American Painter and Sculptor
Summary of Audrey Flack
Following an early, and comparatively successful, flirtation with Abstract Expressionism, Audrey Flack turned to figurative self-portraiture, a change in direction that was a response in part to challenging personal circumstances. Once her domestic situation had improved, however, Flack moved away from the 'self' and addressed herself to the object world using the copying, tracing, and enlarging methods associated with the aesthetics of Photorealism. Flack's new-found success was such that she became a highly revered and established figure within the art establishment. But rather than try and repeat her greatest triumphs, Flack turned to sculpture as a means of exploring issues of history and female representations, chiefly through the three-dimensional figure of the classical goddess. Latterly she has returned to two-dimensional work using painting and printmaking in her quest to rework the heroic - post-modern - female figure.
- Moving away from the large-scale gestural abstractions that marked the very beginnings of her career, Flack turned to narrative subject matter via a series of authentic self-portraits. Having formally studied anatomical art, Flack took her lead from no less a figure than Rembrandt, producing what were unadorned self-examinations typically realized, like Rembrandt, through sombre, earthy tones.
- As she moved into Photorealism, Flack turned her gaze onto the outside world. She achieved the photo-real effect by projecting, tracing, and re-coloring real historical events onto over-size canvases. She also produced Vanitas works - traditionally still-life paintings featuring religious and moral symbolism - through which she brought iconic photographic images from the past into new relationships with everyday perishables and chattels. Flack would often use an airbrush as a means of bringing the burnished gleam of advertising to her subject matter thus lending her art a dramatic, hyperrealistic quality.
- Turning her attentions to three-dimensions, Flack used sculpture as a means of exploring ideas around the politics of female representation. Her new female icons were typically based on ancient mythology - Medusa (1989) and Sofia (1995) for instance - only reimagined by Flack for the post-modern age. She brought her figures into the contemporary sphere through many self-conscious and kitsch allusions to pop culture. Her sculptures contested the idea of mythical and archetypal representations of women by making her figures instantly relatable for contemporary spectators.
Progression of Art
Abstract Force: Homage to Franz Kline
At the start of her career, Flack became immersed in the Abstract Expressionist movement. While still a student at New York's Cooper Union, Flack joined the Artists Club in Greenwich Village, becoming one of a select group of women to become directly involved in the Abstract Expressionist scene. Her expressive, yet ordered, paintings captured the movement's zeitgeist and the brave creative spirit that lay behind her early paintings was widely acclaimed. Most influential amongst her early supporters was the Bauhaus artist Josef Albers. It was he who persuaded Flack to take up a scholarship at Yale with the mission of shaking up the institution's stuffy academic reputation. Although her studies would lead her away from abstraction toward realism, the principles of structure and form in her early paintings would stay with her throughout her career.
Flack once recalled a conversation she had had with Franz Kline who she questioned on his black and white abstractions: "I remember saying to him once, 'How about using color?' Because I love his work. He... said, 'Maybe yellow. Yeah, maybe I'll use yellow.'" Abstract Force then becomes a response to that conversation: an homage to Kline's black and white abstractions to which she brings her own preference for vibrant color (with yellow hues). Flack achieved this gestural abstraction through a series of broad, angular brushstrokes that form a tight, grid-like structure across the picture plane. The image does not only invoke Kline however. One sees here Flack's stated admiration for the likes of Picasso, Braque and Gris who emerge as a secondly reference to the Cubist technique of deconstructing symmetrical patterns.
Oil on canvas - Collection Norman and Sherry Bunin, New York
Self Portrait (The Memory)
In this intimate self-portrait Flack paints her own image with muted, sombre tones and anxious, agitated brush marks. With one hand on her hip and the other jutting forward she appears confident with her identity as an artist. Gazing outwards at the viewer, she has a contemplative expression. Between 1952 and 1960 Flack painted a series of self-portraits which borrowed their sombre tone from Rembrandt's work. We find this connection not only in the subject matter but in the use of earthy colors also. Elements of Flack's previous expressionist style had by now developed into narrative, figurative subject matter, which she painted by looking into a mirror. Her numerous portraits of the time document a journey of artistic and personal exploration. This painting - subtitled The Memory - was made just after Flack's father had died. In painting her own image Flack subverts the traditional male/female role of voyeur/muse by performing both, her aim being to break with the stereotypical image of the glamorous 1950s American woman.
