Rosalyn Drexler’s best training for the difficult life of a woman artist might have been her brief career as a professional wrestler. In the early 1950s, she was “Rosa Carlo, the Mexican Spitfire.”
“I was always an outsider, laughing at my own ideas,” said Drexler, now 89, in an interview Friday at Art Basel in Miami. “I didn’t wait on a cue for what other people were doing.”
During the heyday of Pop Art in the 1960s, Drexler’s male contemporaries like Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein got all the attention. Women artist were often ignored. But Drexler kept working, eventually building a career not only as a painter but also as an award-winning playwright, screenwriter and novelist.
Decades later, she is now receiving that long denied spotlight. Art Basel highlighted her work at the four-day annual event, which featured more than 270 contemporary and modern galleries and drew collectors from around the word. The show has been held in Miami since 2002 and is the U.S. branch of Art Basel in Switzerland.
Drexler was the one of the artists in the “Conversations and Salon” portion of the art show.
Sitting on stage, wearing a long red blouse and holding her black cane, the Bronx native described the obstacles she faced when she was starting out. “People were not interested in women artists,” she said. “We were not bankable. But I guess we encouraged each other. I developed a women in the arts group with three or four of us. Lots of complaining happened there because we didn’t think anything would change.”
Her career as a wrestler proved to be another entry point into the art world – as the subject of a series of 1962 silkscreens by Andy Warhol called “Album of a Mat Queen.”
In the mid 1960s, a friend, the art critic Lawrence Alloway (creator of the term Pop Art) helped her be part of a major exhibition at the Guggenheim Museum in New York. She said he believed in her work, which is characterized by found-object sculptures and collages – often using images taken from magazines.
Drexler said she thinks women artists still have a tough time because the art world continues to be dominated by men. Her advice for aspiring women artists was to look for supporters like Alloway.
“Every woman is different,” she said. “You will need someone who appreciates your work and the right agent to sell it.”
The art market today is much more complicated than it was when she started out, Drexler said. “Now it’s hard to tell what art is, what’s good or bad,” she said. “All of a sudden these art schools exist. They are beginning to make it seem like art is easy, instead of plucking it out of your soul, which can be a naughty word. Now everyone wants to fit in. I was never trying to fit in, I never studied because I was afraid I would become like everybody else. I didn’t want to do that.”
Drexler’s next show will be at the Rose Art Museum at Brandeis University in Waltham, Mass., from Feb. 12 to June 5.