March 13, 2010

Lynne Drexler: Her light and times

BOB KEYES

— By

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Lynne Drexler (United States, 1928-1999), "Harbor," 1980, oil on canvas, 48 x 72 inches. Private Collection.

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Staff Writer

Tralice Bracy remembers walking into Lynne Drexler's house on Monhegan Island on a dark winter day and feeling overwhelmed by light.

''Her house was alive and pulsating with color,'' said Bracy, who lives on the island and works as curator at the Monhegan Museum. ''I was fascinated, because she lived in an extraordinarily gray landscape and found all this color.''

Drexler's life and light are on view this winter at the Portland Museum of Art, which is hosting the exhibition ''Lynne Drexler -- Painter'' through March 1.

This is the first major museum show of Drexler's career, with paintings, drawings and textiles. It features the work of one of Maine's unsung heroes of contemporary art, who came to Monhegan in the early 1960s as a summer resident and ended up living there year-round beginning in the 1980s.

Drexler, who died from cancer in 1999 at age 71, was an engaging personality who loved opera and a glass of bourbon, on ice.

Gregarious and outgoing, she was strongly opinionated and sharp-tongued, blessed with a soft, husky Southern drawl born of her Virginia heritage.

The wife of painter John Hultberg, she loved gossip, loved to laugh and lived to talk about art, holding court around her sturdy kitchen table and welcoming anyone who desired an afternoon chat about Abstract Expressionism, Modernism and any other ''ism'' or artistic trend.

The island community, which sometimes is slow to warm to newcomers, welcomed Drexler. That she was widely embraced was evidenced by how lovingly they cared for her in her final days, Bracy said.

''I was with her when she got the cancer diagnosis, and the first thing she said was, 'I want to stay on the island,''' Bracy said. ''I never remember her saying, 'I can't wait to get out of here.' And you do hear that a lot out here, especially in the winter. But you never heard that from Lynne.''

Drexler lived two years longer than doctors expected. She lived alone, and received hospice care from friends and neighbors. She died Dec. 30, 1999, with one of her favorite operas playing in the background and surrounded by friends.

The Portland show has been in the planning stages almost since then, said Bracy, who curated the exhibition and worked closely with Drexler's estate.

The artist created a huge number of paintings, and it has taken many years to go through her work, take stock and assemble a reasonable number of images for the exhibition, said Susan Danly, curator of contemporary art at the PMA.

The paintings range from early abstract pieces, which Drexler completed while living in New York in the 1960s, to an array of semi-representational paintings that she completed while living on Monhegan.

Drexler was an anomaly among Monhegan painters. She was one of only two painters who lived there year-round and also died there. The other was Samuel Triscott.

Although she lacks the recognition of Monhegan's most famous painters -- Rockwell Kent, James Fitzgerald and dozens of other art-world superstars -- Drexler was the consummate Monhegan artist. She dug herself deep into her work, amassing hundreds of canvases that filled her drafty home at the foot of Lighthouse Hill.

Drexler worked tirelessly, often with little recognition. She had the odd exhibition in Portland or New York, but her work never received the critical attention as that of many of her peers.

Danly said the lack of exposure didn't bother Drexler much. Among her teachers in New York was the critic and painter Robert Motherwell, who instilled in Drexler the philosophy that to be an artist meant first and foremost that one had to create work worthy of attention.

To be an artist meant living an artist's life, which isn't glamorous or easy, and often solitary, she theorized.

''She represents the artist who was willing to slog along without gallery representation or without museum representation,'' Danly said. ''But she believed in her art, and believed in what she was doing. She made a choice to make art, and if no one bought it, who cares?''

Bracy said that live-first attitude was evident in almost everything Drexler engaged in, including the simple process of island life. She was a patient woman, and single-minded in her desire to live simply and simply create.

''She understood that it takes time to do something,'' Bracy said. ''She felt like an artist shouldn't really show until they spend five years producing a body of work. She applied that to her life as a whole -- everything takes time. And on an island, that philosophy works.''

Further, Drexler never strayed from her artistic vision or gave in to the temptation to paint popular island scenes that would find commercial appeal in the galleries.

She experimented with her work and obsessed over it, sometimes painting the same scene time and again. She also enjoyed making images while listening to the opera, creating detailed sketches of repeating and complementary shapes in uniform colors.

''She did 30 paintings of just her interpretation of the Wagner ring cycle,'' Bracy marveled. ''That in itself is a show. And they are huge -- some are 8 (feet) by 12.''

Drexler simply painted what her heart and soul told her to paint.

Her painting style was marked by a vibrancy of color and free brush work reminiscent of another teacher, Hans Hoffman, or Henri Matisse, whose work Drexler greatly admired. Her paintings, especially the large ones, have a patchwork quality, reminding Danly of decorative stitch work.

''Her style was absolutely unique to her,'' Danly said. ''No way you would confuse her work with another artist. When she moved from abstraction to realism, it was still absolutely Lynne.''

Bracy said she finds it instructive to look at the evolution of artists' work after they've been on the island over a period of time. Many of the summer painters alter their style to reflect the environment or market. But not the year-rounders, Bracy said.

Drexler's paintings changed as she drew inspiration from the natural environment and incorporated realism into her painterly vocabulary. But she remained stylistically consistent.

''It's interesting that the painters who have decided to paint here year-round have chosen their own style and continued to evolve within their own framework and language, versus the pull of what is popular on the mainland,'' said Bracy. ''You end up with very strong work that lasts the test of time.''

In many ways, the test of time is what the Portland show is all about. With 50 pieces, this is the show that her friends on Monhegan and admirers around the country have wanted to see for many years, Danly said.

''She believed in what she was doing, and believed that what she was doing was worthwhile,'' Danly said. ''She also had the innate belief that one day people would recognize it. It's too bad she's not here to see the show. She would love the attention.''

Staff Writer Bob Keyes can be contacted at 791-6457 or at:

bkeyes@pressherald.com

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Additional Photos

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Lynne Drexler (United States, 1929-1999), "Orientalia," 1981, oil on canvas, 48 x 36 inches. Collection of Krista Lisajus and Dan Broeckelmann.

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