Sherman Drexler with Phong Bui
One sunny afternoon in mid-June, the painter Sherman Drexler paid a visit to Art International Radio to talk with Publisher Phong Bui about his life and work.
Phong Bui (Rail): In my last visit at your studio you mentioned to me that you were once an aspiring writer, at least to the age of eighteen or nineteen, then you quoted Flaubert telling Maupassant, “Send each word as if it’s a telegram,” which compelled you to cut what was twenty-something pages of a short story to two and a half pages. [Laughter.] I thought that was a rather poignant realization that could happen to any one of us! Could you retell the episode?
Sherman Drexler: [Laughter.] Yes, in my effort to refine the story and listen to Flaubert’s advice, I realized that I was damming up—what looked fluid and interesting was no longer there any more. That short story, by the way, was hand-delivered to Frances Kroll, who was F. Scott Fitzgerald’s mentor in Hollywood, when I was passing through on my way to go to school at Berkeley. She suggested it should be published in the New Yorker, and when I said that it had already been rejected, she offered to get me a job doing synopses of books—but would I mind crossing the picket line? There was a strike going on and since I had avoided learning to type, didn’t like crossing picket lines, and was on the way to school, I opted not to take the job. She gave me eight books, and after a bit of thinking things over, I returned them. Although, while I was there for a couple of days, I managed to work as an extra on Elizabeth Taylor’s movie National Velvet. She was only thirteen, but looked mature. I was in the paddock with two hundred other people in raincoats and binoculars and umbrellas, so I could never see myself, it was a pan shot. [Laughter.] That was the end of my Hollywood career. Meanwhile, at Berkeley I started drawing from old master drawings, particularly DaVinci’s drawings of old men. Halfway through the term, I realized that drawing and looking at art books was more important to me, so I dropped out. Even though there was a thriving figurative school—the Bay Area painting scene included, for example Richard Diebenkorn, David Park, Elmer Bischoff, and others—I didn’t have much to do with them. But it was in San Francisco at the City Lights Bookstore that I met Allen Ginsberg, whom I later introduced to the New York poet Joel Oppenheimer. In any case, I was out of school for a good ten years, from 1945 to 1955 painting by myself, at which point I finally came back and got my BFA at Berkeley. I returned to New York and enrolled at Hunter College for an extra sixty credits: studying with Fritz Bultman, Ray Parker, and Robert Motherwell. Fritz bought my first drawing and both Ray and Motherwell were supportive.
Rail: Before college didn’t you go to Townsend-Harris High School, the elite three-year high school that was housed on three floors on what is now Baruch College?
Drexler: Yes I did. That school was ended by Mayor LaGuardia! He didn’t trust elitism.
Rail: During the war, I believe 1943.
Drexler: Right. He also ended burlesque in New York, another grievous sin. Otherwise, he was a good man. During a newspaper strike he read the Sunday comics over the radio to children, which is one of the best things he did. Anyway, while I was there I met friends that I kept all my life, including photographer/film-maker, William Klein. The journalist/ Newsweek editor Jack Kroll, and art collector Al Ordover. In 1956 I became friends with Elaine and Bill de Kooning and Franz Kline while hanging out at the Cedar bar.
Rail: Right. Are you still in touch with William Klein, who lives mostly in Paris?
Drexler: Oh yeah. Whenever he comes to New York.
Rail: His “Mr. Freedom” made during the Tet Offensive in May 1968 in France was such an amazing political farce.
Drexler: Although Klein didn’t get the backing he needed, because there was a period where he could have done bigger things. His documentary on Muhammad Ali (aka Cassius Clay) is however a great film. But his latest movie, a really great film called “Handel’s Messiah,” hasn’t been released yet in the US.
Rail: I agree. So was “Who Are You Polly Magoo.” Anyway, what sort of painting did you do in those years?
Drexler: My earliest painting was a still life of an onion plant, followed by a landscape of a church steeple that I could see from my apartment at 109th street. I remember doing a painting of my sister asleep. At that time I was influenced by Matisse and preferred Matisse over Picasso, a position that has become somewhat less sure. An artist who encouraged me was Martin Nelson, and I remember meeting Abraham Walkowitz who may have been nearly blind and in his nineties sitting in front of his painting of Isadora Duncan at MoMA. I was also influenced by Roger De La Fresnaye’s “Conquest of the Air,” a painting in the lobby of MoMA. I loved Rouault and Modigliani. Let’s not forget Giotto and Rembrandt.
Rail: Yeah. In addition to Walkowitz’s early abstract cityscapes, which I think are marvelous, there are more than five thousand drawings that he did of Isadora Duncan.
Drexler: [Laughter.] Oh, that’s marvelous! I didn’t realize there were that many!
