"Herbert's Garden," by Lynne Drexler. (Courtesy Christie's Images Ltd.)
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Fine art has no intrinsic or practical value. Its monetary value is based entirely upon what someone is willing to pay for it.

So when individual works of art by relatively unknown artists suddenly begin selling for prices normally reserved for houses, people start paying attention, especially in Maine.

Last year, artist Reggie Burrows Hodges, living in Lewiston at the time, suddenly got hot. He sold out shows in Rockland and New York and one of his paintings fetched a whopping $622,155 in an auction at Phillips in London.

Earlier this year, the Farnsworth Museum in Rockland placed one of its paintings by the late Lynne Mapp Drexler in an auction at Christie’s in New York. The estimated value was $40,000-$60,000. Even that might have been high for Drexler, an abstract artist from New York who spent her final years in obscurity on Monhegan. But her “Flowered Hundred” fetched almost $1.2 million when the bidding was over.

How does an artist’s work soar in value from a few thousand dollars to six or seven figures? The factors are many, but in the cases of Hodges and Drexler, the primary reason is a market correction.

Lynne Mapp Drexler

Drexler, who died in 1999 at age 71, studied with prominent abstract artists Robert Motherwell and Hans Hofmann. She was married to painter John Hultberg (1922-2005), who at one time was a major figure in the New York art world. When curators and collectors came to look at Hultberg’s work they usually paid little or no attention to Drexler’s.

“Lynne was ignored,” said gallerist Elizabeth Moss, who shows and sells Drexler’s work. “Her work didn’t sell when it was new because it wasn’t exhibited when it was new. It wasn’t deemed worthy by the galleries that were showing Abstract Expressionist art at the time.”

Drexler’s art has benefited from a somewhat less sexist 21st-century art market going back in search of overlooked and underappreciated women artists. Her paintings have always been big, bold, and beautiful, reading like thickly impastoed gardens of color. (Imagine Gustav Klimt was your gardener.) But it took 21st-century eyes to see their true beauty.

Elizabeth Moss Gallery in Falmouth mounted two Drexler shows in the past three years, selling some 60 paintings for between $15,000 and $60,000. One of the most frequent comments Moss hears from people who see Drexler’s paintings from the 1960s is, “They seem so now.”

The contributing factors to Drexler’s posthumous success are the market correction in favor of women artists, her paintings being fresh to the market, recent shows of her work in Maine and New York – and a celebrity collector never hurts: Singer John Legend and model Chrissy Teigen purchased a large Drexler and it was prominently displayed when their Los Angeles home was featured a few years ago in Architectural Digest.

Christie’s featured a second Drexler from the Farnsworth Museum in its May 13 auction. “Herbert’s Garden” was estimated at $70,000-$100,000; it sold for $1.5 million.

Museums cashing in on paintings it has been given raises eyebrows in some art circles, but Michael Rancourt, the independent art dealer who manages the Drexler estate, sees a silver lining in the Farnsworth selling off some of the art the estate gave it in 2002.

“The Farnsworth is going to have a tremendous bounty from those paintings that were basically worthless when they were gifted,” Rancourt said.

The museum plans to use the proceeds from the sale of two of its six Drexlers to purchase art by other women and under-recognized artists.

“The reality,” Elizabeth Moss said, “is that her work is great … and so is Reggie’s.”

"Bathers and the Cleansed: Pearl," by Reggie Burrows Hodges
“Bathers and the Cleansed: Pearl,” by Reggie Burrows Hodges, is part of “Down North,” Portland Museum of Art’s North Atlantic Triennial, through June 5. (Courtesy PMA/Luc Demers)

Reggie Burrows Hodges

Hodges was born in 1965 in Compton, California. He attended the University of Kansas on a tennis scholarship and then moved to New York where he co-founded the reggae dub band Trumystic. In 2008, he moved to Maine, where he has been an adjunct faculty member at Maine College of Art and Design.

Of Hodges’ seemingly meteoric rise in the art market, Suzette McAvoy, former director of the Center for Maine Contemporary Art, said “I know Reggie never expected this. It may seem like overnight success, but he’s been making art all of his life.”

Hodges’ stock has risen as the art market makes another correction, paying more attention to artists of color.

“In the last two years we’ve seen a rise in interest in African-American artists, a correction to the canon,” said McAvoy, who is working on a Farnsworth exhibition of another Black artist, the late Ashley Bryan.

Maine has played a major role in elevating Hodges’ work to prominence. Not only has he had a successful exhibition at Dowling Walsh Gallery in Rockland, but he also used residencies at Stephen Pace House in Stonington in 2019 and the Ellis-Beauregard Foundation in Rockland in 2020 to develop the distinctive style that catapulted him to the top.

“Yes, when I arrived at the Ellis-Beauregard Foundation,” Hodges told McAvoy in a published interview, “I knew that I wanted to break out of where I was as a painter and use this incubation time to land somewhere different, to be able to paint differently than when I came in. Through a lot of experimentation, I arrived at the language of the black ground, specifically in a painting called ‘The Red Umbrella.’”

A Black artist beginning each painting by painting a black background is a powerful trope. Hodges came to national attention after winning the Joan Mitchell Award in 2020. Then artist Ann Craven, who summers in Maine and owns a former church in Thomaston, introduced him to her New York gallery.

“That’s the Maine thing,” McAvoy said. “There’s never more than two degrees of separation.”

Karma Gallery then gave Hodges shows both in the Thomaston church and in New York. Among those who purchased Hodges’ paintings from the Karma show were Barack and Michelle Obama.

Sometimes it really is who you know.

Hodges will surely benefit from the market correction. His success, however, may have made him publicity-shy: Dowling Walsh Gallery said Hodges is not available for interviews and the gallery declined to provide images of his work.

Hodges’ work is currently featured in the Black American Portraits show at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. The solo show he was awarded as part of the Ellis-Beauregard residency opens May 28 at the Center for Maine Contemporary Art.

Drexler, meanwhile, never benefited from the small fortune her work is bringing 23 years after her death, but her reputation certainly has. When Drexler lived on Monhegan she bartered her art and sold small paintings to tourists for a few hundred dollars, sometimes less.

“Lynne would have been very happy,” Michael Rancourt said of what Drexler might think if she knew one of her paintings had sold for more than $1 million, “but she would also have been very concerned that people were paying that kind of money. She was very humble, but she had a true belief in what she did.”   

Edgar Allen Beem has written about art in Maine since 1978. He also writes the weekly Universal Notebook opinion column.