Audrey Flack laughs when remembering that painter Alice Neel called her a whippersnapper in the 1970s. Far from a whippersnapper, Flack—a pioneering photorealist painter, sculptor of monumental bronze, and an artist who has works in museum collections ranging from MoMA to the National Gallery of Australia—still sees no end to her creativity. “Titian made art into his late 80s and I’m now past that. I always wanted to paint like an old master, or rather an old mistress,” she says just after celebrating her 90th birthday in May. “A radical contemporary old mistress.”
One of the oldest living first-wave feminist artists, Flack still feverishly works in her Upper West Side studio, realizing her passion for dizzying color and intense realism, often engaging the female experience. “I have many, many projects in my head,” the nonagenarian says, while showing me a recent rainbow infused portrait of Camille Claudel, Rodin’s model, lover and accomplished sculptor in her own right. “It’s so finite. I’m 90. There’s no holding back.”
Mindful of her legacy, Flack is currently accumulating her personal papers for donation to the Smithsonian’s Archives of American Art, a research center and the world’s largest repository for documentation about American visual art. She has been busy mining her home studio, which overlooks the Hudson River, for correspondence, old catalogs and exhibition lists, and photographs dating back to the 1940s. Among a clutter of paint jars, scattered colored pencils and drawers jam-packed with works on paper, Flack rediscovered a 1980 photograph, taken during a visit with the abstract expressionist Willem de Kooning in his studio. De Kooning, who famously depicted women with a brutal, aggressive brushstroke, still intrigued Flack for his energetic paint handling.
“This significant collection of the papers of Audrey Flack provides an extraordinary prism through which we can examine the historical and personal context of her life and work,” says Liza Kirwin, the Archives’ interim director. Flack made an initial donation of her papers beginning in 2009, with still more—a voluminous archive of project files, writings, notes and videos and photographs arriving this year. The collection, says Kirwin, shows “a remarkable body of work that speaks to Flack’s experience as a photorealist painter, sculptor, feminist, mother and powerful sorceress, who reimagined, redeemed and recreated archetypal and mythical images of women.”
The sole woman among the original photorealists of the 1970s, Flack made enormous paintings plumbing personal and socio-political issues, stereotypes of womanhood and the transience of life. Her male peers tended to coolly render neutral subjects such as cityscapes and cars. Flack, who boldly renounced her abstract expressionist training with Josef Albers at Yale University, found herself especially attracted to sensual pleasures—succulent fruit, luscious desserts and shimmering jewels crowd the flawless surfaces of her ambitious canvases.
Based on configurations of intimate objects arranged by Flack in her studio and then photographed, her first monumental photorealist still life, the 1972 Jolie Madame was executed with both underpainting and airbrush from a slide projected on a canvas. The six- by eight-foot painting celebrates traditional objects associated with femininity and female beauty. Glistening jewelry and the perfume bottle that lends the work its title reflect off a smooth dressing table, like sun on quiet water. Soon after its completion, Jolie Madame appeared in “Women Choose Women” at the New York Cultural Center, the first large-scale exhibition organized by women and only showing art by women.
Flack’s paintings depicting a cornucopia of pleasures were not always appreciated by critics. The New York Times critic Hilton Kramer labeled her as “the brassiest of the new breed, the Barbra Streisand of photorealism”—an aspersion that still stings.
Undeterred by sexist reviews, Flack has remained incurably and proudly committed to her feminine and feminist subject matter.
Believing that she had exhausted the possibilities of photorealism, in the early 1980s Flack surprised the art world by abandoning painting in favor of sculpture. She executed over-lifesize indoor and outdoor bronze sculptures of female goddesses, including Athena, Daphne and Medusa, along with invented deities. Always pushing against the standard, Flack offers these women as strong heroines rather than objectified figures.
When working on a large scale, Flack retreats to her spacious East Hampton studio. A recent seven- by seven-foot canvas, her first mural-sized conception in 30 years, riffs on Peter Paul Rubens’ exuberant 17th-century painting The Garden of Love. In Flack’s reworking, a Marvel-styled Superman and Supergirl break through glass sprinkled with gold glitter and lined with gold leaf as they enter Flack’s reinterpretation of Rubens’ Baroque composition. Those shards of glass signal the breaking of artistic barriers, the breaking of the glass ceiling, the entering of light and—idealistically—a new era of female equity.
