Art In Conversation
AUDREY FLACK with Charles Duncan
“When you’re alone in the studio, and your life is turned upside down by something, it’s you and the work.”
Alongside Mary Cassatt, Audrey Flack (b. May 30, 1931) is one of the first women artists to be included in the seminal art history survey text, Janson’s History of Art. Her Leonardo’s Lady (1974), similarly, was the first Photorealist painting purchased for the permanent collection of the Museum of Modern Art. Beyond her role as a pioneering Photorealist, Flack has worked extensively in bronze sculpture, reshaping—figuratively and in conception—the treatment of the female body within monumental public commissions. Her recent return to large-scale painting has seen her develop a body of work she refers to as Post Pop Baroque. Throughout her career, she has interwoven feminist and biographical signifiers within consumer and pop-cultural tableaus that often are colored by political overtones. Recently, the genesis and synthesis of her sources was adroitly retraced in the award-winning feature-length documentary film Queen of Hearts: Audrey Flack (2019) guided by producer/director Deborah Schaffer.
I first met Audrey Flack in 2008 when acquiring an installment of her papers for the Archives of American Art. We immediately connected through a common love of stringed instruments (she: banjo; me: guitar) and irreverent humor, and soon I was indoctrinated into her History of Art String Band, performing with her onstage at events like autism awareness fundraisers at Caroline’s Comedy Club. In the present, I am honored to be part of the team that is helping Flack form a namesake foundation that will, as part of its mission, offer support to visual artists challenged by the demands of caring for disabled children. This winter I met with Flack at her Riverside Drive, New York City studio for the Brooklyn Rail, and subsequently we continued our conversation by telephone.
Charles Duncan (Rail): It is a challenging moment for us collectively. You had been teaching this semester at The New York Academy of Art and at the end of March, after classes were cancelled, you sent an email letter to your graduate students titled “Days of Reckoning.”
Audrey Flack: Yes. Here’s part of what I said:
What does it mean to be an artist in the days of reckoning….the days of the Coronavirus?
The days when we face illness and death….when our mortality looms before us and fear is around every corner and in everyone’s eyes? When we are alone in our homes, unable to touch or connect? I think of Verdi's Requiem, Michelangelo's Last Supper, Grünewald's Isenheim Altarpiece, Carlo Crivelli’s Pieta, and Dürer’s Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.
Amazingly enough, our frantic pace has suddenly come to a halt. We are now in slow time. We have time to think, draw, paint, sculpt, write, read, study, play music, and dance. We have time to create meaningful and beautiful work, for beauty can be found even in devastation.
In 1948, while I was a student at Music & Art High School, I was rummaging through a stack of used books at the Strand Bookstore when I came across an old, frayed Phaidon edition of Rembrandt self-portraits. The images were printed in the most beautiful tones of sepia and burnt sienna. I carried that book around with me every day and studied Rembrandt’s face as he aged. Although I was young at the time, I identified with him as I do now that I am old. Rembrandt’s work comes back to me now during the coronavirus crisis we are all going through.
Rembrandt’s last paintings, particularly his great self-portraits, were painted during the worst times of his life. Epidemics frequently recurred and affected Rembrandt’s own family. His second common-law wife, Hendrickje Stoffels, died from the plague in 1663 and the plague also sadly claimed the life of his son Titus, who died at only 26. Yet he dressed himself in a brilliant gold shirt, held a silver cane, and painted himself with the proud bearing of a king in a frontal and almost confrontive pose. He stares at the viewer with intense pensive eyes that capture you. Bring you into the painting. Even during this devastating time, art sustained him and he was able to create some of the greatest works of all time.
Like Rembrandt, during these days and months of isolation, when everything has come to a halt, when everyone is frustrated, and this feverish, frenetic lifestyle has hit a stone wall, we have the time to work in our studios quietly. We have the time to study, to improve, to learn, and to connect. We can reestablish art in ways that have meaning for people, for if art is not for people, who is it for?
Rail: Very nicely said. And prophetically, you have been working on a painting based on Dürer’s Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse woodcut for the past four years.
Flack: I am very excited about the galloping horsemen. I like bringing back the masters. Drawing, drawing. They are incredible draftsmen! There’s nothing new. Nothing new. You know, you look at Dürer, he was a cartoonist, an illustrator. He drew wild, crazy images that looked like comic strips. The Japanese are creating manga comic paintings. I like them when they’re not too slick.
Rail: About three or four years ago you returned to large-scale painting, launching a new body of work you call Post Pop Baroque. Tell me a bit about how that came about.
Flack: About 30, or maybe even 40 years ago, Chuck Close and I were wet-sanding our canvases. We were preparing our own canvases through a special process. We wanted a very smooth surface, so we would put layers of gesso on the canvas and then in between each layer we would use wet/dry sandpaper that we would wet so that the surface got a little thicker than sweet cream, and then we would put on more layers the same way until we got a surface that was absolutely, beautifully smooth. So those canvases were leaning against the back wall of my studio since I stopped painting and began sculpting.
Rail: What got you to pull these canvases out and start painting again after such a long hiatus?
