In Conversation

Rosalyn Drexler with John Yau

After her mini-survey I am the Beautiful Stranger - Paintings of the ’60s, which was sensitively curated by Arne Glimcher at PaceWildenstein (March 16–April 21), Rosalyn Drexler paid a visit to the Rail’s Headquarters to talk with Art Editor John Yau about her life and work.

Portrait of the artist. Pencil on paper by Phong Bui.

John Yau (Rail): Could we begin with you as a writer of twelve novels under your name and a few more under a pseudonym?

Rosalyn Drexler: I did three under Julia Sorrel; one of them was Rocky, which was made into the movie. Initially (Sylvester) Stallone wanted his father to write the script, but the publisher wasn’t happy with it, so Stallone had a go at it himself. That didn’t work out either, so they came to me, asked “Hey Rosalyn, how fast can you turn this out?” I said, pretty fast. “Well, since it’s from a manuscript I would just feel very free.” It’s like being given an outline, so I worked on it about one month. Okay. I liked it. But I understand that Stallone got mad at me, again, because in the novelization I gave Rocky an erectile problem. He’s a loser who hasn’t been with a woman for a long time, so that the very first time that he is with someone, I figured it might not go as planned.

Rail: Stallone did not go for that [laughs].

Drexler: But I understand that now, because after all, Rocky is a mythic character, and so you don’t go for real in a myth.

Rail: Have you always written and painted at the same time?

Drexler: Well, I think my first book came out in 1965, but my first art show was in 1960 at Reuben Gallery, and it was all sculpture. They were largely made of plaster and some, poured lead that I melted. I used to order bars of lead. Metal was melted in pots right on my kitchen stove. Stunk up the house but I got some weird shapes. I’d pour the hot lead into plates of plastecine clay and it was really abstract stuff. Could have died from the fumes. David Smith was encouraging, keep doing this, he said “Because women start and then they stop and you don’t hear about them again. Keep going.” But I guess I wasn’t really a sculptor; I wanted to be a painter.

Rail: Had you studied painting formally?

Rosalyn Drexler, "Is It True What They Say About Dixie," 1966. Oil and paper collage on canvas. 60â x 84â (152.4 cm x 213.4 cm). Photo by: Kerry Ryan McFate / Courtesy PaceWildenstein, New York.

Drexler: Formally? ball gown? satin slippers? No. I just wanted to make things. When I was a little girl, my mother bought me coloring books, and cut out dolls with their cute outfits, and lots of crayons; the big box—there was a gold crayon and a silver crayon and all kinds of blue. I hated finger painting. Most kids wanted to color outside of the lines, but I loved staying in the lines, because that way I felt protected. That was my only training. (laughs). My best friend Rae showed me how to outline my pictures. That was quite an innovation. I was around eight years old, maybe younger.

Rail: So you applied the same approach when you started painting?

Drexler: Well, first I did small paintings, then slowly moved to the bigger canvases. I decided what size canvas I wanted, and I figured out what size the image should be and where it should be placed on the canvas, and so on. Elmer’s glue doesn’t get enough credit for its role in art. Crazy glue doesn’t hold a candle to Elmer’s… it’s non-toxic and it lasts forever. So, this is how I proceed. First I have to soak the photo image so it can be soft and pliable, then I apply just enough glue. Then I position the photo onto the canvas. The physical part must be carefully done: pressing all of the bubbles to the edge of the photo, so that the surface becomes smooth, neat, and clean. Then I wait for it to dry. I also enjoyed all the physical aspects of making paintings including stretching canvas, or gessoing the ground and so on.

Rail: Many young artists I know told me that your work came across to them right away, the first time they saw it. They spent a lot of time looking, for instance, at the edge of the paint on the paper, where it was attached to the canvas. They could tell from looking at your work that you’d painted on these collages that had been attached to the canvas. They said, “She must like doing it.”

Drexler: It’s hard. [laughs] What I liked was the feel of the brush against the edge. But I could never get the paint flat enough. I always wanted it to be flat and shiny. The thing that I did wrong was putting shellac over some paintings, which made them turn yellow.

Rail: And where did you show those after the First International Girly Show at Pace in 1965?

Drexler: I showed the small paintings at the Zabriskie Gallery with Tom Doyle’s sculpture. That’s when I met Eva Hesse. She was so quiet that I had no idea she was an artist too, until she showed me her drawings, which I thought were terrific.