Oil on canvas - Miami University Art Museum, Oxford, Ohio
John and Jackie Kennedy are seen here leaving Dallas airport on November 22, 1963, just moments before his assassination. Flack wrote: "People were horrified at the subject matter. Everybody is smiling, and, of course, you know that one moment later Kennedy is going to get shot.'" The couple sit in the back of a convertible car surrounded by security and airport staff, waiting to make their ill-fated parade through downtown Dallas. Flack reproduced this scene from a color newspaper photograph of the Kennedys published at the time. Caught squinting in the glare of the Texan sun, the Kennedy's, accompanied by state governor John Connally, appear relaxed and happy, unaware of the momentous tragedy (and historical event) which is about to unfold.
Close inspection reveals the potential for a sinister reading of the image; Connally's hand is seen slipping inside his jacket while an ominous shadow is cast across John Kennedy's torso. Flack was one of many artists who moved beyond the introspection of abstraction towards the re-staging of popular imagery and culture. However, in the 1960s, and even in the wake of Pop Art, it was still considered divisive for 'proper' artists to directly copy photographs. Whatever one's view on the meaning of 'original' art. Audrey Flack's Kennedy Motorcade ranks as an innovative example of a Photorealist style that invites the spectator to reflect on the very ontology of art. On a personal level, meanwhile, Photorealism allowed Flack the freedom to push beyond the confines of her own life story and to look outward into the wider world for thematic stimulus.
Oil on canvas - Private Collection
In Flack's still-life, Marilyn Monroe is remembered in what could be a shop-window memorial. The two Marilyn portraits are black and white and, like the childhood photograph of Audrey and her brother that sits between them, the photographs sharply contrast with the intense colors that saturate the other objects that make up the shrine. Behind the two portraits of the Hollywood icon, we see a page from a biography that tells of Marilyn's sexual self-awareness and how, moreover, through the 'power' of make-up a woman could "paint oneself into an instrument of one's own will". Given the faded monochrome photographs, the melting candle, the draining hourglass and the over-ripened fruit, Flack's Marilyn possess a symbolic lament to the waning of memory and very possibly the loss of innocence.
Flack took her inspiration from the 17th century Vanitas tradition, where the still life is composed of objects that relate to the fleeting 'vanities' of life. Red lipstick, powder, perfume and jewellery can be read, on the one hand, as emblems of Marilyn's public persona but they act also as universal symbols that speak of the superficial and fragile nature of vanity. Flack's Vanitas are brought into the 20th century through the introduction of modern day objects and photographic imagery, producing what she termed "narrative still lifes". These images are painted with a level of exaggerated realism (or hyperrealism): the various textures of delicate rose petals, shiny fruit and transparent glass meticulously copied here from still-life photographs, taken by her neighbour and erstwhile colleague Jeanne Hamilton, of Flak's own studio arrangements. The use of the airbrush to produce rich, sparkling veneers were very unique and thus career-defining and helped secure Flack her rightful place amongst the leading Photorealists of the 1970s.
Oil over acrylic on canvas - University of Arizona Art Museum, Tucson
World War II (Vanitas)
In another of her Vanitas, Flack addresses the connected questions of memory, the Holocaust and the friability of human life. Rather than a Hollywood icon (Marilyn), this time Flack places her objects around a reproduction of Margaret Bourke-White's famous black and white photograph of the Buchenwald Concentration Camp liberation of 1945. Bourke-White's image forms the backdrop for a selection of juxtapositions featuring ephemeral and permanent emblems, while the text, at the bottom of the frame, is reproduced from Jewish religious teachings. Like the pocket-watch at the top of the frame, the organic items - a rose, decaying fruit, cake, a butterfly, and a burning candle (perhaps a memorial or yahrzeit candle) - represent the impermanence of this world. The permanent, luxury, items - silverware and pearls - are drawn rather from Flack's personal possessions and these lend the image its basis in Jewish culture and relate, indeed, to Flack's own religious and personal background.
It was not the fashion amongst post-modernists to fully explain their art, but of World War II Flack suggested that the red candle was intended as "a memorial to bridge time between 1945 and the present, to burn always in the present". Indeed, Flack utilizes modern technology and work methods in the service of centuries-old artistic concerns and subject matter: making momento-mori ('Remember you, too, will die') for the post-modern era. This painting ultimately speaks of contrasts, of death, of life, and even of beauty but its abiding message is one of resilience and survival.
Oil over acrylic on canvas - Private Collection
Islandia, Goddess of the Healing Waters
Islandia is a five foot sculpture of a winged pagan goddess. We see that her right hand is triumphantly raised, while her left is outstretched, and her right leg, bent in contrapposto, gives Islandia a classical, strident quality. On Islandia's head sits a crown of roses, repeated in the peaceful floral offering in her outstretched hand. Opulent gold drapery falls from her hips and over her bent knee, recalling perhaps the Venus de Milo, while iridescent wings owe a debt to the Nike of Samothrace. These historical references coexist with Islandia's modern jewellery and the figure's dramatic surfaces.
