Audrey Flack - Biography and Legacy
American Painter and Sculptor
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.