Rail: Who else did you know in those days?

Rosalyn Drexler, "Love and Violence," 1965. Acrylic, oil and paper collage on canvas. 67-3/4â x 60-3/4â (172.1 cm x 154.3 cm). Photo by: Ellen Labenski / Courtesy PaceWildenstein, New York.

Drexler: George Segal was a dear friend. I posed for his piece, Dry Cleaning Store (1964) now in the collection of the Moderna Museet, Stockholm. He also did a bas relief of my head that I own. John Chamberlain came to my show Home Movies when it went off Broadway, he made a fuss outside the theater, and was arrested. Lucas Samaras, who intrigued me with his dangerous work, and was also at the Reuben Gallery: he was in a happening with me written by Robert Whitman. Jim Dine was in it too, and Patty Oldenburg. I also knew Claus Oldenburg: my daughter was in one of his happenings (see Store Days). Billy Kluver, an important person/inventor…many more…Bob Beauchamp, Dodie Müller…a world of artists. So many. Bill and Elaine DeKooning…I had an interview with Elaine in, I think, Why Have There Been No Great Woman Artists? A book edited by Betsy Baker and Tom Hess. Lots of Abstract Expressionists, most of whom I met at the Cedar Bar…in fact, Franz Kline saw a piece that I happened to have brought with me one day, and he sad, I’d like to exchange with you. So I said, “okay”, and we did. I got one of his ink washes on a ripped out telephone book page. A few years later when we were broke, I foolishly sold it for about $500, which paid for almost an entire vacation in Provincetown with the entire family.

Rail: When I came to New York in 1975, I had read your novel To Smithereens, and it said that you were a painter, and also that you were a wrestler. But for a long time, I didn’t know if you were showing, or if I wasn’t paying attention, I felt sort of out of it. I remember people mentioning your name, and I’d see one piece here and one piece there.

Drexler: Yeah, no paintings were shown, and nobody was asking me to show. I was painting secretly though, planning a great reappearance; however I was also otherwise engaged. Did plays with John Vaccaro at Theatre for the New City, one at LaMama. He doesn’t get enough credit for what he has done. He was so nutty that people sort of stayed away from him, but whatever he did was so open and so great. A monster of brilliance. An intellectual par excellence. A terrifying creative projectile. I wanted him to direct my stuff from the minute I saw Heaven Grand in Amber Orbit. Written by Jackie Curtis and directed by John.

Rail: I used to go to the Theatre of the Ridiculous when it was in Sheridan Square in the early ‘80s. He did these really weird, interesting plays, really over the top, with the actress Black-Eyed Susan. I also remember reading a description of your play, and this person who was standing next to me said, “You‘ll feel crazy when you leave this play and that’s a great thing.” So you were involved in the theatre scene quite heavily in the late ‘70s and ‘80s?

Drexler: Yeah, I was. I got a lot of awards for it. It was kind of confusing. Maybe it wasn’t. Maybe I just wanted to be confined in a huge playground with all kinds of things happening.

Rail: When and why did you move to Newark?

Drexler: That’s a jump. Sherman, my husband, a wonderful artist, was in a show at the New Jersey State Museum in Trenton…and the curator knew that we were looking for a living/work space. She told us about this space in Newark, near the station. So we had a look, and took it. That was more than 15 years ago. What a mistake. But it was all we could afford. Anyway, I went away to teach almost every year. I was doing something here, something there; Washington state, Arizona, Ohio, Iowa to help pay the rent, etc.

Rail: You’re like the wandering teacher.

Drexler: Trying to earn a living. My first job was at the Iowa Writer’s Workshop, with the crème de la crème. Who knew that? I didn’t. I was like, “Oh my God these people are so smart.” I don’t know how I got in there. Maybe they read some things and then, maybe Ted Solitaroff recommended me. Or maybe my friends in the literary world, like Donald Barthelme, John Hawkes, or Norman Mailer recommended me. In any case, in the middle of it, I said, “I don’t know how to do this. I’ve never done it.” So I spoke to the head of the department, John Leggett. I told him I wanted to quit. He said, “There’s nothing to it. Look, I’ll tell you what to do.” And he told me what to do. They all have to go and Xerox their stuff; they write their critiques, you don’t say a word until they’ve all read their stuff, and then they read their critiques, and then at the end you say a couple of things; that’s it. You help out on what they read or you encourage them. It became very easy after that.