Flack had abandoned painting by this stage in her career, choosing instead to focus on a series of goddess sculptures that could represent modern femininity - through defiant, strong and independent female deities - in all its progressive forms. In realizing her goal, Flack delicately subverted various classical art conventions ranging from ancient mythology through to Victorian Neoclassicism. She envisioned the character of Islandia - her own creation - as a shamanistic figure with powers of healing: a goddess who rules a tranquil utopian matriarchal island with profound benevolence. Flack has in fact made several sculptures based on the character, including one permanently installed in the New York City Technical College in Brooklyn, where students will rub her knee for good luck. Speaking of her sculptures in Art in America, writer Patricia Mathews observed that "Flack merges the symbolist trappings of the idealised female with the unmistakeable allusions to contemporary woman, using gendered symbols, self-conscious poses and emblems of pop culture".
Polychromed and gilded plaster - Samuel P. Harn Museum of Art, University of Florida
Biography of Audrey Flack
Audrey Flack was born in Washington Heights, New York in 1931 into a middle-class family. Her parents were Eastern-European emigres and, so she would become a successor to the Jewish tradition and culture, young Audrey was taught Hebrew and attended Jewish camp during the summer holidays. At junior high school, however, Flack was a restless and disruptive student and as punishment she was often sent to a desk in the corridor where she was given pencils and paper to keep her occupied. Somewhat ironically, it was through her expulsions from class that she discovered her vocation. Flack had found a sense of purpose in art and she duly graduated to "class artist" making calendars and art displays for the school. On a more personal level, Flack had become so entranced by the swimmer-cum-actress Esther Williams that she made a diorama in her heroine's honour. Her admiration for iconic female figures would serve her well in her later career too.
Education and Training
Aged 13, and still disillusioned with high school, Flack successfully applied (submitting a series of pencil drawings on typewriter paper and copied faces from newspaper photographs and advertisements) for a place at the Music and Art High School in New York City. She attended the school for four years (until 1948). In 1945, meanwhile, Flack's elder brother, Milton, returned from WW2. The siblings were obliged to share a bedroom in the family home and while Milton was stricken with posttraumatic stress - "he always had his gun with him. If you came into a room at night when he was sleeping. Oh! Out came the gun" Flack recalled - all the while the budding artist was honing her interest in fine art, taking a special interest in the work of Pablo Picasso, Juan Gris and Georges Braque.
In 1948 Flack went to study art at The Cooper Union in New York, graduating in 1951. There she was taught by Nicholas Marsicano, one of the founding members of the legendary Greenwich Village Artists' Club, a weekly gathering of up-and-coming artists. Flack was one of a small number of women invited to join. Abstract Expressionism was the style du jour and Flack was enamoured by the likes of Franz Kline and Jackson Pollock, even producing large scale abstractions that followed in their footsteps. Despite her near infatuation ("those abstract painters were like gods to me"), Flack did not take to the charged masculine milieu in which she found herself. Her escape route was through the Bauhaus artist Josef Albers who persuaded her to study for a Bachelor of Fine Arts at Yale University. While at Yale, Albers encouraged Flack to move beyond expressionism and to bring a political dimension to her paintings. However, Flack felt there was still some missing elements to her training. As she put it: "I had this burning desire to draw like a master" and on graduating in 1953, she moved to the Art Students League to study human anatomy with Robert Beverly Hale. It was here that Flack began painting solid human figures with a blunt realism.
Flack produced her first significant works while still a student at The Cooper Union. Her early abstracts were inspired simultaneously by the spontaneity of Kline and the formalism of Braque and Picasso. She came to personal artistic maturity however in the 1950s through a series of self-portraits, influenced this time by the 'old-master' Rembrandt, which document her own journey of self-discovery. This was in fact the most difficult of times for Flack who shared her small apartment with her first husband, who was himself pursuing a career as a composer and cellist, and their two daughters, Mellissa, who was autistic, and Hannah. Flack struggled to combine the roles of wife, working mother and artist. "I don't know how I did it," she recalled later, "I remember painting Kennedy Motorcade [in 1964] when Melissa was 4, and Hannah was 2. They were running around my feet [and] I had no help."
