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Women in Art: Audrey Flack

While most artists incorporate the use of photography in their work, many won’t admit it. There’s a widespread belief that working from a photograph is worse than working from real life or from your imagination. As far as I can gather, the idea for most photography shunning artists is that it’s too easy to translate a 2D image to a 2D work, while the idea for most non-artists is that the photographic image is already in existence, so what’s the point?

To any photorealism shunning audience members, I ask you to suspend your disbelief for a short while, and take a look at the work of Audrey Flack:

Chanel, Audrey Flack

"Chanel" by Audrey Flack (1974)

"Wheel of Fortune" by Audrey Flack (1977-1978)

Interesting, isn’t it? And a style that, while naturalistic, I don’t think that you can claim is derivative of a photograph. A photo of a similar still life would lack the vibrancy, the sense of movement, the certain je ne sais quoi that this work has.

Audrey Flack is a photorealist (hyper realist, super realist…) printmaker, sculptor, and as we’ll be focusing on here, painter known primarily for her work throughout the 1970s and 80s. She is one of the founding mothers of the photorealist movement, and her work has helped to legitimize the idea of working from a photograph.

Even amongst the other pioneers of photorealism Flack encountered adversity. Her subject matter was considered too feminine, too emotional for the seemingly never-ending stream of masculine cars, empty and passionless streets, and coolly-toned portraits of her contemporaries. As Flack stated in regards to such criticism, “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”.  To an extent, I agree with critics on this. Flack’s work is arguably very feminine. The subject matter are objects generally owned by women and many of her paintings have feminist undertones. However, this became one of the main insults directed towards her work as critics and contemporaries insinuated that her paintings were somehow “too feminine” to be photorealist, too tied to her emotions to be compared to the work of Estes and Close. Which I personally find ridiculous. Many of Close’s paintings, in particular, are fairly emotional. Take a look at this portrait created around the same time as Flack’s “too feminine” paintings.

"Big Self Portrait" by Chuck Close (1967-1968)

I would hardly call this unemotional. I would also say that the portrait is highly masculine. The subject is looking down at us, placing himself in a position of power. His gaze could be read as one of contempt, as a cigarette (Masculine!) droops from his lips. Yet, are there complaints that this is too masculine? And for that matter, if artwork can become too feminine or too masculine then are we striving for androgyny? It seems as though only one end of our gender spectrum is considered unsuitable as a subject of art. In fact, I would claim that in the photorealist time period anything not decisively male would not be considered high art.

Of course, I can see how you could argue that this piece is not masculine in the way that Flack’s piece is feminine. And thus we get to the work of Tom Blackwell.

"Bond's Corner" by Tom Blackwell (1975)

"'34 Ford Tudor Sedan" by Tom Blackwell (1971)

It’s like we’re bathing in testosterone! Cars and bikes! Fuck yeah!

And yet, I’ve searched for criticism regarding Blackwell’s masculine subject matter. If it’s out there, it’s pretty difficult to find.

Audrey has a pretty apt reading of the situation as part of her artist statement (Available at the Brooklyn Museum’s online Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art):

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. Even deadly serious subjects like the liberation of Buchenwald in my paintingWorld War II were filled with feminine subject matter—silver trays, demitasse cups and pastries. 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.

Flack is right that the vision has changed. Many of today’s artists are creating work with a very feminine feel, and with very feminist messages! We can thank her for being one of the pioneers of such artwork. She is one of the many women who worked to make this possible.

Here’s another one of Flack’s paintings, one that has a number of interesting messages and symbols to decode!

"Queen" by Audrey Flack (1976)

Here's an image of Flack in front of "Queen" for size context. The piece is 80x80 inches.

We learned about this painting in particular in my high school art history class, and we spent a while trying to decode possible meanings in the piece. We see a ring that, as a present from her husband, serves to represent their relationship. Interestingly enough, this ring is present in another of Flack’s controversially feminine pieces, Jolie Madame. We are presented with symbols of woman’s sexuality in the blooming rose (Oh, hello again female genitalia represented as blooming flowers in artwork!) and the apple (Hi there woman’s burgeoning sexuality as represented by the biblical apple of Adam and Eve!), and with her fertility as seen in the orange (And potentially the pocket watch? Although that’s kind of a depressing message). We are also presented with symbols of female power in the Queen of Hearts and the Queen chess piece. The piece also contains photographs of the artist and her mother, which could be a display of the importance of women’s familial love and the connection between mother and daughter, as well as making the piece autobiographical. In my class we read this piece as a self-portrait. I tend to think of it whenever I encounter assignments in which we need to represent ourselves without making a traditional self-portrait.