Currently interested in “reclaiming the Madonna,” Flack envisions a multimedia solo exhibition with that title in a few years. “Jews don’t have a compassionate mother,” says Flack, born in New York to immigrant, Eastern European Jewish, Yiddish-speaking parents. “In the Jewish tradition we have strong women like Rachel and Leah but we don’t hear much about their mothering.”
Last I was in Flack’s studio, to talk about her upcoming milestone birthday and plans for her estate, she had me pose for an in-progress bust of the Virgin Mary. For nearly an hour Flack modeled the clay and eyeballed the measurements of my cheekbones and nose. While I sat still and silent, Flack sculpting with my face as her guide, she explained why she is especially moved by Mary’s relentless anguish. Flack views Mary as a Jewish mother whose despair over the death of her son embodies the grief she herself feels as a mother of an autistic child who never learned to speak. Flack says, “Mary in art screams silent screams of agony. I’m sort of Mary. A woman of sorrow for my sorrow.” She plans to make more images of Mary, a figure she painted several times in the early 70s, including Marcarena of Miracles (1971), which was acquired by the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Flack’s versatility and exuberance for new forms of creative expression took her to banjo camp in the summer of 2005. She has since become an accomplished banjo player who can frail and claw hammer with the best of them. Following her newest artistic muse, Flack formed a band, eponymously named “Audrey Flack and the History of Art Band.” Lead vocalist, banjoist and lyricist, Flack writes playful songs about art-related subjects and artists—among them Rembrandt, Van Gogh and Mary Cassatt—set to old-time bluegrass melodies. A CD was released in 2013.
A sampling of Flack’s lyrics for a song about Cassatt, one of a handful of female artists finally featured in the third edition of H.W. Janson’s longtime standard art history textbook, offers a case history for the plight of women artists:
Mary never got married
Stayed single all her life
She’d rather paint and sketch and draw
Than be somebody’s wife. . .
Because she was a woman
It took a lot more time
To have her work be recognized
Even though it was so fine.
A genius of the highest kind
We now know her to be
Mary Cassatt oh Mary Cassatt
You now made history!
So too, Flack has made history. While Cassatt is among the first cadre of woman appearing in Janson’s volume, Flack was among three then-living female artists to have their art in that revised text. She is rightly proud of this recognition and even more so because she navigated a successful art career while raising two children, mostly as a single mother.
Leafing through a binder of old negatives, slides and photographs, she also discovered a snapshot from 1993. She is with 16 other photorealists, all male, and one other woman, the wife of the leading photorealist art dealer Louis Meisel, who is also pictured. That memento calls to mind the famous Life magazine photograph of Hedda Sterne, the lone woman standing with her abstract expressionist cohort. The first photorealist work MoMA ever acquired, however, was not made by any of the men in the photo. Rather, Flack holds that honor. The museum purchased Flack’s 1974 six-foot canvas Leonardo’s Lady the year after it was painted. It was prominently displayed in the storied institution’s fifth floor gallery at its 2020 Fall Reveal.
Her walk down memory lane has not been without its challenges. Flack unearthed a typed letter on onion skin paper that she wrote in the late 1970s to art critic Vivien Raynor, who dubbed Flack’s work in a painful New York Times review as “horrendous,” and chastised the “vulgarity of her literal mindedness.” Flack passionately defended her art—purposefully narrative in intent, meticulous in technique, and meant as a rejoinder to what she viewed as an elitist art establishment dominated by abstraction. “The literal mindedness in my work that you refer to, is quite intentional, designed to reach an audience larger than the immediate art world . . . an audience that has been ignored and intimidated for many years.”
Yale University Art Gallery recently acquired her 1952 Time to Save, a painted meditation on life and death. Flack sees her career coming full circle. The school where she honed the craft of painting abstractly—and then daringly and unfashionably rejected abstraction in favor of a more humanist-centered art—will install one of her classically inspired paintings in its permanent collection gallery sometime in the 90th year of her life.
About the Author: Samantha Baskind is Professor of Art History at Cleveland State University.