At 90 years old, Rosalyn Drexler is a go-getter whose prolific career as an artist, novelist, playwright, and briefly as a wrestler is featured in a new exhibition at the Mildred Lane Kemper Art Museum at Washington University in St. Louis, on view from February 10-April 17, 2017.
“Rosalyn Drexler: Who Does She Think She Is?” presents the first comprehensive celebration of the artist’s 60-year legacy working across multiple mediums, including sculpture and collage paintings as well as her novels and plays. In addition to introducing her work to a new generation, the exhibition reaffirms her standing as a visual artist who defiantly challenged power structures of post-war America.
Arranged chronologically, the retrospective begins with Drexler’s junk-based sculptures from the late 1950s before winding its way to her novels, plays and paintings, which co-opt film posters, newspapers and magazines as a commentary on the interplay between the tragic and the absurd in everyday life.
Weaving in and out of the Pop Art movement, even once hailed as the “Queen of the Underground,” Drexler repeatedly examines social and political themes, including questions of gender and sexuality. Her vivid paintings often emit a noir stylization that fuses a multiplicity of mass-media imagery and bold colors, often creating radical moments of tension. In doing so, Drexler offers up a profound amalgam of intimacy and conflict to the viewer.
“Drexler’s art remains relevant today because she pointedly questions things like how we see gender, the role of violence in contemporary life, including sexual violence, and how the flood of images from mass media affects our consciousness,” says associate curator Allison Unruh, discussing how Drexler’s work from earlier decades continues to resonate today. “She does this through vivid images that hit you with a graphic punch, combining both sharp humor and serious reflection on our culture.”
While most people would settle for these achievements, Drexler plunged further into the breach, evolving into a novelist and playwright in the 1960s and exploring many of the themes in her visual art through text. In 1964, her first play, the one-act musical “Home Movies” won an Obie Award for Off Broadway theater excellence, and Drexler went on to win additional awards for later works.
According to Unruh, Drexler’s confrontation with media and popular culture served as a source of inspiration for her output. “She was looking at mass media at a time when it was proliferating in the post-war period with an explosion in print, television and film. All of the material she draws upon is real-world material.”
Unruh also commented on what she hopes viewers take away from the broad survey of works: “I hope visitors leave with an appreciation of the multi-dimensional aspects of Drexler’s works and career, and a sense that she deserves to be recognized both as an innovative voice among her peers in the 1960s and for her wildly diverse pursuits as an artist and writer over the past six decades.”
Buttressing the exhibition is a broad range of supplemental programming, including a gallery talk on Feb. 11 with Unruh, a collage-making workshop, and a Museum-member book discussion later in the season.
From March 6-8, the Kemper will partner with the Tivoli Theatre for “Rosalyn Drexler’s Cinematic Connections: Comedians, Gangsters and Fighters,” featuring free screenings of “My Little Chickadee” (1940), “White Heat” (1949) and “Raging Bull” (1980), which respectively touch upon the humor, violence and pugnaciousness found in Drexler’s work.
On March 24, a staged reading of two of Drexler’s one-act plays, “Utopia Parkway” and “Room 17C,” will be performed by students from the Washington University’s Performing Arts Department in Arts & Sciences and directed by Senior Lecturer Andrea Urice.
The museum is located on Washington University’s Danforth Campus, near the intersection of Skinker and Forsyth Boulevard. For more information, call (314) 935-4523 or visit the Mildred Lane Kemper Art Museum’s website; or find the museum on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.