The New York Times called Jolie Madame the ugliest painting of the year. No, it’s the ugliest painting of the decade, chimed in another critic. During the podium discussion on Picturing America at the Deutsche Guggenheim, Audrey Flack laughingly recounted the harsh reactions that her paintings triggered in the seventies. But why did the works of the sole woman among the Photorealists provoke critics so much? The movement’s protagonists were not, of course, among the favorites of critics who considered themselves progressive. In the aftermath of Abstract Expressionism and Minimal Art, it was considered regressive to paint not only in a representational mode, but in such painstaking detail. But Flack was guilty of an even more deadly sin: "I painted what was around me and what I was interested in. This was then deemed "feminine" subject matter. I just happened to be a woman," explained the artist in an interview following the artist’s talk.
Jolie Madame is indeed a slap in the face of every Minimalist. Flack’s arrangement of fruits, cupids, glittering necklaces, jeweled pins, rings, chalices, and vases is a cross between baroque vanitas and store-window display that’s hard to top; the large-scale painting is a tour de force of brilliant color and glittering reflections. The 1931-born artist takes 17th-century Dutch still life painting and lets it collide with a commercial airbrush aesthetic.
It is the symbolic level of her assemblages that makes Flack’s paintings diametrically opposed to those of her male colleagues and their sober, impersonal motifs of cityscapes, cars, and motorcycles. Added to this is their emotional content; one of the rings in Jolie Madame was a present from her husband, and in Queen (1975–1976), a medallion bearing photos of the artist and her mother reveals a clearly autobiographical aspect. Among the insignia of female power and beauty, such as a dew-covered rose or a playing card bearing the Queen of Hearts, one can sense the presence of personal objects harboring intimate memories.
In 1974, Flack further intensified the high-gloss aesthetic of Jolie Madame in her painting Chanel. Against a cool light blue, glittering pearls well up out of a highly polished silver pitcher on a metallic surface so shiny it looks almost fluid. The colors of make-up, nail polish, and lipstick stand out in the composition: bright red, metallic blue, lemon yellow, and violet. And there’s also the iconic bottle of Chanel No. 5, of course—and all of it larger than life. Years before Richard Prince and the artists of the Pictures Generation appropriated mass media imagery and the aesthetic of the advertising industry, Flack’s painting appealed to the same subconscious feelings and promises appealed to in perfume ads and glossy magazines: sexual desirability, wealth, seduction. And, of course, femininity. But this is precisely where Flack remains equivocal. While Chanel could be read as a cool, ironic commentary on the prevailing gender roles, almost all of her still lifes evince a degree of identification with the subject material. She is seldom as distant as she is in Chanel. Frequently, as in Jolie Madame or Leonardo’s Lady (1975) from the collection of the MoMA, one can sense her combining female force with the more traditional feminine attributes of beauty, secrecy, poetry, and seductive power. In Flack’s universe, women might be self-determined, but they develop their strengths within the classical roles: as magician, high priestess, mother, muse, or mistress.
Audrey Flack is quick to stress that she’s never considered herself a feminist artist. Despite this, the painting Marilyn (Vanitas) (1977) was included in the most important exhibition of feminist art to date, WACK! Art and the Feminist Revolution, which was shown at the MOCA in Los Angeles and at PS1 in New York. Viewed alongside Ana Mendieta’s photos documenting her body performances and Maria Lassnig’s ruthless self-portraits, however, Flack’s homage to Norma Jean seemed somehow alien.
This had less to do with her stance on feminism or the allegorical meaning of her subject matter than with the unique way in which she infuses a "cold" painting style with emotion while questioning the "objectivity" necessary to Photorealism by arranging her image material to suit her own purposes. Juxtaposed with a joy in the act of staging that occasionally borders on nostalgia and kitsch is a deep sensibility for light, color, and a total reduction of subjective painterly gesture. Flack’s subjective and narrative elements remain as though behind glass, while the surfaces of her paintings are perfectly smooth.
This becomes particularly clear in paintings that leave out the allegorical aspect altogether, such as Strawberry Tart Supreme (1974), in which a slice of chocolate cherry roll, lemon meringue pie, a cup cake, and a coconut ball are arranged around a strawberry tart covered with a glossy layer of gelatine. The painting itself is like "eye-candy;" you see what you get in the truest sense. Works like these seem to anticipate the aesthetic of Jeff Koons; objects blown up to huge proportions and the flawless surfaces of consumerist products that are as seductive as they are repulsive bring to mind Koons’ series Easyfun—Ethereal (2000-2002). Flack also sees these parallels: "Many people have commented that Koons was influenced by my paintings and particularly my sculpture. I agree. When I saw his first sculpture show I thought, "Well, he has seen my work."
