Art

A Bout with Rosalyn Drexler

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For our special “One-Woman American Century” section we look at the life of artist / novelist / playwright / professional wrestler / journalist Rosalyn Drexler. You can get a sense of the never-stop intensity of Drexler’s life and work from her answer to a question from the Voice’s always insightful art critic of the 1960s, David Bourdon:

“Does the good life appeal to you?”

“I think the good life is disgusting. I still have the idea about a good life from the movies. You have marvelous lovers, you have no guilt. No artist really leads the good life. The good life implies a kind of emptiness. In art you’re always finding yourself, you’re always looking for yourself. Well, maybe that’s the really good life. But I mean maybe Dali lives the good life. He has swans in his ocean.”

More than half a century ago, Rosalyn Drexler gave the hard questions even harder answers. And going by her current show, at Garth Greenan Gallery (through March 30), she is still at it. —The Voice Archives

 

A BOUT WITH ROSALYN DREXLER

by David Bourdon
May 6, 1965

 

Rosalyn Drexler — painter, playwright (“Home Movies”), ex-lady wrestler — is a well-rounded hot property. Her first novel, “I Am the Beautiful Stranger,” will be published on May 10. Two of her plays will be produced later this year by the Theatre of the Living Arts in Philadelphia. In her best show to date, at the Kornblee Gallery (58 East 79th Street, to May 15), she exhibits cool, lurid tabloid-inspired paintings of public menaces. At high noon on the opening day of her show Mrs. Drexler lived up to her reputation as a buxom, baby-faced thug by pushing me into the Kornblee storeroom where we had the following conversation:

“I’m very literary,” she said in a girlish voice. “Even when I’m painting, I’m thinking literature.”

You seem obsessed by gunmen, and rapists.

“I like to paint things in action. I’m a violent person myself. But it’s not a sublimation. It doesn’t stop me. I mean the picture can be violent and I can be.”

‘I Was Blamed’

I hear you’ve lifted people out of restaurant booths and hurled them across the room.

“No, I never did that. Somebody once heard at a party that I wrestled. And it was a man who felt his masculinity was being challenged. So what he did was he grabbed my hand and started to twist it. And I got mad and I just threw him over my shoulder. He broke a table and I was blamed for it.”

Are men frightened of you because you were a lady wrestler?

“No, everybody is attracted by something that seems perverse. I’m very attractive to men.”

Were you really a champ?

“Everybody’s a champ. Especially retired people. They’re all former champs. Like boxers. You get the punchiest boxer. What do you call him? ‘Hey Champ!’ ”

How long did your wrestling career last?

“A few months. Every night I was in a car going to another place. Florida, uh, I think ·Ohio.”

What year was that?

“I can’t remember, can’t tell. I also prefer not to tell.”

You had your first show of junk sculpture at the Reuben Gallery in 1960.

“Yeah, and it was way before that.”

I’ve never seen your junk sculpture.

“Well, it was junk. I threw it away. I remember…oh, what’s his name — a famous sculptor —Smith —”

Somebody I’ve heard of?

”— Smith —”

David Smith?

“Yes, David Smith. Yes, he came to my show and he liked it very much and he said you must keep sculpting. There are so few sculptors around. He liked it very much. Well, I got very nervous about it and I stopped.”

And then you went into painting.

“I had always wanted to paint and didn’t think I could. And then I saw everybody else who couldn’t do it.”

Pop art made painting look easy.

“That’s when I came into the picture.”

But you don’t consider yourself either a pop artist or a figurative painter?

“No, not those titles.”

‘Sense of Order’

What about your poster layout?

“It’s just my sense of order. I can order my life best through my art. So my house is sloppy and my work is neat and everything has its place.”

What appeals to you in a photograph?

“If it looks easy to paint. Not too much detail. And then you can paint much faster. Actually the placement, but I change that too. The first thing I do when I look at something is isolate it. I take one thing from one photograph and another thing from another photograph and then make a whole new picture out of it.”

Do you go out of your way to buy the National Enquirer?

“Sometimes I do. There are days I go out and buy $10 worth of magazines, all kinds, even fashion. I’m going to do a show called the good life.”

Does the good life appeal to you?

“I think the good life is disgusting. I still have the idea about a good life from the movies. You have marvelous lovers, you have no guilt. No artist really leads the good life. The good life implies a kind of emptiness. In art you’re always finding yourself, you’re always looking for yourself. Well, maybe that’s the really good life. But I mean maybe Dali lives the good life. He has swans in his ocean.”

Lawrence Alloway credits you with having suggested the theme of the Reuben Gallery show at the Guggenheim Museum last January. How did you do that?

“We had drinks together. We were talking, and it occurred to me that all these artists who were so well known now had had shows at the Reuben. And I mentioned it to him and he said that’s a very interesting idea. Then he did it.”

‘Not the Same’

Do you have drinks with a lot of museum people?

“I think Alloway is probably sexier than most museum people. I’ve had a drink with Henry Geldzahler but it isn’t the same thing. I once offered to give him a bath. I thought his skin would be very soft and sort of like a kid.”

I don’t think Henry Geldzahler looks like Queen Victoria.

“No. No more than I look like Oscar Wilde.”

But you do look like Oscar Wilde.

”I know. Oscar Wilde is one of my idols.”

I should think you’d feel close to his plays like “The Importance of Being Earnest,” with its frivolous stylized characters and cases of mistaken identity.

“I saw Jack Benny in drag. Is that the one? They had a movie of it.”

That’s “Charley’s Aunt.”

“Oh, I’m sorry. ‘The Importance of Being Earnest.’ I saw that too.”

Tell me about your two plays that are being done in Philadelphia.

” ‘The Investigation’ is about the relationship between an accused teenage rapist and his inquisitor, a detective. You never know if the kid is guilty or not. What’s interesting is the character of the detective. He does all sorts of sadistic things. He’s hung up just like everyone is with a victim. He wants to get the information out of the rapist. It’s a love relationship really. And to go back to Oscar Wilde, all men kill the thing they love. It’s as if he’d destroy himself at the same time. The other play, ‘Hot Buttered Roll,’ is about an old man who can’t make it any more. His hang-up is girlie magazines and the play is written in that kind of language.”

How do you begin a play?

“The first thing I do is think of character. I don’t think of plot. I do think of the way they look, but that’s part of the way they’re going to act. I think in terms of prototypes. I like to work cliche-type people.”

‘One Inch Deep’

In or out of hack plots?

“Oh, hack plots are marvelous. They’re the only kind. I usually don’t know, since I never write a plot ahead of time. I let the characters take over and do what they’re doing and then they react to each other.”

Did you ever think of working from “Masterplots”?

“I’m going to, I’m absolutely going to. I’d love to do those 39 plots, but not be buried in them — just about one inch deep. It’s the mind that does these things that isn’t cliche. I think I have a new way of using cliche.”

Before you wrote “I Am the Beautiful Stranger,” did you write anything else?

“I wrote a series of threatening letters.”

What is the novel about?

“It’s about an adolescent girl selling fantastic acts of love to a number of obscene, lecherous, sex-mad men, who are in and out of public life. Also built young boys and a skin specialist.”

What does the title mean?

“Everyone can be beautiful as long as they remain a stranger. To reveal oneself is to be ugly.”

Do you think “I Am the Beautiful Stranger” will be a cult book?

“I hope it will be, first among my contemporaries and then if I’m lucky among the posterities.”

 

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