At 92 Years Old, Photorealist Painter Audrey Flack is Having a Moment

Ars longa, vita brevis cautions the banner above Audrey Flack in her recent Self-Portrait with Flaming Heart (2022). The formidable nonagenarian artist, whose art career and life have in fact been enviably long (especially compared to the crowd of Abstract Expressionists she once rolled with), presents us with a Sacred Heart set afire. If one of her idols, Albrecht Dürer, could paint himself as Christ, then surely she can cast herself as the Virgin Mary, as she does here with her Star of David pendant symbolizing that she is also a Jewish mother. A crosshatched halo crowns her head and two Pre-Raphaelite women flank her in a sky of Marian blue, like saints.

The ‘drip technique’ scarf around Flack/Mary’s neck may not strike you as matching the cherub-filled frame, but she’d likely tell you to deal with it. As is often her wont, she braids together flyaway strands of her ars longa practice. “Her work has evolved by saturating the canvas with ideas, myths, styles, color, and humor,” says Monica Ramirez-Montagut, executive director of the Parrish Art Museum. “It is like each painting is a survey of her career on its own.”

Audrey Flack, Self-Portrait with Flaming Heart, 2022

Flack has always experimented with self-portraiture and, among other things, is known for fusing the personal with the art historical and the present with the past. She dubs her recent work (including this self-portrait) her “Post-Pop Baroque” period, in which she appropriates images of pop-cultural figures like Elizabeth Taylor and Superman, and places them in opulent surrounds.

Together with 15 other Post-Pop Baroque paintings, Self-Portrait with Flaming Heart will be on view this month in “Audrey Flack: With Darkness Comes Stars,” a one-person show at Hollis Taggart gallery in New York. The exhibition is titled after Flack’s new memoir, With Darkness Came Stars, published by Penn State University Press. In October, Flack will have a show of work from the 1950s to the present at the Parrish Art Museum in Water Mill, New York.

Now 92, Flack is having a moment. This wasn’t a given, considering she’s always gone against the grain. She was figurative when abstraction and minimalism were ascendant; she used airbrushes when fine artists wouldn’t touch them; her still lifes of lipstick, roses, and beaded necklaces didn’t match the cars and trucks that her fellow Photorealists were painting. And when she decided to be a sculptor all of a sudden, her sculptures were polychrome.

Audrey Flack, Madonna della Candeletta (Someone in Brooklyn Loves Me), 2021–22

In her memoir, written in Flack’s unmistakably no-nonsense voice, she describes growing up in a Washington Heights apartment where reproductions of old master paintings lined the walls. “The people in these paintings became my friends,” she writes, remembering the bulbous-nosed grandfather by Ghirlandaio above their green velour sofa (next to a Rembrandt and Van Eyck’s Arnolfini Wedding, no less). Though her mom loved these reproductions, Flack’s family wasn’t particularly arty, and it was a surprise when she got accepted into the High School of Music and Art, and then Cooper Union in 1950.

This was at the height of Abstract Expressionism, and Flack mingled with the more established abstract expressionist painters living downtown. Though interested in the work that Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning were making, she ultimately steered clear of Cedar Tavern and its scene. “Art was the most important thing in my life, but I wasn’t going to let it kill me,” writes Flack. “I wasn’t attracted to testosterone-fueled aggression and out-of-control drinking. So I stayed on the outside of the inside, looking, listening, observing, learning.”

Audrey Flack painting at Yale University

After Cooper Union, Flack studied under Josef Albers at Yale. Initially an abstract painter, she increasingly felt drawn to the work of the old masters, becoming first a New Realist and then, in the 1960s, a photorealist. Abstraction did stay with her though, she claims. Her photorealist still lifes have a tilted picture plane and packed patterns that extend to the edges of the canvas, which are both concepts informed by Abstract Expressionism.

Flack moved back to New York, where she became part of a drawing group in the early 1960s that included artists such as Philip Pearlstein, Alice Neel, Joyce and Max Kozloff, and Raphael Soyer. When she wasn’t drawing from a model with them, she increasingly painted from photographs that she took herself. She converted the bathroom of her studio into a darkroom and taught herself to print her own color photos, something not all photorealists did.

While her peers focused on shiny cars and motorcycles, Flack painted lipsticks and compacts, jewelry and glassware: the everyday stuff of her life. Paintings like Jolie Madame (1972–73) are crammed with sparkly or reflective tchotchkes. This set her apart from the other photorealists and also drew criticism from the growing feminist movement that she was too over-the-top feminine, and therefore, unfeminist.

Audrey Flack, Jolie Madame, 1972

At some point in the early 1970s she received a postcard in the mail from Whitney Museum curator Marcia Tucker of La Macarena, a 17th-century wooden sculpture of the Virgin Mary Madonna, in Seville, Spain. Flack was so taken with the sculpture that she made a pilgrimage to Seville to see it and while there, learned that its maker was a woman, Baroque sculptor Luisa Roldán.

“I didn’t care that this art was dismissed as lower-class kitsch,” Flack continues in her memoir, using a word that has been used to describe her own work. “I loved it.” The sculpture inspired a series of paintings, shown in a solo gallery show in 1972, with pieces going to private collections, as well as to the Whitney and the Metropolitan Museum (although all these years later, Flack is disappointed that the Met has only displayed their 1971 Macarena of Miracles once).

By the late 1970s Flack had completed her “Vanitas” series (1976–78), a major body of work that included three monumental paintings: Wheel of Fortune, Marilyn, and World War II. Packed with objects as varied as a framed black-and-white snapshot of the artist and her brother Milton as kids and a petit four pastry—these still lifes tackle the passage of time just like the 17th-century Dutch paintings that inspired them.

Audrey Flack, Marilyn (Vanitas), 1977

In 1980 Flack appeared in a group photo on the cover of ARTnews’s October 1980 issue, which asked (as a counterpoint to the landmark Linda Nochlin essay published a few years earlier) “Where Are the Great Men Artists?”(Flack is in the back row, second from the left, smiling at painters Isabel Bishop and Dorothea Rockburne.) She was also among the first women, together with Mary Cassatt, to be included in an updated edition of H.W. Janson’s History of Art textbook in 1986.

By this time Flack was well known. But few knew that, for much of her career, she’d been in an abusive marriage while raising two daughters—one of whom had severe autism. Flack ultimately left her husband, found a suitable environment for her daughter, and remarried. After two years of battling a creative block and depression in the 1980s, she returned to her studio and tried something completely different, experimenting with Plasteline clay. She locked herself in her studio and taught herself to sculpt. She sculpted for the next 10 years, with a particular focus on mythological women. Public commissions soon started coming.

Audrey Flack, Veritas et Justitia, 2007

In a recent interview over Zoom, I asked Flack if there’s a constant that ties all her work together—the abstract canvases and the figurative sculptures, the still lifes of banana split sundaes and Spanish Baroque Madonnas. She showed me a little piece of paper that she keeps in a holder on her desk. It’s a quote by artist, curator, and critic Robert Storr that she holds dear, and says he meant as a compliment. “Flack’s work is in overt defiance of good taste,” the note reads. Flack took that a step further, adding, “I don’t want to use the word because I don’t see it that way, but it’s kitsch. And what’s another word for kitsch? It’s something that people can relate to.”

Flack is already planning paintings that she wants to start after her two exhibitions have opened and her book is released. She is unwilling to disclose what they’ll be, but she does have this to say: “They’re not going to be over-the-sofa paintings.”


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