Flack: I don’t know! [Laughter]
I think I did what I had to do with sculpture; that’s the kind of artist I am. I’m not an artist that just tends to repeat herself.
What got me involved with this painting… This painting sort of foretells what happens. This painting is about global warming It’s about an apocalypse. It’s about the opioid epidemic. It has crack and coke in it. It has fires—like the fires in Australia. It has ships sinking. I started it four years ago and it is a “day of reckoning” painting. I think artists are in touch with a collective unconscious and they have to paint it. They have to sculpt it.
Rail: Tell me a little more about what’s happening in the painting. Start with this woman in the foreground with long arms.
Flack: She is semi-drowning, trying to pull herself up. There’s an old rubber tire and some pylons of a pier and goo is hanging down from her. Phosphorescent goo. I used phosphorescent paint. I’m having fun with different types of paint.
Rail: And does this woman originate from your own imagination?
Flack: From a comic. I am enamored of comics now. You know, something that we were supposed to look down on. These artists were supposed to be lesser. But you know, the Biblia Pauperum, which was the poor man’s Bible, was nothing but sort-of-comic-illustrations for people who couldn’t read. They looked at these little paintings that to me were like comic strips. And I think some comic artists are really terrific artists. Also, I’m very involved with black and white drawing, and I used to ink Spiderman, so I’m familiar with comics. It was a lowly profession, but things are changing rapidly.
Rail: When you inked Spiderman, you mean professionally?
Flack: What happens with comic strips, the artist draws them in pencil and there’s this inker who makes this wonderful calligraphic line, almost like a Zen calligrapher, who inks over the pencil. When my studio was on 8th Street and 3rd Avenue in a condemned building, I was on the third floor, and there was a professional inker on the second floor. There was a hole in the middle of the studio floor where the wood had rotted so I could look down into his studio. And when he got very busy I would ink for him. There was something wonderful about a professional inker then. They had great technique. Today, when I go to shade Dürer—cross-hatching and various shades of gray with nothing but black and white lines—that type of work is still amazing. And of course Dürer and Rubens—all of them—they had favorite craftsmen who carved their etching lines.
Rail: What’s going on in Day of Reckoning?
Flack: This has two of the horsemen in Dürer’s Apocalypse. It has Death on a Pale Horse, and he is holding a trident. There are two children that are about to get covered by the Hokusai wave. She’s sort of electrocuted. Her hair is on fire. And their genitals are exposed because they are totally innocent. This is Adam and Eve. This is male and female. This is the future generation that we’re poisoning. Falling down from the sky are these gold bricks. It’s a total collapse. The world is exploding. It says “Baroom” in the middle. Pestilence is coming from the other horseman who holds scales from which the goo is spilling down onto this plump naked little girl next to the word “Kkraaakk” and she’s spilling a can of Coke. And down at the bottom a bishop is being swallowed up by a dragon. It’s the fires, the floods, the greed running rampant over society that I am in touch with.
The painting should have been done in a year, but after I started, my husband Bob had brain surgery. I had a serious illness. My daughter broke her hip. It was its own horror show for me. And every time things got better and I would go back to the painting, something else would happen.
Rail: Did it occur to you that maybe you shouldn’t do this painting? [Laughter]
Flack: No. That never occurred to me. What it did do… The painting could contain everything. It was big enough—it had enough room—so that every time I went back to it I could put something else in. Some paintings happen very fast. This one really had to bake for a long time. Artists in the past worked on paintings for 10 or 11 years—something unheard of these days. But why not? There’s something beautiful about that kind of extension.
Rail: Tell me about this idea of the Post Pop Baroque.
Flack: I love the Baroque. It got a bad rep with Minimalism, because Minimalism is supposed to be very elegant. And from Berenson. Berenson liked the classicism of Raphael. Classic simplicity. Calm. Symmetry that is very soothing and calm. Baroque was, I think, to him, lower-class. Not WASP-like. I am decidedly not a WASP and I love the Baroque and Spanish passion art, and I’m going for it.
Now, Pop. Pop has a kind of sarcasm. This is not sarcastic. It is more quirky humor. You know, we watch these ads on television where they tell you to take a certain drug that will cure you or help you, however, it might kill you. You might get a heart attack, or cancer, or diabetes. So the contrast of something serious and ridiculous is with us all the time. I think Andy Warhol putting a soup can up as a work of art is ironic and sarcastic. I don’t think that this is.
Rail: In your painting Fiat Lux (2017) you have donuts falling from the heavens!
Flack: You are talking about the sparkling donuts that the angels are dropping—I mean, why not donuts instead of flowers?
Rail: Here you’re starting with Rubens, and you have Superman and Supergirl…
Flack: In Fiat Lux I like breaking that picture plane and having them fly out. Rubens gave his drawing of The Garden of Love to his engraver Christoffel Jegher for a woodcut, and this print shows these very fleshy, very bosomy, very sexy 17th‐century women in a very opulent image. There is a man lying in front. I don’t know if you can make him out but he’s leaning on one arm, and his other arm is under her skirt. In the right place. And she is pulling up that skirt. And the next two women appear to be in a lesbian relationship, and there’s a little putto with his bottom exposed bending over, which I think has other suggestions, probably. And the other woman looks at us as we are voyeurs to the whole scene.
