LYNNE MAPP DREXLER (1928–1999)
On April 1, 2022, Artnet News headlined an article: “She Painted for Decades in Obscurity on a Remote Island in Maine. Suddenly, Collectors Can’t Get Enough of Lynne Drexler.”1 In addition, Drexler’s Deciduous Empire, 1964 (private collection) was on the cover of Art & Antiques in December 2021–January 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 (1928–1999) 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 Drexler’s work. While she adopted the methods of action painting and understood the role of gesture—she was a student of Hans Hofmann and Robert Motherwell—she was part of the second-generation of Abstract Expressionists—including Grace Hartigan, Joan Mitchell, and Larry Rivers—who 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.
Drexler’s inspiration derived primarily from Monhegan Island, the tiny, rockbound island off the coast of Maine—long loved by artists—which 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 (1890–1944), a manager at a public utility, and Lynne Powell Drexler (1892–1963), 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. Anne’s School, a private Episcopal girls’ boarding school in Charlottesville, Virginia (now St. Anne’s-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 (1909–1976), who encouraged her to paint. In Williamsburg, she met the modernist architect Ward Bennett (né Howard Bernstein, 1917–2003), 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 1950–52, Drexler took two extended trips abroad, probably spending most of her time in England. In 1956, she moved to New York and enrolled in Hofmann’s school. That April, she received a scholarship from Hofmann to attend his Provincetown summer school. Inspired by Hofmann’s 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: “I’ll flunk you out of here before I see you go to teach. You’re 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). Motherwell’s 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 Club’s 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. Drexler’s 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 (1922–2005), a painter born in Berkeley, California, who had moved to New York in 1949, gaining a significant amount of attention for his powerful, gestural semiabstract works with Surrealist overtones. The two were married on May 25, 1962. At the time, Hultberg was represented by the art dealer Martha Jackson (1907–1969), 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 Drexler’s 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 Drexler’s show at Esther-Robles, Betje Howell stated that the works on display—from “the smallest preliminary crayon drawing to the largest canvas”—showed “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 Wagner’s 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 reviewer’s eye most was Drexler’s 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 Drexler’s 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 Drexler’s 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 influences—Impressionism, 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 this—but solitude is respected.”15 During the last two decades of her life, Drexler’s 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 Mozart’s 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).
Lisa N. Peters, Ph.D.
© Berry Campbell, New York
1 Katya Kazakina, “The Art Detective,” Artnet News, April 1, 2022.
2 John Dorfman, “Symphonies of Color,” Art & Antiques 45 (December 2021–January 2022), pp. 56–63.
3 In addition to Dorfman 2022, sources on Drexler include Eunice Agar, “Lynne Drexler,” American Artist (May 1988), pp. 42–45, 90; Lynne Drexler: Painter, exh. cat. (Me: Monhegan Museum and Portland Museum of Art, 2009); Helen Haring Feibusch, dissertation, University of St. Andrews, School of Art History, Scotland; and oral history interviews, filmed by Tralice Peck Bracy and Beth Van Houten, in September 1998. The films and transcripts belong to the Monhegan Museum archives.
4 Drexler, Oral history transcript, p. 71.
5 Quoted in Dorfman, 2021–22, p. 60.
6 On Tanager, see Brian O’Doherty, “Death of a Gallery,” New York Times, April 1, 1962, p. 127.
7 V.P., “Lynne Drexler,” Artnews 59 (February 1961), p. 19.
8 Betje Howell, “Perspective on Art,” Los Angeles Times, April 1965, clipping from artist estate archive.
9 R.D., “Lynne Drexler,” Artnews 67 (February 1969), p. 13.
10 C.F.I, “Lynne Drexler,” Arts (February 1969), clipping from artist estate archive.
11 K.K., “Lynne Drexler,” Artnews 68 (February 1970), p. 14.
12 N.E., “Lynne Drexler,” Artnews 70 (November 1971), p. 21.
13 Drexler, Oral history transcript, pp. 19–20.
14 Agar 1988, p. 44.
15 Drexler, Oral history transcript, pp. 19–20.
Born, 1928, Newport News, Virginia
1956, Hans Hofmann School of Fine Arts, New York
1958, Hunter College, New York
Died, 1999, Monhegan, Maine
Tanager Gallery, New York, 1961.
Esther Robles Gallery, Los Angeles, 1965.
Nuuana Valley Gallery, Honolulu, Hawaii, 1967.
Alonzo Gallery, New York, 1971.
Alonzo Gallery, New York, 1973.
Alonzo Gallery, New York, 1975.
Veydras ltd., New York, 1983.
Aldona Gobuzas Gallery, New York, 1983.
St. John’s University, New York, 1984.
Middlesex Community College, Piscataway, New Jersey, 1984.
Gallery 127, Portland, Maine, 1989.
Judith Leighton Gallery, Blue Hill, Maine, 1989.
Gallery 127, Portland, Maine, 1989.
Judith Leighton Gallery, Blue Hill, Maine, 1989.
Gallery 6, Portland, Maine, 1989.