Rail: I think he met her through Max Weber in Rodin’s studio.
Drexler: I also met Earl Kirkham, whom I asked for a letter of recommendation for my Fulbright application. He said, “Sure I’ll be happy to write a recommendation.” And his recommendation read, “Give this young man—a worthy young man, a Fulbright. It never hurt me.” But they didn’t give it to me [Laughter.] When I did receive a Guggenheim in 1966, however, I immediately quit teaching, which I had done in various New York City schools. I taught Junior High School English, and then I got a job teaching art at the High School of Music & Art. Before that I taught art at North Brother Island to narcotic addicts where I first met the young poet Frank Lima who begged me to allow him not to paint in my class. He was influenced by Keats and Shelley and had not yet found his real voice. I lent him books by Tristan Corbière, François Villon, and William Carlos Williams. When he showed me his new poems I showed them to Frank O’Hara and Kenneth Koch. They got him a scholarship to Adelphi University and he was born again. My last teaching job was at City College. I was there for sixteen years before I retired. I needed the money and the security it offered but over thirty years of teaching was enough. Alex Katz once told me a great story about leaving the Stable Gallery, and I said, “You’re not there any more?” and he said “No, no, I gave Eleanor Ward two of my best paintings.” And I said, “Let me understand this: she says get lost, and you give her two of your best paintings?” And he said, “Well now I’m in her collection along with de Kooning, Pollock, and Kline. I’m telling you this so you can know how to be successful.” I realized I was going to have a very tough time because I wasn’t that wise or forgiving. It was kind of Alex to tell me that however!
Rail: Wasn’t Tom Hess a supporter of your paintings?
Drexler: Yes. He liked my work, and included me in a review he wrote for New York Magazine about five painters he called Bywaymen who were not following the mainstream. The five men were myself, Alfred Jensen, Jan Mueller, Aristodimus Kaldins, and John Wesley. While working at North Brother Island I arranged a show of students and New York artists at the Roland DeAenelle Gallery. The New York Artists included Franz Kline, Bill and Elaine de Kooning, Marisol, Kaldis, and others. It was a small but powerful world. Interest in the arts crossed over: theatre, music, dance, and film. I remember Bill and Elaine going three nights in a row to see Alfred Jarry’s “Ubu Roi.” They not only liked the play, they thought it important to support a small theatre.
Rail: When in fact did the figure arise in your paintings?
Drexler: Right from the beginning. When Andy Warhol visited our apartment on 14th street, he exclaimed to his entourage, “Look at all these paintings of female nudes! They’re everywhere. Aren’t they marvelous!” Then he turned to me and asked seriously, “Where did you get the idea?” A question I could never adequately answer. I remember doing a large white figure enveloped in blue based on an early photograph of Gertrude Ederly emerging from the English Channel in 1926. The picture belongs to the Worchester Museum in Massachusetts. The presence of a direct mysterious single figure has always fascinated me. There is also another painting of mine at the [Hirschhorn]: a black figure descending into a black ambience. Difficult to photograph. Plan to see it in person.
Rail: One of the most pronounced characteristics of your painting is that you make big paintings look intimate and small, and the small paintings look quite monumental. At least from what I’ve seen from your one man show at Mitchell Algus in 2005, and what you’ve been doing in your studio recently, I feel there are elements in your work that can be made in reference to what was going on among those figurative expressionist painters of the fifties, and I don’t mean just the expressionist side like Larry Rivers, Grace Hartigan, Lester Johnson, but also the cool and reductive side that included Alex Katz. However, while I think of your paintings as having certain similar concerns for architectural space that appear in Jan Muellers’s and Bob Thompson’s paintings, and sharing the same absence of gravity as in Alex Katz’s work, they reference a much earlier moment in time. Katz’s aesthetic sensibility has always fed off the most current trends in imagery derived from popular culture: billboards, films, or fashion magazines, Thompson appropriated old masters in his bold colorful paintings, and Mueller brought a certain medieval presence to his new expressionistic paintings. You however have gone significantly further back in time beginning with cave paintings. When did that fascination begin?
Drexler: It may have initiated with a course I took while I was at Berkeley, but later when I discovered paintings in the late sixties it all came together as one big experience. I was just completely overwhelmed by how wonderful and breathtaking it was. In some ways, I responded strongly to it because I wanted my work to have the same inevitability and naturalness which doesn’t happen that frequently since I work and then rework most of my images. I move things around, and a lot of layers of paint get buried underneath, which as a whole compose the surface. I admire a painter like Myron Stout who could paint a simple U shape and keep working on it endlessly. It was so important to him, of course, to think about the closeness of the edges and the space between the shape. If you look carefully at his paintings you can see the delicate tinkering that he does with the brush, and one feels that each painting would take months—even years—to finish. I also feel a not-so-strange kinship with Milton Resnick. Although Soutine meant a lot to me, I remember that de Kooning had said: “Carry Soutine in one pocket, and Mondrian in the other pocket. And then you’re okay.” [Laughter.]