Rail: So how long did you teach there?

Drexler: Just one year.

Rail: Do you remember any of your students?

Drexler: Well, there was Joy Harjo, who became my closest friend. In addition to being a painter, she also taught herself saxophone, and she plays with a band and writes her own songs. She writes wonderful poetry but nobody understood her poetry at the time, because I think they were under the Corso/Ginsberg influence, and some were entranced with Stanley Kunitz. And some wanted to emulate Plath. The students weren’t open to her work. Actually most of them were snobs and worse. And there was Jayne Anne Phillips, who I also liked. She wasn’t one of my students, but I liked her a lot. I was there when she made a conscious decision to follow her own career rather than stay with some other writer who was following his career.

Rail: Where did you grow up?

Drexler: I grew up in East Harlem and the Bronx. My grandparents had a secondhand store in Harlem, I used to climb up to the loft where they kept the mattresses, and I hid there: warm, giggling, sure they’d never find me, and we lived there for a while. Grandpa used to buy stolen jewelry that he kept in boxes under the bed. There were diamond tie-pins, and gold watches. I heard the adults whispering about it. There’s a whole thing I went through about growing up in the Bronx where they still had tomato plants growing. It was like a whole different place. And the Russian immigrants sat in Van Cortlandt Park across from Hunter Hall playing mahjong. I can still hear that sound. The clicking of the ivory pieces.

Rail: So you grew up basically in New York, and at some point you went to Berkeley?

Drexler: That’s because Sherman was finishing his BA degree, he had dropped out in 1945 when he began to paint. We got married in 1946. Around ’55, ’56 he worked at a Rockefeller lab teaching, ‘56. He taught there, and painted, and worked at a Rockefeller Lab with super clean mice. He had to be decontaminated every time he went to work. He always smelled like cereal and powdered milk. We ate the same things the mice ate. It was free food.

Rail: Did you meet artists out there?

Drexler: I took a trip with my 8-year-old daughter (in my new Morris Minor car (a lemon) and we were on our way to Carmel. However, along the way I stopped to visit with Edward Weston. He was very nice: already palsied. Showed us where he stood to take pictures of the ocean below. Allowed my daughter to look through his prints. He trusted children. Then we stopped at Henry Miller’s place up on Partington Ridge. Nobody would tell us where he lived, but I found him a package of brown rice. Allen Ginsberg came with his boyfriend…

Rail: Peter Orlovsky. Because that’s where they first read Howl, San Francisco at the Six Gallery, in ‘55, before the book came out.

Drexler: He told me that he saw some of my stuff, and he said, “You’re not a poet,” [laughs]. And I agreed with him. Not his kind of poet, you know, whatever. I was hardly on ‘the scene.’ Didn’t do drugs. Didn’t do same sex stuff. Didn’t stay up late. Bringing up my daughter.

Rail: But you were in a different scene—you knew Donald Barthleme, who was the writer who cared most about art.

Drexler: And Coover. So-called experimental writers. Later on I met Ron Suckenick in Boulder where I gave a reading.

Rail: It’s a group that doesn’t necessarily overlap at all with the artists that you know.

Drexler: I think Barthelme overlapped because he did his own kind of illustrations, collage.

Rail: And he knew John Ashbery, he was part of that scene. And they would build their own art scene. And then you also knew the pop artists, and they weren’t really connected to this literary scene.

Drexler: And the playwrights weren’t connected at all, forget about it!

Rail: So you lived in three scenes.

Drexler: Sounds like an old fashioned play. I was friends with Irene Fornes, Megan Terry, and Julie Bovasso, who was an actress but she also directed and wrote. A great actress and director. In a way crossed paths with Ed Bullins, Sam Shepard, Leonard Melfi, Amiri Baraka, etc. Amiri won best play with Dutchman at the same Obie Awards (1965) that I won my first award. And he deserved it, believe me, for Dutchman! I won for Home Movies. First Off-Off play to go Off Broadway.

Rail: So you’re in these three scenes that don’t overlap. Do you think that’s one of the reasons that you’re not as well-known in the art world as you should be? Partly because you’re actually someone who’s in other worlds as well, with your contributions equally spread out?

