Abstract Expressionist painter Lynne Drexler toiled in obscurity for decades, much of it on a remote island in Maine. In the 10 years after her death in 1999, a few regional auction houses and middle-class dealers discovered the artist and developed a five-figure market for her work.
Then, just this year, the auction market for Drexler’s work exploded. At a Christie’s New York mid-season sale in March, Drexler’s painting Hundred bloomed (1962), estimated at $40,000 to $60,000, soared to $1.2 million. (It was reportedly acquired by Amy Cappellazzo’s newly formed advisory firm Art Intelligence Global on behalf of a client.) Another work, Keller Fair (circa 1959), sold for $69,300 against a high estimate of $15,000.
Christie’s broke that record just two months later Herbert’s garden (1960) reached $1.5 million (his high estimate was $100,000).
“What is happening there?” wondered our columnist Katya Kazakina. Before 2020, none of Drexler’s paintings had sold for even $10,000 at auction, she noted.
The Artnet Price database lists just 30 results for Drexler’s work and eight of those, or just over 25 percent, sold in 2022 alone.
The larger canvases, especially from the years 1959 to 1962, are “quite rare,” said Andrew Huber, Bonham’s head of sales for postwar and contemporary art in New York. For example, what cost $50,000 in 2015 would be very different today: “They weren’t given away, but now $50,000 could be $500,000.”
Drexler studied under Hans Hoffmann and later Robert Motherwell while living in New York. She would often Carnegie Hall with her sketchpad and drawing while listening to the symphony. “Then she goes back to the studio and delivers [musical] work,” Huber said.
Last week, Bonhams sold a major Drexler work at auction in Los Angeles, Grass symphony (1962). With an estimate of $500,000 to $700,000, it was the highest price ever placed on a Drexler painting. It just sold for $1 million.
With Grass symphonyBonhams included a group of Drexler’s works in a recent sales exhibition of female artists that closed September 9. Bonhams said the sale received “really strong sales and interest” but does not disclose prices from private sales.
Some observers speculate that Drexler was overshadowed by her husband, the painter John Hulbert, who was supported and recognized by major New York galleries during his lifetime but whose star has since faded.
Despite her talent and dedication, “the recognition never came and no one picked her up, aside from a group show here and there,” Huber said, and she eventually left for Maine.
In 1983, after Drexler moved full-time to Monhegan, a small, rocky island off the coast of Maine with a year-round population of just 64, according to a 2020 census, she painted every day.
Along with her now prized abstract compositions, she was known around town for her tourist-friendly depictions of sailboats and lobster boats.
Her home was filled with rolled up, unstretched paintings that were only discovered after her death. It was then that people began to take a closer look at her skillful brushwork and vibrant palettes that drew comparisons to Joan Mitchell and Jackson Pollock.
Now that the work has been revealed, we can expect to see a lot more of it this fall.
Berry Campbell, representing the Drexler estate, and Mnuchin Gallery, organized a two-venue show, titled “Lynne Drexler: The First Decade,” which featured the artist’s first solo exhibition in New York in 38 years. It contains a curated selection of paintings and works on paper dating between 1959 and 1969, including works on loan from public and private collections, together with some never-before-seen works from the estate.
The show is organized into two chronological sections: Mnuchin Gallery will display paintings from 1959 to 1964 and Berry Campbell will display paintings from 1965 to 1969. Both are open from October 27th to December 17th.
At the same time, Art Intelligence Global is including Drexler’s work in a Hong Kong exhibition titled “Shatter: Color Field and the Women of Abstract Expressionism.”
“The market is still at the beginning of what it can do,” said Art Intelligence Global partner and Drexler collector Saara Pritchard. “There is a critical mass of the art world who have never even seen her work in person, apart from the handful of pictures that were up for auction. And there hasn’t really been any serious scholarship since the Portland Museum of Art show [in 2008] and there have not yet been any real offerings of a large enough number for collectors to truly understand who this artist is.”
So why do the works resonate so much with viewers and collectors today? “There’s this thing in the air where people love a discovery,” Pritchard said. “Especially when it comes to the story of female artists. She has such a powerful story that resonates so well and is so well known.”
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