Flack eventually departed from the heavily photorealistic works and moved towards Baroque-inspired portraits of women. After her photorealist paintings she is probably most well known for her sculptures; monumental portraits of women.

A lot of Flack’s later work is creating powerful depictions of women similar to the powerful depictions of men we’ve seen throughout all of history. We lack representations of powerful women in our artwork, and Flack attempts to fill that gap. Here are some of her sculptures:

"Civitas" by Audrey Flack (1991)

"Medusa" by Audrey Flack (1991)

"Queen Catherine" by Audrey Flack (1998)

"Queen Catherine of Braganza" by Audrey Flack (2000)

Flack’s work helped lay the groundwork for photorealism, feminist artwork, and the work of many current artists (notably Jeff Koons, whose shiny balloon sculptures are often compared to the luminous, monumental images created by Flack). While some deride her work as too feminine and emotional, others herald Flack as the mother of several movements. What do you think? Share your thoughts in the comments.

6 Comments

  1. Interesting introduction to an artist I’d never heard of before. The still-lifes have a Kahlo-esque quality almost in their color and wealth of symbolic detail. “Queen” definitely seems to me to be about the power of being an older woman. It’s exceedingly rare to find still-lifes by anyone that express much emotion, but these are different, they remind me of the spontaneously created memorials made collectively for people who died too young. I like the “Civitas” statue too, it definitely seems to be in the same vein as any number of women-as-allegorical-virtues statues from dead male European artists, but I like that genre a lot so no problem there.

    Reply
    • That’s a really great comparison; Kahlo and Flack do rely upon symbolism in a similar way, and their paintings are all incredibly vibrant.

      Emotional still lives are difficult to find. Flack is a great example to bring up whenever you need to talk about non-literal self portraits, or just still lives with meaning. You’re right to read much of her work as memorials, and you might want to check out one of her most famous pieces which I did not mention here, “Marilyn (Vanitas)” which is in part a memorial to Marilyn Monroe.

      Reply
  2. LT

    Melissa, I just keep loving your blog! You have such great insight, and you are bringing such interesting perspectives and topics out. Really fascinating and well-put-together.

    It is interesting that Flack moved into the sculpting the way she did. It is almost an “acceptable” way to create realistic femininity. I love the Medusa sculpture, and that last sculpture you pictured is amazing!

    Reply
    • Thank you so much! I’m really happy that people are enjoying this blog, I certainly enjoy writing on this subject.

      It seems as though a lot of artists move from painting to sculpture later on in their careers. I think it made sense as a progression from the Baroque-inspired paintings she was creating mid-career (You can see some of those on her site here). Interesting thought that sculpture was an acceptable way to present femininity; it seems as though she did face less criticism for feminine and emotional work following her change of medium.

      The Queen Catherine piece is probably my favorite of her sculptures. I love when artists post photographs of themselves next to their work, it’s crazy how much a little perspective affects how we view a piece!

      Reply
  3. Flack is in a league of her own. I can see where comparisons to Kahlo make sense, but in my mind, Flack’s work has much more depth and sensibility to it. One of my favorite paintings by her is “World War II (Veritas)”…a truly powerful and haunting image.

    Of all the hoo-hah surrounding Flack’s choice of subject matter, I never once took a look at her paintings and thought they were too “feminine”. I just thought they were vibrant, emotional and all-around outstanding works of art. She is a pioneer in many respects. Good post.

    Reply
    • I appreciate Kahlo and Flack in very different ways. As a biracial woman I can relate to Kahlo’s innovative symbolic imagery depicting her roots. Flack appeals more to my feminist side. I think both artists are creating very rich images, just in different ways.

      It’s a sad truth that women artists are often judged for having a “too feminine” subject matter. I think most people today don’t speak that way about her work (Although it is surprising how some people today react to “too feminine” artwork. There are a lot of college-aged boys who act like they can’t possibly relate to imagery of typically feminine toys!), but contemporary artists and critics certainly did. We’ll have to see how her work is considered in the future. Hopefully she’ll be remembered for a long time as one of the photorealist greats!

      Reply

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