Drexler: You mean, like it’s easy for people to say, “Oh yeah, Rosalyn? But she’s writing now she’s not a painter, so let’s forget about her.” I don’t know, it could be. Leo Castelli came to all my shows at the Komblee, and respected them. Henry Geldzahler was also aware of my work. Before that, Ivan Karp was the guy who introduced me to Anita Reuben Gallery. I wasn’t career conscious. You know, the wars among the abstracts were so fierce—who is ascendant, whose ideas are more important.

Rail: But you didn’t paint like them, nor did you paint like the second generation, like Joan Mitchell, Mike Goldberg, Norman Bluhm, Alfred Leslie, and you didn’t paint like people who studied with Hans Hofmann, like Jane Freilicher, Larry Rivers. You really painted in a way that’s uniquely different from everybody, but it could be related to pop art.

Drexler: Yes it could be, but it wasn’t exactly. I felt I could say something about life and politics in my paintings. As an example there is: Is it true what they say about Dixie?

Rail: That’s a wonderful painting.

Drexler: It’s a strong painting, and it says everything about violence without the blood and the gore. You know that that’s there, it’s ever-present.

Rail: That red tie just zings that whole painting…and they’re walking right towards you. And you just think, uh, these are creepy people.

Drexler: Absolutely. And I think the Marilyn painting took me a long time, I don’t know why.

Rail: Oh, Chased by Death.

Drexler: Yeah, what really happened there is that she was visiting Arthur Miller and there was an accident and someone got hurt. She became hysterical, frightened, and she just started running. Actually, it’s a guard running after her to protect her. But in my mind, it looks something like Chased by Death.

Rail: In that little painting, it’s Ernie Kovac’s funeral, and he’s a wonderful, I think largely forgotten, thinker, an innovative figure in television.

Drexler: Absolutely. He was like Theater of the Absurd.

Rail: How about the painting Self Defense with a woman scratching her eyes out while wrestling for a gun. I mean, the subject matter alone was very loaded, and it seemed to me that the subject matter is about the relationship between men and women. And yet you never overstate it, it’s just there, and there’s something funny about it, and, if I might say, there’s something horrible about it at the same time. Don’t you think?

Drexler: In a relationship you can have extreme hate and then ten minutes later you can say, “What did you think about such and such?” And, “Why don’t we have something to eat now?” Or whatever; it just comes and goes. The love and the sex can be okay sometimes, sometimes, forget about it I’ve got something else to do. [laughs]

Rail: [laughs] And you are very comfortable letting that all into your work. And I think that’s really unusual, because so many other artists just want the right thing in their work.

Drexler: I don’t know what the right thing means? Nothing is right and nothing is wrong in art. Maybe it’s a bad thing to be open. [laughs] Maybe you should not reveal too much. However there’s almost nothing left to reveal. Every recipe has been imitated. People don’t even care if the soufflé has fallen, or who first made it. Or even if the information is true or false. Or the art is true or false. What is the answer? What is the question? Ask me later. Right now I’m busy dying.

Rail: Have you been asked to write film scripts?

Drexler: I was asked to do the To Smithereens script. But I was doing something else, so I said no.

Rail: But they never made it into a movie.

Drexler: They did. It was awful, called Below the Belt. They in fact asked me about the title and I said, “That’s not a wrestling title at all.”

Rail: It’s a boxing title. [laughs]

Drexler: But they said, “It sounds sexy.” [laughs]

Rail: Why did you do wrestling? You did it for a month.

Drexler: Maybe three, it was a long time ago. I was working out at Bothner’s Gymnasium, on 42nd street where the great Sandow had worked out ‘back in the day’. Way back…Also the famed wrestler Hackenschmitt. Carnie people worked out there, any time you’d go there, there were mats laid out in front of the big window and that’s where they had tumbling midgets. And then some old woman came in with rice powder on her face, and a pretty tutu, and pink ballet slippers, she was all set for a performance. She had some sort of a harness and a neck brace hanging from the ceiling that she got into. The point is, she’d be going through all of these balletic things. Of course, it was easy to do because she was suspended, above the earth/gym floor. And then there was the man on a bicycle with his wife upside down on his head. But he had kind of a rubber doughnut that her head fitted into on top. But still! A unicycle with a uni-wife, ya know? [laughs]

