Audrey Flack – 3 for 1: a rare lady in the front ranks of postwar American art

  • A pioneering, intriguing, industrious and singular artist.
  • A long career in three distinct phases: one of abstraction (early 1950s), then two of extravagant opulent realism.
  • So she leaves a long trail of clues, provoking images.
  • Her career repeatedly acknowledges her gender, but in her own way, confidently not stridently.
  • Her sculptures (phase the 3rd) assert, remind us of, the age-fold female principle, and why not.

tues 23rd june 2015

Summary

Audrey Flack is a rare lady operating in the first division of an American art world dominated by men.

And she is still there, not out, after a working career now exceeding six decades.

It would be hard to find another major modern artist who has worked in a sequence of career phases of such contrasting content.

Ms Flack is an original, a creative force, evidenced by her pioneering reaction in the mid 1960s to the prominence achieved by Abstract Expressionism (AE) in the 1950s, when she abandoned it -dramatically, diametrically – for Photorealism, then shifting abruptly a second time, to sculpture, in the mid 1980s.

She is an intriguing, engaged intelligent artist, energetically responding to, reflecting, commenting on the world around her. She is therefore polemical, but not stridently.

She is also Jewish, but whether this matters, bears on her work in any way, is unclear?

Much of her later work, in phases 2 and 3, responded emphatically to her gender, the careful Photorealist still life assemblages, then especially the sculptures of phase 3, among which there are no men.

Thus Ms Flack obviously brings a clear female dimension to her Photorealism and her sculpture. It is the predominant theme.

And legitimately because it is an important dimension, and can only come from a woman?

But Ms Flack resists the “Feminist” label, perhaps because it comes with baggage? She prefers to work as Audrey Flack the person, the artist, in her own distinctive way, rather than formally associating with any movement?

The Photorealist images are more intimate, personal, while the sculpture, especially the public commissions, are deliberately speaking to a wider audience, asserting the age-old female principle and reminding us not to forget it, in a world still largely run by men, applying their generally aggressive “over the top” life template.

She was obviously reminded of this early on. Notwithstanding the presence of a few women, the New York AE scene was obviously dominated by men. And one of the leaders, now the most famous, reminded her one night of a dark aspect of the male pre-eminence when under the influence (as he often was) he tried clumsily to seduce her.

It was a reason to move on, to find her own art space. But not the main reason? She was too bright, too inquisitive, to spend the rest of her working life flogging the same horse, especially abstraction, like many of her prominent male contemporaries did, like the interesting Canadian, Jean-Paul Riopelle. Or the more famous Willem de Kooning, Robert Motherwell, and Barnett Newman? Or, dare one say, Franz Kline. Or Richard Diebenkorn? Or even fellow ladies Helen Frankenthaler and Joan Mitchell! As a result her total oeuvre is far more interesting than otherwise.

 

Abstraction phase

As an artist born 1931 into a middle class Jewish family, raised and partly trained in New York and commencing her journey in the late 1940s when Abstract Expressionism was on fire there it’s not surprising she jumped on board, and created many works around 1950 and the next few years which sit confidently among works by the leading “gestural” AE painters. The main difference is simply that her paintings were mostly not quite so big.

But you could argue that her 1950s “AE” oeuvre, despite her youth (1949-53, ie aged only 17-23?!) as a totality offers a far more interesting range of content – in its variations in style of abstraction – than many of her famous contemporaries.

We see coarse, lyrical, calligraphical abstraction, including ”the homage to Franz Kline”, and denser “gestural” lattice abstraction, after Pollock.

And early on (1952) she lobs in a more than valid figurative semi-abstract self portrait.

Notice too she gives all these images descriptive titles, whereas many AE painters retreated to numbers. And in some images which prima facie appear wholly abstract she alludes – with apparent contradiction- to the inspiring representation, like “ abstract landscape with clouds” or “daybreak”.

She compares very well with the few other ladies in the AE space? Though officially she rates very low on the Google search scale. Four come to mind, Janet Sobel (1893-1968, an undersung pioneer), Lee Krasner (1908-84, Pollock’s wife), Elaine de Kooning (1918-89, de Kooning’s wife!), Grace Hartigan (1922-2008), Joan Mitchell (1925-92) and Helen Frankenthaler (1928-2011). And some I did not know, Alma Woodsey Thomas (1891-1978, African American), Ethel Schwabacher (1903–1984), and Hedda Sterne (1910-2011, died at 100! Only lady among the 1950 Irascibles).

 

The crazy art market

The art market is about art but it is also a lot about fashion, the Madness of Crowds, marketing efforts by artists and their financial supporters (ie especially galleries, but also collectors), and the collective economic, social and political circumstances which bring all these together.

High prices for some artists are easier to comprehend – like for the leading Old Masters (though very few of these appear in say the top 100 results), and for leading early Modernists (like Manet, Cezanne, Van Gogh, Gauguin, and Picasso) – than others.

But the stratospheric prices paid for the post WW2 US sale room stars – especially the Abstract Expressionists and the POP artists – obviously reflect a degree of collective patriotic fervour among the buyers, the world’s richest economy patronising home grown painters.

But here the market is fickle too. Thus below we see the top selling paintings by Pollock (US$148m) and Franz Kline (US$48m), alongside Ms Flack’s wholly admirable and valid contemporary images, but on sale recently in NY for a small fraction of the main men, eg US$250,000 for the main work (Homage to Franz Kline), and only US$25-50,000 for each of the rest!!