Rail: I also find that whether your paintings are thinly painted as in some large paintings like “The Embrace,” “Empty Center,” or “Large Figure in Black,” or smaller sized, including “Mother and Child,” there’s a perpetual process of building up or adjusting the image which requires prolonged meditation. This quality is what amplifies the urgency of purpose in your paintings, which reminds me of Albert Pinkham Ryder, a painter whom I know you love.
Drexler: Yes. Actually, when I saw Ryder’s paintings it was the same feeling I had seeing cave paintings. I felt they were just total marvels: ineluctibly made and eternally locked in. I have always been amazed that his reputation is not widespread in Europe. I used to feel that I had to marry Ryder to Rothko but it may be too daunting a task.
Rail: How do you go between painting thinly and thickly?
Drexler: With the large painting I would sometimes stop for various reasons if I liked what was there. But with some of the little ones I’d pick them up years later and continue to work on them. So it wasn’t deliberate in either case. It all depends on what each picture requires, and you just have to follow it, and trust your instincts.
Rail: Do you make drawings before the paintings? Or do you actually find that the image emerges while in the process of painting?
Drexler: I do both. I recently painted on a house painter’s used drop cloth. I tacked it onto the wall because, like what Da Vinci said, that the artist can find images from stains on walls. It’s the same thing I do with the found pieces of stones, slabs, and rocks, and wall fragments I paint on.
Rail: Right. So when did the inclusion of animals come about?
Drexler: Pretty much the same time I visited Lascaux, Altamira, and numerous other caves in both France and Spain during the mid-eighties. Rosalyn Drexler, Elaine de Kooning, and Rose Slivka were part of our small group. Horses always meant something to me. The bisons, bulls, and stags are equally amazing. In other words, instead of dreaming about the female figure, animals would just emerge naturally. I like to be taken by surprise. I have an early painting of myself hopping on one foot. I’ve also been working on a series of prints and paintings based on an incident in Brooklyn where a young man had stripped his clothes off and was ranting at the police and at the world in general. He was on the fire escape only ten feet from the sidewalk clutching an eight foot flourescent tube. The police were waiting for an air bag and it never arrived. They tasered him, thinking he would crumple on the fire escape and they could then take him to the hospital. Instead he became rigid and fell straight to the sidewalk landing on his head. He died. The whole situation was a tragedy. The lieutenant who had ordered the taser was totally remorseful. He shot himself the next day: a double tragedy.
Rail: That’s terrible. Did you have any relationship with Dick [Richard] Bellamy?
Drexler: Yes. We were all living on East Broadway. Sheindi, his wife at the time, had a sort of salon where everyone would come. Dick and I would talk a lot. He arranged for a show of mine at PS1 in 1984. Elaine de Kooning bought a few pieces from that show, and two small pieces were stolen from the wall.
Rail: How did you meet Rosalyn [Drexler]?
Drexler: I came back from Berkeley with a lot of attitude. I had a California accent, and an interest in sports. I had played basketball at City College, and I had this loosey-goosey walk imitating a black high-jumper named David Albright. I was with a friend from Townsend Harris, Rosalyn was with her friends, and our two groups bumped into each other in Van Cortlandt Park. At first she thought I was gay, but after I said I was an athlete she said, “Oh, an athlete. Feel this thigh.” She was dancing a lot at the time.
Rail: So that did it. The touching of the thigh tied it all together?
Drexler: You bet. We really fell for each other and it was wonderful. Our first kiss lasted twenty minutes and I thought I had died. I remember clearly that it took place on Riverside Drive. We rolled down the hillside almost onto the highway without letting go of each other. Just like a French movie.
Rail: You mean New Realist movie?
Rail: In any case, do you feel that the emergence of the figure coincided with your meeting Rosalyn?
Drexler: It did and it didn’t because I had been thinking about figures from an early age. I did drawings of a tennis player called Alice Marble and a diver and swimmer Annete Kellerman which somehow fed right into my later interest in the figures on Pompeii walls, as well as the Venus of Willendorf.
Rail: Pompeii walls and the Venus of Willendorf were both very important to early de Koonings. I am also aware of your deep connection with Rousseau, and as Rousseau famously said to Picasso at a banquet, “We are two of the greatest living painters of our time. You, Picasso, in the Egyptian style, I in the modern.” Although you’re a trained painter you also have a strong affinity toward the self taught artist.