Rail: [laughs]

Drexler: And also there was a handball wall there. So the businessmen would come in, they were doing this handball stuff, and this unicycle and the midgets were going, and I was doing judo. Anyway, I was with this girl, I don’t know what she called herself, the Blond Bombshell or whatever. She told me about this guy that comes around, Billy Wolf, who managed a troop of lady wrestlers. I don’t know how it was arranged, but I met him around the corner at the Hotel Dixie. The Hotel Dixie is where I went to visit Leonard Cohen. Picked him up one night outside of International House, Columbia University. He was sitting on a bench playing guitar. We stayed up all night talking on a grassy knoll. He said he’d send me his first book of poems when it was published. Then he did. It was called Leaves I think. Don’t know if I still have it. Anyway when I met him at the Hotel Dixie years later he tried to choke me. Isn’t that odd? Must have been on something. I got out of there fast. But as for Billie Wolf, the lady wrestling entrepreneur, the interview with me consisted of me trying on a bathing suit.

Rail: [laughs]

Drexler: Yeah, also Billy asked me, “Will your husband mind if you go on tour?” And I said, “Of course not.” [laughs] I didn’t know, my whole idea was, I’ve got to get away from this family thing for a while. It was too much for me. I wanted to go away, and I would’ve done anything. It seemed interesting, so I went away. I trained in a hotel room by hitting a pillow. In the ring suddenly, I could have broken my back, I was tossed across the ring. Fell correctly though, which was good. I learned how to fall. I was the baby face, because the baby face takes all the punishment until the great retaliation. You don’t get to be the Heel, until you have a lot of experience, because then you’re managing all the moves. So that was it, I was Rosa Carlo the Mexican Spitfire. [laughs]

Rail: [laughs] You did this for three months across the United States?

Drexler: Yeah, and they were yelling things at me in Spanish, which I didn’t understand. [laughs] It was strange because my hair was all permed, dark, and I wore heavy makeup. So I looked like the real thing, but I never felt like the real thing, I was only scared. I had come up into it. Once we wrestled in a graveyard. They set up a thing in the graveyard, and we had to piss into bottles. People came to see this! Another time in an airplane-hanger.

Rail: So, it was almost illegal in a way?

Drexler: No, it’s legal. It was poor people entertainment. There was something in the South that really bothered me, because I wasn’t aware of this prejudice. On the card it said, “Special section for colored fans.” And I said, “Why is this?” And I began to notice various other things down South: “Why is there a separate water fountain for these people?” So, I had to leave, I was very upset.

Rail: How old were you then?

Drexler: Twenty-four. I don’t really think about it. I did it, and it was very strange, but I was always the odd person out. I wasn’t really a wrestler, I wasn’t really a tough woman, I wasn’t really a lesbian. I was just somebody who wanted to see if I could do it.

Rail: Is that how you started writing novels as well?

Drexler: No, I always wanted to be a writer, even when I was a kid. My mother would write down my stories (she was my secretary). She would read me Robert Louis Stevenson poetry. She did everything she could to encourage me, 25-cent reproductions of Turner’s Seascape, all sorts of books from Dickens to Mark Twain.

Rail: So you started writing before you made art?

Drexler: Yes, I never thought I’d be able to do anything as marvelous as the other kids in school who were doing birds with plumage and flowers, and I thought, “How do they ever do that?” But then I went to the High School of Music and Art and I was a music major.

Rail: Something else I wouldn’t have known. So you wanted to be a singer?

Drexler: I wanted to be a singer, yes.

Rail: That’s the only thing you haven’t really done, that I know of.

Drexler: Well, yes. My son had a group that I sang with. Bette Midler used to come to hear me singing in a nightclub. They were shooting a movie of me, so I was singing all these oldies but goodies. I guess the Village Voice wrote a little thing about me saying, “Don’t think she’s a dilettante ‘cause it’s the real thing.’” [laughs]

Rail: [laughs]

Drexler: How many real things can a person be and do?

Rail: In your case, quite a lot it seems. [laughs] A playwright, a novelist, a painter, a singer, a wrestler.

Drexler: At 54 I was in my first power lifting contest. I decided to be a real athlete. [laughs] I didn’t win, obviously. And now of course, I’m old and I’m very eager to paint my next show and I have no time to write books or do other things.

