In the painting the ring appears, glowing within the void. The dimensions suggest the distance of spectatorship, whether the cheap seats, or a television watched from across the room. Another displacement comes to mind: that of memory, the intervening years. Something you once saw returns to you, something you once did. When you hit a certain age, having seen and having done take up the same synaptic real estate. Picture an illuminated patch of experience, surrounded by darkness. Here, it takes the shape of the ring. A glowing canvas square, surrounded by hushed onlookers. For a painter, it’s an unexpected mecca.
Rosalyn Drexler first made paintings by collaging magazine pages onto the canvas, then painting over them with flat, almost lurid panels of color. The result has something to do with mediation, celebrity, and obfuscation—those preoccupations of Pop and Pictures Gen. It has something to do with make-up. And it might also have to do with Drexler collecting outfits like a paper doll. Sculptor, painter, playwright, novelist. And, for several years in early ‘50s, the professional wrestler Rosa the Mexican Spitfire. So perhaps a person of such multitudinous output would be drawn to wrestling’s promise of reinvention: the disguise which reveals, the reveal which disguises, all the layers of intentionality and spandex that plant a simple truth in the mind in the viewer: you can be whoever you want to be.
At 94, the Bronx-born Drexler has had one of those lives that they don’t make anymore. Her grandparents owned a second-hand shop. Chico Marx was her uncle (through marriage). And even with the Who’s Who of her friendships—Ginsberg, Norman Mailer, Elaine De Kooning—I bet she was the most interesting person in any room, or ring. After all, she’d written the novelization of Rocky. (Sly didn’t like her first draft; she’d given him an erectile problem.)
These works, of boxers and wrestlers, have both the raw immediacy of a courtroom sketch artist and the slight delay of a television broadcast. Opponents are caught mid-jab and grapple, their speed rendered sculptural. The wrestlers in particular don’t seem so much frozen as posed. They contain a slight lag, a hesitation not on the part of the wrestlers themselves, but one conditioned in the mind of the viewer. A tinny voice saying this isn’t real—and then, another one answering: that’s the point. Because, as Drexler the artist-writer-wrestler puts it: “Fake wrestling is a great, grand drama of life and death.”
The boxers are cropped, much as Degas cropped his dancers, and CBS their anchors. The action is front and center, unescapable. It’s all there is. The wrestlers, however, are in an expanded field. They fight against a flat backdrop, saturated with color and painterly applied. This is Drexler’s schtick. This absence is charged with importance; simply by being devoid of such. This is what she gets from film noir, from those grainy exposures that imbue the studio backlot with a little bit of hell. This is what she does better than Warhol. But it’s something else as well. By blotting out the stands, Drexler clears space for the viewer. The kid in the cheap seats, on the couch. She gets us ringside.