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