But Ms Flack is near unknown as an AE painter, because she was young (and a woman?), and especially because way back then in the 1950s for whatever reason her art was not pitched commercially.

 

Photorealism

Flack: “As the only woman artist in the groundbreaking Photorealist movement, I broke the unwritten code of acceptable subject matter. Photorealists painted cars, motorcycles and empty street scenes. Cool, unemotional and banal were the terms used to describe the movement. My work, however, was humanist, emotional and filled with referential symbolic imagery. ….. These works were attacked and berated for their feminist content but this very same type of subject matter has found its way into the mainstream. Vision has changed.

Ms Flack’s sudden pioneering plunge into Photorealism (alongside Chuck Close, Richard Estes and many others) in the 1960s was partly influenced by her formal training in the Old Masters, including exposure to master-realist artists like the Flemish Hans Memling, the late Gothic German firebrand Grunewald, and the late 15th C late Gothic Italian realist Carlo Crivelli (eg well offered by the National Gallery London), and the 17th C Dutch realists, particularly painters of moralising detailed still lives.

Following her gender she also took an interest in two 17th C female artists among the Old Masters’s realists, from both sides of the Baroque spectrum, the sculptor Louisa Roldan from Catholic Spain, and the successful Dutch painter Maria van Oosterwyck who left us many still lives with flowers and some Vanitas images.

At Yale she trained with prominent European emigre abstract painter Josef Albers, who encouraged her shift to “realism”?

But her Photorealism also mirrored the emergence of POP Art, which also turned its back abruptly on the abstruse indulgence of abstraction to focus instead on the world under their nose, in POP’s case, modern consumerism.

Two of Ms Flack’s early Photorealist images are now among her mostly highly rated. The Kennedy Motorcade (1964), based on a photo, is one of the earliest such images, oozing foreboding atmosphere, the shadow across Kennedy and man front seat looking at us from eyes hidden by his hat. The Farb portrait, painted from a photo she took, was commissioned and the assemblage also invites scrutiny, including the boy holding a camera to us and the painted frame.

Later, in the 1970s she painted many elaborate detailed hyper-realist still lives, carefully contrived compositions, most from photos, most reflecting a feminine perspective (like Marilyn, also Chanel and Pretty Woman), all thoughtful and all referring back to realism from old Europe, including 3 paintings in the 1970s collectively labelled “Vanitas” (Marilyn, the Wheel of Fortune, and World War 2), applying the popular old Dutch Vanitas template to our world, like the careful iconography displayed in the allegorical World War 2, down to a butterfly (she read how butterflies populated Auschwitz afterwards).

NY Times’ Hilton Kramer was not enthused: “kitschy still-lifes based on blow-ups of gaudy color photographs.”. Which does not mean they are not art. And mostly they were not kitsch. After the 1960s you’d think he’d have known better. Important expat UK critic Lawrence Alloway understood, “credited Flack with the reinvention of the still life”, would the man credited with labelling POP Art.

Some say her “ironic kitsch” images influenced Jeff Koons, like Strawberry Tart Supreme? Only Koons then made the crucial creative breakthrough of making the subject BIGGER (like Pollock and the AE boys), and in 3 DIMENSIONS!

But “kitsch” fits Koons’ work much better than that of Ms Flack?

Among these dense images she suddenly in 1974 (age 43) parachuted in a large (realist) thoughtful Self Portrait of the pensive artist, and her brush hand? Another followed at age 50, but now we see the right hand and a parrot.

In1966 she became the first photorealist painter to be “collected” by MOMA.

 

Sculpture.

Flack (c2010): “For the past 25 years, I have been creating monumental statues of female deities. .. sited in cities all over the United States. Tired of Generals on horseback wielding swords, I feel these images of powerful, intelligent females will present the female principle and restore balance to a male dominated world.”        

From the mid 1980s Audrey Flack loosed the second dramatic creative shift in her long career as an artist, now almost completely abandoning painting for sculpture, though the theme, the thread of staunch realism was maintained.

She warmed up with smaller scale works then began receiving a series of much larger scale public commissions, starting with the1988 project commissioned by Rock Hill, South Carolina for 4 x 20’ high statues, called“Civitas”.

Her statues, mostly in metal, are all striking and realistic and colourful, in an extravagant decorated style where some critics see the influence of 17th C Baroque sculpture, like Rome’s prodigious giant Gian Lorenzo Bernini, and also of her Spanish lady sculptor.

But her figures, while colourful, are too restrained and formal to really speak of Baroque? However we do see association with say fin de siecle Art Nouveau?

The subjects typically reference female goddesses or other mythical female figures, including Athena and Medusa from the old Greeks.

An amusing if frustrating experience was the fate of her winning a prize to sculpt the Portuguese wife of England’s Charles II, another lady, to stand 5 stories high by East River! But it was spiked by her husband sailing too close to the slave trade.

Robert C Morgan (2010): “She has taken the signs of indulgence, beauty, and excess and transformed them into deeply moving symbols of desire, futility, and emancipation.” Now you know!

Ms Flack’s immediate artistic response to the assault on NY’s WTC Twin Towers on 9th September 2001 was a series of simple watercolors, offering a scene of sunny watery East coast calm, in utter contrast to the appalling events. Which might be seen as escapist? Or reaffirming civilised ways?

Herewith illustrations…………….

ah-art FLACK audrey wse precis

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