Flack created her first sculptures in the early eighties, and has concentrated on this medium ever since. Her work consists almost exclusively of female figures, goddesses meant to embody spirituality, strength, and beauty. The sculptures, some of which are monumental in size, combine baroque influences and the academic tradition of the 19th century with Art Deco elements and Las Vegas kitsch.
Flack began her career in New York in the early 1950s with non-objective painting, in the style of the dominant movement of the time, Abstract Expressionism. "Pollock was my hero and I still think he did incredible things in art." But a personal encounter with her idol proved to be rather sobering: "I was sitting in a bar and Pollock came in. He was drunk, unshaven, his face was all red. He recognized me from the Artists' Club. He came over and tried to kiss me. I wanted to talk about art with him. He started to pour his heart out. He was sick of the critics, sick of the art world, and sick of Peggy Guggenheim. He saw something young and vulnerable in me and wanted to go home with me. That night I made a vow never to go back to the Cedar Tavern again." She not only took leave of the bar, but from Abstract Expressionism itself, whose macho gestures seemed depleted to her. At Yale, Flack studied with Josef Albers, with whom she frequently fought because she refused to adopt his austere geometric style. Back in New York, she regularly met with a group of young artists that included Philip Pearlstein to draw figuratively. Her role models were the old masters Memling, Grünewald, and her favorite, Carlo Crivelli. On the other hand, she found little inspiration in her contemporaries. "There were representational artists around. They had not really learned the language of Modernism, were not aware of abstract thought. Even though we were "realists," we were aware of all this, we were schooled in this."
Flack’s works became increasingly figurative over the course of the 1950s. When she began using a camera to record her painting motifs, it caused a rift with her artist friends. Starting in 1962, she made paintings from photographs of her family as well as paintings based on newspaper photographs that picked up on current social events such as the assassination of John F. Kennedy and the civil rights demonstrations, a movement she felt close to. The photographic impression of these works remains countered, however, by a simplified representational style and a visible brushstroke.
>From this point on, Flack used realism as a tool that enabled her to represent highly complex themes; it was a language that everyone understood. This anti-elitist attitude runs throughout her entire oeuvre. "I want my work to be universal," she explained in a conversation with Cindy Nemser in 1975. "I believe that people have a deep need to understand their world and that art clarifies reality for them." In addition to Flack, the American critic also interviewed influential women artists like Eva Hesse, Louise Nevelson, and Sonia Delaunay for her book Art Talk.
The Farb Family Portrait, the basis of which she photographed herself, proved to be Flack’s artistic breakthrough. While painstakingly transferring the motif, she came up with the idea of projecting the photograph onto the canvas, thereby bypassing the preliminary drawing and speeding up the working process. She adorned her first truly photorealist painting with a painted gold frame on which a small sign reads "FAMILY PORTRAIT, 1969-70, AUDREY FLACK." A self-portrait made in 1974 also demonstrates a mature sense of artistic self. The large-scale painting was unique in its time—no woman artist had ever painted her portrait on such a monumental scale before. The painting clearly demonstrates that Flack had finally found her true artistic identity. "It was a time when the Women’s Movement was emerging. We were beginning to take control of our lives." While working on the self-portrait, however, she exaggerated a little in her attention to detail: "I painted every blemish and scar on my face and when I stood back to gain perspective I could see that the painting was hideous. Then I said, I’m going to give myself a little of the make-up in Chanel. I looked like "Scarface" Al Capone. So, I picked up my airbrush and smoothed my skin until it glowed."
Audrey Flack was thoroughly accepted among the Photorealists. The influential critic and gallery dealer Ivan Karp, however, dismissed her work because it did not correspond to his definition of Photorealism as a cool, anti-emotional art movement. As a result, she was not invited to participate in important Photorealist exhibitions. But Flack unerringly pursued her own path. Breaking the Rules was the apt title of her retrospective that toured through the US in 1992/93. "I did break all the rules. First I broke the rules by copying. All the Old Masters copied, but in those days young artists were not supposed to take anything from anyone. Using a photograph, using a projector, using an air brush–that was all "breaking the rules." And without wanting to break the rules I broke the biggest rule and that was using different subject matter. I was not trying. I was just being who I was."