A key exhibition in the history of Pop Art was the “First International Girlie Show” in January 1964. This was the event that promoted works by Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein, Tom Wesselmann, Mel Ramos, Marjorie Strider and Rosalyn Drexler.
Drexler and Strider were the only women artists included in the exhibition. Though they provided a large percentage of the work on display, and received much of the critical acclaim, they never quite reached the international success that was achieved by Warhol or Lichtenstein. Strider became an important part of the New York avant garde, while Drexler went on to an award-winning career as playwright and novelist.
Born in the Bronx in 1926, Rosalyn Drexler graduated in voice from the New York High School of Music and Art. In 1946, she married figurative painter Sherman Drexler, and was the subject of many of his paintings.
After starting a family, Rosalyn opted for a brief career as a professional wrestler under the name “Rosa Carlo—the Mexican Spitfire.” Drexler didn’t enjoy her time wrestling, finding it painful and exhausting. Interestingly, Drexler’s career would later inspire Warhol to create a series of works based on Polaroids of her wrestling alter ego, and it also provided the basis for her own best-selling novel To Smithereens in 1972.
“Rosa Carlo the Mexican Spitfire, that was my name. When I came on everybody said things in Spanish that I didn’t understand. Probably it was ‘Kill ‘em’ or ‘Go get ‘em.’ It was a strange thing for a young woman to do. I was married, had a daughter, four years old.
“I went to the gym on 42nd St. I used to work out. The carney people used to work out there and wrestlers.
“These were show business people. I was learning Judo. I thought it’d be interesting to learn some Judo. I heard about a guy who was organizing a women’s wrestling team. It consisted of walking around in a bathing suit. They asked ‘Will your husband let you?’ So they called and they needed someone in Florida so I went.
“To Smithereens is a book about it. Now people are interested in wrestling and I can’t get the book re-published. The book was reviewed in the New York Review of Books. They said ‘There’s hope for literature yet.’ It was a rave.
Without any proper artistic training, Drexler started producing Abstract-Expressionist sculptures, which were first exhibited in 1955. By the late fifties, she progressed to painting, and exhibited her works alongside Lichtenstein and Jim Dine. Her technique was to enlarge newspaper photos and advertisements (such as Marilyn Monroe, gangsters, or a poster for the movie Konga), which she would then paste onto a board, create a collage, and paint over the top. The resulting pictures were powerful and arresting examinations on the human condition.
For example, Drexler’s series “The Men and Machines” examined the alienating, technological advances made during the Cold War, when a pushed button could wipe out humanity.
The series “Love and Violence” used B-movie images to critique the sexual and emotional relationships between men and women. One of her best known paintings “Marilyn Pursued by Death” (1967) shows the actress being chased by a weird looking man, who could be a member of the press or a stalker, but was in fact Monroe’s bodyguard, as can be clearly seen in the original photo. By focussing on the bizarre juxtaposition of the two figures, Drexler created a powerful image about fame, sex, desire and obsession.
While the male artists became the accepted face of Pop Art, the female artists like Drexler, Strider, Marisol Escobar and Letty Eisenhauer were shamefully sidelined.
As Drexler explained in the Art Blog in 2004:
“Women were not bankable at that time. Every other male artist… other galleries came along. I received no offers. In my naivete I thought it was because I was not a painter so I must make paintings.”
Drexler moved onto a career as a best-selling novelist and award-winning playwright working with Lily Tomlin, Richard Pryor and Alan Alda amongst others, winning an Emmy for her work with Tomlin.
When asked if she thought artists were born, Drexler replied:
“I have the same involved subconsious feeling – of belonging of being there – in the art…
“That’s really where I want to be. I feel like an expatriate – an interloper – as a wife, shopper, mother. I love being in my head. I amuse myself.
“Louise Nevelson once was asked when did she decide to be an artist. She said ‘I was born an artist. I’ve always been an artist.’
“I think so. It’s a different mindset. It’s a definite way of being.”
Now in her eighties, Drexler continues to write and work, though there’s not so much of the wrestling these days.