Rail: Did you know some of the New York School poets?

Drexler: Yes. Kenward Elmslie owns a small painting of mine. We had fun once at a party. We ran across the room to each other then banged together real hard. We thought it was great and then we did it again [laughs]. That’s how we became friends, these two rambunctious animals. I also knew Frank O’Hara, Ted Berrigan and a few others in that crowd.

Rail: But it seems to me, as you said earlier, that you were a family person. So you spent a lot of time with your family, separate from the socializing, which is an intense part of the art world.

Drexler: Maybe that isn’t a good thing if you have to be ever present [laughs].

Rail: I think sometimes there is that feeling. I always have conflicting feelings about it: How social do you want to be since you have your own work to do and a family to look after? Anyway, could you talk about the painting Men and Machines?

Drexler: The title says it all. I also like the intense concentration, how they could be inside and outside at the same time. I actually did quite a number of them. One of them was stolen at the same time as two paintings by Alice Neel and Rice Perrera at a group show at Pratt Institute in 1975. I think a drug addict stole them. I heard that Alice Neel said, “Oh I know who did it, but I don’t care!”

Rail: When did you meet her?

Drexler: We met early on when the Feminists began to dance in the streets. I did something I didn’t want to do: I liberated McSorley’s Tavern. I was one of those ladies. [laughs] I felt so bad, because there was an old man at the door who said to me, “why do you want to do this?” I had absolutely no idea. I didn’t want to drink there, I didn’t want to be there. [laughs] And when we went in with Lucy Komisar, the lawyer, I remember saying to ourselves, “what now.” One of us said, “And now we liberate the toilets.” So they went into the toilets in the men’s room to make it a person room, that was the big thing. [laughs] Creating a collaborative shithouse.

Rail: [laughs] That was in ’68. I remember being in Boston, being in college in Boston University, and my friends, when we came to New York, many of them went to McSorley’s Tavern because it was this famous place. Then we read in the newspaper that it had been liberated. I didn’t know you were involved in that affair!

Drexler: Just came along for the ride. I was one of the first to review the show Women Chose Women for the New York Times. I also wrote about Celmin’s work; she was both a sculptor and writer. She was sort of a vanguard. I felt that someone had to do it. And for about two years I also wrote film reviews for Vogue (Leo Lerman was my mentor) and the Sunday Times Arts and Leisure section. They were sort of grooming me to be a writer in that section, but when Sy Peck (the editor in chief) got killed in a car crash—that was it. I had lost my champion.

Rail: I met Leo Lerman a few times in my life and he asked me to write once for Vogue, and then he wanted me to write early on for Vanity Fair, when it first came out. They didn’t take the article, but the kill fee was more than I had ever been paid for anything. They gave me twenty-five hundred dollars not to publish it.

Drexler: Wow! I have a similar story with William Shawn from the New Yorker who gave me some things to critique and I did it as honestly as I could. About one of the stories, probably by Ved Mehta, I told Mr. Shawn that, “He really knows his onions. But he needs a better translator.” He gave me a story by Donald Barthelme and I didn’t know it was actually by Barthelme, and I said, “This is a very poor imitation of Barthelme.” So I returned it to him. I wish I had it now to read his comments. He said, “I would really like for you to write for us, but you’re not an editor. This is for your trouble.” And he gave me seven hundred and fifty dollars, which was very generous. He had also asked me a terrifying question, “Do you think there is such a thing as a New Yorker story” Since I had hardly ever read the New Yorker I didn’t know what to say…I think I said “sometimes.” It was Pauline Kael and Victoria Geng who’d recommended me to Shawn. They loved my writing.

Rail: I had this fantasy that I could be rejected by Vanity Fair and support myself if I got rejected over and over again. After the first rejection there wasn’t another one, they didn’t really want me, at all. [laughs] I lived for quite a long time on that amount of money. It was quite a huge amount for me. It was the ’80s. Are you going to work on more plays?

Drexler: I can’t predict that. I’ve done some small things, but it’s so hard to get a play produced. And the kind of thing they’re doing now isn’t interesting to me. We’re almost back to kitchen plays or something like that. Very few people care about being enlightened in any way, and what that means, I don’t really know myself. Enlightened? Maybe enlightened means to be free of fear. And that is impossible.

Contributor

John Yau