The apartment's living areas doubled as Flack's studio and she would often paint in the middle of the night. Flack said of her painting that it was "the thing that kept [her] sane". Nevertheless, Flack's eleven-year marriage broke down in the late 1960s, leaving her as a single parent and even more heavily reliant on the sale of paintings and private commissions to make ends meet. Changes in her personal circumstances instigated a second shift in her artistic focus. For the first time Flack began to paint socio-political commentaries, painstakingly reproducing documentary photographs of people from all social strata at a time when directly copying photographs was still considered, from a fine art point of view at least, somewhat fraudulent. Women featured prominently - as teachers, nuns, migrant workers, activists and even movie 'sex goddesses' - in her work and towards the end of the 1960s Flack made an important breakthrough with Farb Family Portrait (1969-70) through which she had achieved a new level of realism - or Photorealism - by projecting a photograph onto her canvas which she then traced using unnatural, animated colors.
On a trip to Spain, meanwhile, Flack fell under the spell of the work of the 17th century sculptor Luisa Roldan, whose Madonna sculptures she copied more-or-less by the same process, only now Flack intervened by giving the Madonna tears. The unique combination of painted perfectionism and emotionally charged content defined a unique, personal style for Flack and it was this combination that brought her "sudden and intense fame". Flack herself observed the irony that her interest in Christian iconography had lead some commentators to assume that she must be a Catholic. That misunderstanding notwithstanding, the Madonna/goddess iconography paved the way for a series of airbrushed Vanitas paintings, which followed in the Baroque tradition through arrangements of personal objects, mementoes and family photographs. During this time Flack was included in two highly influential exhibitions: Twenty-two Realists, at the Whitney Museum of American Art in 1972, and, in 1975-6, Super Realism at the Baltimore Museum of Modern Art. In 1977 she accepted an honorary doctorate from Cooper Union. The 1970s also saw Flack marry Bob Marcus, a commodities trader and adoptive father to Mellissa and Hannah: "Bob's coming into my life really saved us all" she said.
In the early 1980s, Flack, by now a firmly established figure within the New York art establishment, published a book, Art and Soul and Audrey Flack, and accepted invitations to lecture at the Pratt Institute, New York University's School of Visual Arts, and at Cooper Union. The latter honoured her with the Saint Gaudens Medal in 1982. It was during the same period that Flack abandoned painting to focus instead on sculpture, a medium in which she was self-taught: "Our society is fragmented, empty, and falling apart", she said, "I wanted to make solid objects, things that people could hold on to".
Meanwhile her affiliation with powerful women came to the fore as she strived to challenge the idea of, what the art historian Thalia Gouma-Peterson had called, "male centred mythologies". Flack's work focused on the theme of female deities and goddesses with the aim of resurrecting women who have been either demonized or neglected by history (historicism). Her iconography was drawn from classical tradition, ancient mythology and feminism and she combined these symbols with fruit, foliage, drapery and emblems of modern American culture such as guns, aeroplanes, and military figurines.
More recently Flack, who still lives with Bob (her husband) in Manhattan, has returned to working in two dimensions. Her drawing, printmaking and painting continues to explore the theme of heroic female figures. Her time in the studio is split however with academic responsibilities. She currently holds the post of honorary professor at George Washington University and as visiting professor at the University of Pennsylvania. She is currently represented by the Louis K. Meisel Gallery in New York and the Hollis Taggart Galleries in Los Angeles.
The Legacy of Audrey Flack
Though it does her aesthetic reach a considerable disservice, Flack is best known for her contribution to the Photorealist movement of the 1970s, taking her place alongside the likes of Malcolm Morley, Chuck Close and Wayne Thiebaud. Her celebration of female icons and archetypes has also invited comparisons with the Pop Art of Andy Warhol, Tom Wesselmann, and Roy Lichtenstein. Indeed, Flack announced herself on the international art scene at a time when the assumption that the modern artist could produce truly original art was being seriously interrogated. The Greenbergian elitism that had accompanied Abstract Expressionism had all but given way to the idea that the avant-garde might be better served if, rather than try to rise above it, the artist in question was free to engaged with popular culture. Thus was born the age of postmodernism.
As a female artist, Flack is celebrated for her strength and candour in producing outlandish and unabashedly emotive works of art. Her asserted femininity puts her in sharp contrast to the afore mentioned Photorealists who - self-consciously it must be said - produced more disengaged images of everyday life (such as cars, boats and shop fronts). Flack's appropriation of mass media imagery produced with the glossy veneer of advertising, pre-empted in fact the appropriation art of Richard Prince and the Pictures Generation. Meanwhile, her lavish visual indulgences of color, light, and form, and her revivals of Baroque, Rococo and kitsch traditions, was to have an especially profound effect on the American Neo-Pop artist Jeff Koons. One might add, finally, that Flack's early interest in self-portraiture, when read as a means of addressing themes about contemporary female identity, contributed towards a paradigm shift in modern (post-modern) art. Flack might then be held up as a trailblazer and spur for artists such as Cindy Sherman and Gillian Wearing who explored their own identities through costume or disguise.