Audrey Flack: Redemption Through Art

Ms. Flack’s mythological yet modern women have evolved over her long art world career.
Audrey Flack with her latest piece, “Self-Portrait as St. T­eresa.” A major exhibition of her sculpture, the first in 30 years, opens at the Gary Snyder Gallery in Chelsea on April 19. Bridget LeRoy

   On a temperate spring day last week, works of art from Audrey Flack’s light and airy studio in East Hampton were being gently borne to the Gary Snyder Gallery in the Chelsea district of Manhattan, where they will be on view from next Thursday through May 19. They range from tabletop size to flat-out enormous, and they all showcase Ms. Flack’s passion for the “sacred feminine” — the women heroes of mythology and religious iconography.
     Ms. Flack herself is in high demand these days. She lectured on Tuesday at Rutgers University, where some of her works on paper will be exhibited from May 19 through June 30, she will be honored at a Rutgers gala on June 3, and she will deliver the commencement address and receive an honorary doctorate at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts on May 11.
    The Gary Snyder exhibit will include a recent colossal sculpture of a woman’s head, constructed in clay and then transferred to fiberglass, of the artist herself — as St. Teresa.
    Ms. Flack said she had been taken by Bernini’s “Ecstasy of St. Teresa” and the way it portrayed “that beautiful moment between agony and ecstasy, between pain and joy.” Her desire was to capture that in the sculpture, which shows St. Teresa with a gun to her head, shooting out different ribbons of acrylic paint while tears stream down her face. “It’s a consummation of 80 years of pain and sorrow and joy,” she said.
    Ms. Flack’s mythological yet modern women have evolved over her long art world career. After studying at Cooper Union, Yale, and New York City’s Institute of Fine Arts, Ms. Flack found herself at the center of the Abstract Expressionist movement, and one of the few females welcomed at the now legendary Artists Club founded by Philip Pavia, Jackson Pollock, and Willem and Elaine de Kooning, among others.
    “Pavia made the coffee,” she said. “It was always thick and syrupy.”
    “I was in love with Pollock, de Kooning, and Kline,” she said. “Pollock was my mentor, my idol. We all talked about art. We didn’t care if anything sold. The point was simply to make a great work of art.”
    “Franz Kline came to a show I was in at the Tanager Gallery,” she said. “I had done a transitional painting in black and white, and he told me that he liked it. I can’t explain how much that meant to me. It was just thrilling.”
    Ms. Flack was to move on, however, becoming one of the pioneers of photorealism in the late 1960s, a dramatic contrast to minimalist and Abstract Expressionist art. She was the first photorealist to be featured at the Museum of Modern Art, and her works — which brought her commercial and critical success — are now in major museum collections, including those of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Museum of Modern Art, the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, and the Whitney Museum of American Art.
    “It was like a camera coming into focus,” she said. “I think I’m the only photorealist who came from Abstract Expressionism.”
    In the early 1980s, Ms. Flack shifted to sculpture, a process that she had to learn from the ground up. Her inspiration, she said, comes from “hyper-baroque” works, like those of Carlo Crivelli, Luisa Roldan, and the 17th-century “passionists.” “It has an intensity of feeling,” she said.
    One of Ms. Flack’s massive female sculptures, of Queen Catherine of Braganza for whom the Borough of Queens is said to be named, would have been second only to the Statue of Liberty in height. In 1993, Ms. Flack created the 35-foot sculpture to adorn Queens Harbor. Controversy surrounded the project, however, when it came to light that Catherine’s family probably benefited from the slave trade. The project was scrapped, even after the finished Catherine had been cast.
    “She was melted down,” Ms. Flack said sadly last week. “All that’s left is a 10-foot plaster in a warehouse.”
    Today, Ms. Flack said, “We’ve come out of minimalism and the sarcasm of Post-Modernism. When I first painted tears on my Madonnas, the critics thought I had added them as a joke. Once they found out it wasn’t a joke, they didn’t like it. But who doesn’t cry in their life?”
    The switch from photorealism to neo-classical sculpture happened organically, she said. “I found that I wanted to show women as they are. You go and see a sculpture by Lachaise, she’s wearing a 42XX bra, with a tiny waist, huge hips, and tiny feet. It’s a great sculpture, but it’s not healthy.”
    “I started creating figures which were Greco-Roman classical but contemporary — my women work out, they do yoga, they have children,” she said. “They’re real.” The heroic pieces often feature other symbols of modern times — guns, airplanes, soldiers in battle — in contrast to the classical lines of the female form.
    Ms. Flack said she felt kinship with mythical women. “Their stories have been distorted,” she said, mentioning Medusa. “The myth says she’s hideously ugly, but she’s not. I looked up the myth — she was raped by Poseidon on the floor of Athena’s temple, and Athena was so upset she turned her head to snakes.” Medea was also maligned, Ms. Flack said. “She didn’t kill her children. The Corinthians killed her children, and then hired Euripides to write the play and put the spin on it,” she said. So her sculpture, she said, is about redemption.
    Ms. Flack does not receive the appreciation one might expect from feminists, however. “I’ve been told by radical feminists that my sculpture is too feminine,” she said with a laugh. “But you can be a strong, powerful woman who still likes men.”
     Ms. Flack said her work was not only for the women she brings out of the clay, but for herself as a woman. Art history, she said, “was based on male perceptions. The work had to be brutal and violent and big. It was aggressive and totally male — not that all men are like that.”
    “I don’t know how I did it,” she said. She has been married to Bob (H. Robert) Marcus for over 40 years, and has two daughters, Hannah, a singer-songwriter, and Melissa, who is autistic. “I remember painting ‘Kennedy Motorcade’ when Melissa was 4, and Hannah was 2. They were running around my feet. I had no help,” she said. “And I signed my works ‘A. Flack,’ so as not to be known as a woman.”
    One of Ms. Flack’s passions, aside from art, is the banjo. “I love it. I take it everywhere with me,” she said. She performs with her History of Art string band and writes most of the songs, which focus on art and artists. The group will play at the Rutgers party on June 3. The event will raise money for autism research and also for a fledgling Flack idea — a 24-hour hotline for stressed-out parents of autisic children. “It’s so necessary and there’s nothing like it in this country yet,” she said.
    Musing on the talk she is to give at the commencement in May, she asked, “What am I going to tell these young people who are going out into this crazy world?” Then she answered herself, and her expression changed from concerned to peaceful: “Art is magic. Art is important for the survival of the planet and everybody on it.”