Don’t be surprised if you think you hear tunes from Mozart’s “Don Giovanni” as you approach 100 Fore Street, the address of the new Old Port outpost of the Elizabeth Moss Galleries.
Moss does not actually show the opera in the gallery. But it is not necessary. Paintings from “Lynne Mapp Drexler: Orchestrations in Color,” through Friday, provide the soundtrack. Drexler was an avid classical music fan, and many of her abstract paintings from the 1950s and 1960s were visual interpretations of the music she experienced at Carnegie Hall, which she channeled into sketches she drew from his seat during performances.
Back in her studio, she used them as starting points for intensely colored compositions, densely layered with idiosyncratic combinations of marks: the stippling of Seurat and Pissarro, the swirls and thick strokes of Van Gogh, the more defined geometric shapes by Hans Hofmann (one of his most influential teachers, along with Robert Motherwell), the rapid and rhythmic notes of Cézanne.
Mentioning all of these stylistic influences in no way diminishes the individuality of Drexler’s work. When asked by her friend Tralice Bracy to define what makes a good artist, Drexler replied, “Someone who has their own vision and commitment and sticks to it…and doesn’t sell themselves.” Drexler, who died on Monhegan Island in 1999, was unquestionably such an artist.
It was in fact her commitment to her art that led to her self-imposed exile from New York in 1983, when she decided to abandon an art scene she felt had become superficial and commercial to live year-round on Monhegan. .
She and her husband, painter John Hultberg, had bought a house there and spent many summers painting outdoors.. By the 1980s, his early measured successes—still overshadowed by the male-dominated American Abstract Expressionist movement—had faded, and a new school of painting, Pop Art, had eclipsed Ab Ex as an “it” genre.
What strikes you most immediately is Drexler’s palette. It’s a confident, hole-free blowout of deeply saturated pigment, and it’s laid down in thick, brash strokes. “Eclipse”, for example, is an intricately constructed painting that ripples across the surface with tangerine oranges and spice, citrines and golden yellows, scarlet and vermilion reds, cobalt and cerulean blues, violet violets and plums. , tawny browns and umber.
Most of the paintings in this exhibition are thus spectacularly polychrome. “Bubbled Pink” is a fugue that ranges from pink to fuchsia to crimson. “Celestial Division” is a kaleidoscopic sampling of so many nuances that it would take several paragraphs to discuss here.
Even with works that initially appear dark and monochromatic, such as “Paperwork #190”, “Paperwork #191”, and “Thematic Repeat”, close inspection reveals many subtle variations in hue within a theme.
The earliest paintings here are various works on paper made by Drexler in 1959. They are emblematic of Motherwell’s belief that an artist should approach a surface without preconceived notions of form or composition. The emphasis should be on process and expression. Using a rainbow of colors, Drexler has created multiple layers of brushstrokes that resemble the tesserae of mosaics. They seem to flow like confetti from an imperceptible existential void deep in the paper.
The feeling of creating something out of nothing by gradually building up a surface with repeated marks will stay with Drexler for life. Some have also cited Gustav Klimt as a possible source. But for Klimt, these markings, derived from Art Nouveau motifs and erotic allusions, were highly decorative. In Drexler’s work, marks – at least until late in his life – became the real material of manifestation. The autonomous gesture replaces the subject, whether it is a painting inspired by a concerto or a landscape.
As his style matured, the brand vocabulary grew. She never abandoned Hans Hofmann’s push-and-pull theory, which posited that effective pictorial space depends on a tension between perfectly articulated planes of color and a more gestural, expressionistic field of overlapping forms. . She just kept adding to that stylistic lexicon.
The push-and-pull is clearly visible in “Heat Nostalgia”, the final painting in the exhibition, dated 1980. Green rectangles and squares and purple circles around the border contrast with the dotted lines and slashes that dominate the table. They are even more pronounced in “Radiation”, from 1977.
By the late 1960s, Drexler had begun to shift to more representational subject matter, primarily Monhegan landscapes. Although highly stylized, “Heat Nostalgia” is clearly a view of grasses and lupines across a meadow, likely the same meadow that stretched from his house to the cottages lining the island’s rocky coast.
1976’s “Winter Serenity” is almost certainly a woodsy scene, probably also by Monhegan. But even without knowing the title of “Sunset Sea” (1969), the wavy markings and mostly blue palette make the subject matter clear.
Eventually Drexler felt she had exhausted the possibilities of abstraction and turned to painting still life compositions of flowers in vases, dolls and clothes on a rope, flapping in the breeze. The markings – especially the rectangles and squares in the form of tesserae – moved interestingly into the background as in Klimt’s paintings, although they always served a function beyond decoration: that is to say, to articulate a depth of space.
None of these later paintings are in the exhibition. The reality is that while they felt unique in some way, they weren’t Drexler’s finest works. This show – far too short in length, so hurry to see it – proclaims the singular voice she carved out of the Ab Ex movement. You know a Drexler when you see one, both because her style was so personal and because she had no imitators. Witnessing the lushness and visual power of these paintings makes the way she was ignored during her lifetime seem like a grave injustice.
Yet, while it might be tempting to think of his withdrawal to Monhegan as a kind of retirement, I prefer to think of it as an act of defiance and liberation. From the start, Drexler refused to conform to the fashion, which to me indicates her isolation as an extraordinary show of willpower, clearly motivated by the importance she placed on her craft and the assurance that what she mattered a lot.
On her deathbed, surrounded by friends, the painter Alice Boynton puts on “Don Giovanni” to accompany Drexler into the afterlife. Boynton recalls Drexler, who perhaps loved Jack Daniels too much, breathed his last, appropriately, during the opera’s champagne aria. “Orchestrations in Color” has a similar party atmosphere. In a way, it’s a well-deserved toast to a great artist.
Jorge S. Arango has been writing about art, design and architecture for over 35 years. He lives in Portland. He can be reached at: [email protected]