Gallery 6, Portland, Maine, 1994.
Lupine Gallery, Monhegan, Maine, 1998.
Bates College Museum of Art, Lewiston, Maine, Drawings by Lynne Drexler, 2003.
Lupine Gallery, Monhegan Island, Maine, Lynne Drexler: Selected Works, 2003.
Greenhut Galleries, Portland, Maine, Lynne Drexler: A Life in Color, 2005.
Jameson Modern, Portland, Maine, Lynne Drexler: Early Paperworks, 2007.
Monhegan Historical and Cultural Museum, Monhegan Island, Maine, Lynne Drexler–Painter, 2008.
Portland Museum of Art, Portland, Maine, Lynne Drexler–Painter, 2009.
Berry Campbell, New York, Forthcoming Fall 2022.
Sun Gallery, Provincetown, Massachusetts, 1959.
Chrysler Museum, Norfolk, Virginia, 1960.
Twentieth Century Gallery, Williamsburg, Virginia, 1960.
Tanager Gallery, New York, 1962.
Galleria, San Miguel Allende, Mexico, 1963.
Westerly Gallery, New York, 1965.
Alonzo Gallery, New York, Mr. & MRS. PAINTING AND SCULPTURE, 1969.
Hudson River Museum, New York, Ciba-Geigy Collection, 1971.
Spring Arts Festival, Educational and Cultural Trust Fund of the Electrical Industry, 1971.
Traveling Show: Martha Jackson New York Collection, 1973.
Allentown Museum-Monhegan Artist Show, Allentown, Pennsylvania, 1974.
Tanager Gallery, New York, Christmas Exhibition, 1974-1979.
Alonzo Gallery, New York, Christmas Exhibition, 1974-1979.
Landmark Gallery, New York, Christmas Exhibtion, 1974-1979.
Ciba-Geigy Collection, Women Artist Show, 1975.
Landmark Gallery, New York, 1977.
Veydras Ltd., New York, 1980.
Veydras Ltd., New York, 1981.
Veydras Ltd., New York, 1982.
Barridoff Gallery, Portland, Maine, 1983.
Portland Museum of Art, Portland, Maine: Museum Invitational Drawing Show, 1983.
Veydras Ltd., New York, 1983.
Barridoff Gallery, Portland, Maine, 1984.
Veydras Ltd., New York, 1984.
Anita Shapolsky Gallery, New York, 1986.
Anita Shapolsky Gallery, New York, 1987.
Leighton Gallery, Blue Hill, Maine, 1989.
The Art Gallery at 6 Deering St., Portland, Maine, 1992.
Bates College Museum of Art Lewiston, Maine: Monhegan: The Abstracted Island, 2001.
Anita Shapolsky Gallery, New York, Women of the 50s, Drexler, Delaunay, Krasner, Park, 2002.
Bates College Museum, Lewiston, Maine: Monhegan Modernists, Collection of John Day, 2002.
Lore Degenstein Gallery, Susquehanna University, Selinsgrove, Pennsylvania, Monhegan Modernists: 1940-1970, 2003.
Farnsworth Art Museum, Rockland, Maine: Abstraction in Maine: Drexler, Brooks, Loew, Lynch, Nevelson, Rothschild, 2003.
Elizabeth Moss Gallery, Falmouth, Maine, 2005.
Greenhut Gallery, Portland, Maine, 2005.
Lupine Gallery, Monhegan, Maine, 2005.
Monhegan Museum, Maine, A Century of Women Artist on Monhegan Island, Maine , 2005.
Opalka Gallery, Albany, New York: New York School: Another View: Drexler, Krasner, Neve/son, Frankenthaler, Brooks, Bolotowsky, Mitchell, 2005.
Portland Museum of Art, Portland, Maine, 2005.
Jameson Estate Collection, Portland, Maine, Modern Maine, 2006.
Anita Shapolsky Gallery, New York, 2007.
Anita Shapolsky Gallery, New York, Collector's Choices, 2007.
UNE Gallery, Portland, Maine, On Island: Women Artists of Monhegan Island, 2007. (Traveled to Albright Knox Museum, Buffalo, New York; Finch College, New York; Sproul Museum, Louisville, Kentucky; University of Maryland; Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, Richmond)
Quidley & Company, Moving to Abstraction, 2017.
Anita Shapolsky, New York, Salon Du Papier, 2022.
Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago, Illinois
Bates College, Lewiston, Maine
Brooklyn Museum, Brooklyn, New York
Farnsworth Art Museum, Rockland, Maine
Greenville County Museum of Art, South Carolina
Hammer Museum, Los Angeles, California
Hudson River Museum, Yonkers, New York
Mint Museum, Charlotte, North Carolina
Monhegan Museum, Monhegan, Maine
Museum of Modern Art, New York
National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.
Portland Museum of Art, Maine
Prentice Hall Collection, Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey
Provincetown Art Association and Museum, Provincetown, Massachusetts
Queens Museum, Queens, New York
Tamarind Print Collection, Los Angeles
University of Massachusetts, Amherst
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