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Talent Wins Out

Mon, 07/01/2024 - 16:08
Audrey Flack
Nancy Bundt

“With Darkness Came Stars”
Audrey Flack
Penn State University Press, $34.95

Published as she neared 93, Audrey Flack's new memoir, "With Darkness Came Stars," provides a back story to a lifelong love affair with art, and her belief that art can heal. The noted pioneering Photorealist, Abstract Expressionist, and sculptor, controversial in every genre, died on Friday. 

A breakdown becomes the book's conceit; a midcareer work block led her to a bench in the middle of the Upper West Side's Broadway. A dark night of the soul, so to speak, nevertheless triggers vivid, starry memories as she contemplates: How would she get out of her funk? How would art and its practice prevail?

To begin, from a modest Washington Heights apartment, she was a rising star: Her schooling included the High School of Music & Art, Cooper Union, Yale. Sketching her early life, she was inventive; she got a portfolio together when she did not know what that was. Her father, Morris Flack, a contractor producing dresses for a fashion designer, died suddenly. Her mother, Jeanette, an addicted gambler, was not around. 

Back from war, her brother, Milton, brought Hitler's watercolors, taken from his bunker. She says they became a significant inspiration (really?), alongside the art of others you might expect. She mentions Rembrandt, Mary Cassatt, Cezanne, Modigliani. 

Ms. Flack portrays the art world. Often drunk, the male artists come off as boorish; the women subservient, and catty, always second place. She opines on who's a feminist (herself) and who is not (Elaine de Kooning and Alice Neel) and tells juicy stories describing the artists' loft scene, galleries and gallerists, liaisons. 

In one, she's instrumental in introducing Jackson Pollock to Ruth Kligman, an aspiring artist, instructing the voluptuous young woman to the far seat at the Cedar Tavern's bar. The rest is, as they say, history. Kligman, sole survivor of the fated car crash that killed Pollock and her girlfriend, does not mention Audrey Flack in her account, "Love Affair: A Memoir of Jackson Pollock." 

No matter the odds, or who hit on her — Pollock included — talent wins. Ms. Flack always had the chops. 

"Self-Portrait With Flaming Heart" by Audrey Flack, acrylic and mixed media on canvas.  Photo Courtesy of Audrey Flack


Navigating marriage and motherhood with ambition was extra hard. Her first husband, a cellist, was no family man, leaving her to cope with her newborn Melissa's issues, misunderstood in those years. Autism was not diagnosed until much later. As a result of Bruno Bettelheim's theories, many believed outrageous behavior and slow progress of children were the result of cold, neglectful mothering; blaming them, he labeled distraught women "refrigerator mothers." Ms. Flack's writing about her daughter is sensitive and heartbreaking:

"Melissa couldn't speak, point, write, or use sign language. She could only look into your eyes and hope you could read her thoughts. She could not tell me if she had a toothache or stomachache or if she were hungry, thirsty, or tired — and no one could tell me why. She was suffering, and I felt every bit of it along with her. Was she an angel, an angel of terror and glory?"  

This story ends well. An old boyfriend, Bob Marcus, rescues her, adopting her two daughters. Combining families, they parented five children. Marcus, who died in May, helped fund the special school where Melissa, now an adult, thrives, unable to speak, but Ms. Flack, a proud mom, describes her, an angelic innocent, as holding her own at a swank East Hampton summer soiree. 

Ms. Flack goes deeply into the joy of making art, from a grade-school diorama featuring Esther Williams to how it feels to create a masterpiece: "You know when it's happening: every artist does, and don't let anyone tell you different. Michelangelo knew . . . when he chiseled David and painted the Sistine Chapel. . . . Bernini, Caravaggio, Crivelli, Luisa Roldan, Van Gogh, Picasso, and Pollock — they all knew. You are no longer in control of what is happening to you. You are hitting home runs with the bases loaded over and over again. The tennis ball is making that ping in the exact center of the racket. All your serves are aces."  

That high helps her defy prevailing biases, confirming for her the refrain: Women were being written out of the history of art. In her signature Photorealist paintings, lipsticks, mirrors, and beads shine as bright as the chrome veneers of the men's autos. Her very subjects, from Marilyn Monroe to Elizabeth Taylor as Cleopatra, to teary-eyed Macarenas, were seen as secondary to "reflections on metal surfaces." She even names names. The art dealer Ivan Karp told her flat out: "Paint cars and trucks and I'll make you famous."

Audrey Flack's "Melancholia: With Darkness Comes Stars," 2020-21, acrylic and mixed media on canvas.  Courtesy of Audrey Flack


Ms. Flack went her own way. The airbrush was a no-no, but she experimented anyway and favored figuration when Abstract Expressionism was all the rage. Against the feminist grain, her bejeweled goddess statues were deemed kitsch, totally out of phase. She includes some scathing reviews, written by women, even one by the artist Rosalyn Drexler, while illustrations from Ms. Flack's prodigious oeuvre throughout the book offer ample evidence of her achievement.

Winning a competition to honor Queen Catherine of Braganza, a British royal by marriage, for whom the borough of Queens was named, Ms. Flack worked on a monumental bronze statue that would have been five stories high to be built on the Queens side of the East River opposite the United Nations. Near completion, the project was protested and kiboshed, because that queen came from Portugal, where in the 17th century the slave trade was supported. A photo of Ms. Flack at the dump before the head was melted down shows the scale, yet does not reflect disappointment. She soldiers on. 

Her most recent work, completed in her 90s, is vibrant — muscular superheroes juxtaposed with medieval religious figures, gold inlay and bright color, a self-portrait as the Virgin Mary adorned with a Star of David, framed with cherubs. She riffs on contemporary culture and ancient myths alike, producing exciting — dare one say youthful — mature paintings. In "Melancholia: With Darkness Comes Stars" (2020-21), a winged contemplative fairy tale figure sits in a bucolic setting, far from Ms. Flack's urban bench. 

Audrey Flack lived in East Hampton and New York City. The Parrish Art Museum is planning a fall show of her work from the 1950s to the present.
Regina Weinreich, author of "Kerouac's Spontaneous Poetics," editor of "Kerouac's Book of Haikus," and co-producer/director of "Paul Bowles: The Complete Outsider," lives in Montauk and Manhattan, where she teaches at the School of Visual Arts.

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