Drexler: I’m glad you mentioned that, because I just saw this marvelous movie about Seraphine [Louis] and her relationship with Wilhelm Uhde, the German born art collector and dealer. Yolande Moreau who played Seraphine gave the best performance I’ve seen in years. It’s a thrilling movie about a self-taught artist, and when I went to see it at the Lincoln Plaza the movie was on the left side of the theatre and my prints which have been there forever were hanging on the right. Anyway, Uhde was a significant figure in the career of Rousseau, and it was he who really advocated for self-taught artists. I’ve always felt that they lived in a state of grace like James Castle whose work I recently discovered at the two simultaneous shows at Knoedler and Ameringer Yohe. In some ways Castle, an illiterate deaf-mute, had a perfect family who loved him and didn’t let people get in his way. All he could do was see and make those profoundly emotional drawings.
Rail: They hold an amazing tonal range: there is a subtleness to all the objects included in the picture, but at the same time a visceral sense of abstraction which is quite stunning.
Drexler: It’s really wonderful that someone could approach what Seurat did with light and dark and gray.
Rail: Yes. But Castle is more physical in that he constantly spat and rubbed material on paper to make his work.
Drexler: I do the same with my drawings, especially with the paintings on those rocks and slabs.
Rail: Is it true that you were a member of the Cargo Club, and if it is, when did this begin, and why?
Drexler: [Laughter.] I love the idea of the New Guinea tribesmen watching wonderful stuff rain down from the sky with no way to account for it. Suddenly there was food, refrigerators, radios, and toys and every other object in the world, all to outfit the American soldiers who were there during WWII. They thought for instance if they could build a replica of a plane out of grass and twigs the bonanza would continue. Similarly anybody devoting himself or herself to art is in a way waiting for the heavens to open up, but that doesn’t mean that everyone would understand their mission. For instance Hilton Kramer’s review in the NY Times, of the King Tut show at the Met [in 1978] said “There is one small alabaster lion with a red tongue lolling out, in exceeding bad taste.” So I rushed to the museum, and there is this eight inch alabaster lion with a five inch tongue. [Laughter.] Years later at the Roger Smith Hotel he gave a talk about his life as an art critic: how it was onerous job, but with so much mediocre art to see it was never easy. When he was all done and asked for questions, I said, “I see in your pursuit of mediocre and bad art, you have found something in the King Tut show to criticize. And you said that this alabaster lion with the red tongue was in bad taste. How could you have said that? That’s the most idiotic statement I’ve read, on so many levels.” And he said, “I don’t remember.” And I said, “It was in the Sunday Times.” He seemed to be in physical distress, so I said, “But you were brilliant last week in dismissing the 1995 Whitney Biennial, and in criticizing Klaus Kertess for his curation.” After a pause I added, “I could think of no-one who would do a worse job than Klaus other than you.” The audience applauded, and I sat down. Critics and artists don’t often share the same bus.
Rail: Sometimes because of the inner necessity that dictates your work—which involves moving against the current, and opposing conventional wisdom—you are often subject to being misread by your contemporaries.
Drexler: That was what happened to Philip Guston, a painter I totally admire, when he began to paint figuratively. After his show at Marlborough in 1970, everybody, with the exception of de Kooning attacked him.
Rail: Even his old friend Morton Feldman.
Drexler: Did I ever tell you about the Japanese calligrapher Hasegawa meeting Feldman?
Drexler: Well once Tom Hess took Hasegawa who was in his ceremonial robe, to the Cedar Tavern to meet Kline, Pollock, and de Kooning, and Feldman was at the table. As soon as he was introduced to Feldman, Hasegawa bowed, and said, “What are you young American Composers doing now?” Feldman, proudly said, “In America we have created silence.” and Hasegawa replied, “Ah—in Japan we have created deep silence” [Laughter.] Feldman didn’t know how to respond to that remark, so he took off for the men’s room. While he was gone Hasegawa turned to the table and said, “Insufferable young man, I just made that up.” [Laughter.] Feldman was being pretentious to the wrong person. He did buy an early painting of mine, but when he and his wife divorced she destroyed all his possessions including his clothes, and my painting. She didn’t realize my painting was innocent! Morty and I were ushers at our friend Harris Rosenstein’s wedding to Sheila Engler.
Rail: Among the painters of the younger generation are there any whose work you respond to?
Drexler: I like Chris Martin’s work. He works in plenitude and doesn’t self-censor. What is so appealing about Martin is that he allows himself to be a little awkward and confused, but there is so much energy. It was nice to see his first show at Mitchel Innes & Nash, which stirred up many young artists. You can see why they responded to his freedom. I think that is something we all want. Now, where I am in my own career, I’m just grateful that I’m still excited about my work. I’m still fascinated with the trance-like state I reach while painting. In the same way the cave painters gazed at animals—with such total embrace—I now gaze at the human figures in my paintings.