Ever heard of Lynne Drexler? Up to a couple of years ago, you might be excused for not knowing of her. Born in Newport News, Virginia, in 1928, Drexler moved to New York in the 1950’s and studied with noted modernists Hans Hofmann and Robert Motherwell. She was a second-generation participant in the Abstract Expressionist movement and had a solo show in 1961 at Tanager Gallery, a well-regarded artists’ cooperative gallery which was part of the downtown scene.
But that was pretty much it. She married another artist, taught at various schools around the country, and moved back to New York in 1967, becoming just another of the myriad artists working in the city without representation by a respected commercial gallery.
Drexler and her husband bought a summer place on Monhegan Island off the coast of Maine in 1971, and by 1983 she was separated from him and living on the island full time. She died there in 1999, leaving behind a studio full of paintings. Her auction results in the 15 years following her death were very modest, a few hundred to a few thousand dollars, selling mostly at New England auction houses. Since 2019, however, her market has exploded.
What’s going on? I was talking with a friend, an important collector and a money manager who brings the same finger-to-the-pulse awareness to the art market that he brings to the stock market. He has the courage of his convictions: he bought his Drexler painting privately in the low six figures a little over a year ago, paying over twice what the auction record for the artist was at the time. Since my friend bought his work, Drexler’s paintings have begun selling regularly at major New York auction houses for prices well into six and even seven figures. The Concert, an oil on canvas measuring about four-by-four feet, sold for $1,043,380 including premium at Sotheby’s Hong Kong earlier this month.
Drexler’s work is the subject of not one but two shows at important New York galleries at the moment, Berry Campbell Gallery downtown, and Mnuchin Gallery on the Upper East Side. There was recently a long article on her and her work in the New York Times.
How has a relatively unknown artist gotten so hot so fast? Some of it may be explained by savvy management by Berry Campbell, which handles the estate and had a large group of paintings to work with. Some of it is due to the fact that works by women artists are extremely hot right now (as are those by artists of color), as museums attempt to make up for a history of neglect. Some of it may simply be the result of publicity purchased by deep-pocketed dealers.
But why Drexler, instead of a number of other women artists of her generation who were talented painters and who struggled against the same male-dominated establishment? Any hot market raises doubt: is this a bubble which will burst, a market being manipulated by shadowy forces? Or will Drexler be placed firmly in the canon, as Joan Mitchell and Helen Frankenthaler have been, with her paintings continuing to sell for seven figures as theirs do? Time, as they say, will tell.
Back in the days of the Dot.com boom, a late friend of mine who had a seat on the New York Stock Exchange said to me, “Reagan, I don’t understand the valuations of most of these online companies. I’m hesitant to put a lot of money into them. But when a train is barreling down the track straight at you, it doesn’t do to put your hand up and say, ‘Stop! You’re not supposed to be on this track’.” He gambled a little in the new market, made a few bucks, and pulled out as the dot.com market began to tank.
Of course, with Drexler, no matter what you paid, you’ll have a beautiful painting to hang on the wall. No matter what her market does, if you love the work, you’ll win. But your win may not be a win measurable in dollars and cents.