Rail: And she is about to receive the sacred donuts…
Flack: Yeah. And well… I just needed those donuts. Don’t ask me why. But I just love breaking the picture plane from one century to another. Because art breaks through the centuries. There is no time in art. It is timeless.
Rail: Recently you were the subject of a feature-length documentary film, Queen of Hearts: Audrey Flack (2019) that takes a broad look at your art and life. I’m curious how that experience was for you? To be followed by cameras for a couple of years, recording your creative process. And to have the chance to reassess the accomplishments not only of a long career, but recall and share through the film some very personal experiences.
Flack: I happen to like the two women filmmakers, Deborah Shaffer and Rachel Reichman. Otherwise, I couldn’t have done it. I’m an artist that likes to work alone, although when I did my public sculptures I worked in foundries and needed assistants, and I’ve also had assistants with some of my large Vanitas paintings. I know that Rubens had a big studio and had some great artists working for him. Artists had guilds and large working studios. They had people around. I think for the most part the greatest of them did their best work on their own. I find my time in the studio alone is—what’s the right word? Out of this world. There is something sublime about it when the work goes well. Art is like making love; you can’t have someone else do it for you.
Rail: Queen of Hearts has been very well-received.
Flack: Yes, we were thrilled—actually surprised. Amazed! It was screened at the Hamptons Doc Fest last December. Screenings took place on Thursday, Friday, Saturday, Sunday, with films shown all day. We had the honor of being the opening night film, which was a mixed blessing because Thursday night in the winter in East Hampton—who's there? I was sure there would be maybe 20 people but it turned out that the place was about 85 percent filled. We were up against some really great films. The Ralph Lauren film opened Saturday night. Prime time. Ralph Lauren was there. Paparazzi were there. People were hanging from the rafters. And there was a terrific film on Roy Cohn made by Ethel and Julius Rosenberg’s granddaughter and son. There was a great film on poaching in Africa. Another on Russian oligarchs called Citizen K. These were all big money films. Ours was not. Here’s the amazing thing: the audience voted ours best feature film! And it also won the Art and Inspiration Award. Can you believe it? I was terribly concerned because those two women understandably wanted total artistic control and wouldn’t let me see it until it was completed and previewed in a small theater. Only then did I realize what an amazing job they did.
Rail: I enjoyed seeing it at DOC NYC Film Festival in Chelsea. It is not a simple puff or promotional piece; it really delved into some of the struggles you’ve had personally and as an artist over the years. Much of it centers around your family life. Your daughters are a really interesting facet of your film, as well as being a female artist working during the ’50s. Women who were artists at that time—you knew most of them and were a contemporary of many—but you were in a different situation being an artist and a mother at the same time—a mother in a challenging position.
Flack: Yes, because my older daughter is severely autistic. At that time not only were mothers blamed for their child’s autism but women artists were not taken seriously, no matter how hard they tried. Lee Krasner, Elaine de Kooning, Joan Mitchell, Grace Hartigan, and Helen Frankenthaler were serious artists and an important part of the scene but they were considered secondary to any male. And if you had a child you just were totally dismissed. Then you were just a woman. A mother. So you just didn’t mention it.
I remember when I painted Kennedy Motorcade. It was 1963, so Melissa, my older daughter, was four and Hannah was two. Kennedy had just been assassinated. I was devastated as was the rest of the country. I had to paint him but how, with his head blown off? I needed to use a photograph. It became one of my first photorealist paintings. I chose a moment before the fatal shot when Jack and Jackie were waving to the crowd in an open limo, smiling, happy.
Aladar Marberger, who was the director of Fischbach Gallery, heard about that painting and wanted to come to my studio. Now, I’m living on the Upper West Side. I’m not in a loft. You know, a loft is glamorous—particularly if it’s dirty and empty and grungy. I’m in a west side apartment. Fact is, Alice Neel lived around the corner and so did Richard Estes, Philip Pearlstein, and Joyce and Max Kozloff, so there were artists up there. We were more—I don’t like using that dirty word, bourgeois—most of us had families and kids.
Rail: I should point out that you grew up on there—
Flack: I grew up in Washington Heights, a very bourgeois neighborhood. I remember being concerned about Marberger’s visit. I was concerned because my studio was nothing but the dining room. It was a big room but it was a dining room right off the kitchen. I had put wood beams across the ceiling and installed clip-on incandescent flood lights because it was an extremely dark room facing a back alley with bars on the windows. It was not an impressive artist’s studio and I had these two kids. He said he was coming at 12. I got a babysitter and got those kids out of the house. I ran around like crazy and hid every diaper, every toy, every sign that I had a child in every closet and every drawer. Marbarger arrived on time and I ushered him into the studio. I tried to take his coat but he refused. I figured it was because if he didn’t like the work he could make a quick getaway. And I prayed that the babysitter wouldn’t come back with the children while he was there. I remembered that was such a pressure for me, because then he’d see them and what would he think of me? Can you imagine that in your mind?
Rail: He would think that art was not your highest priority?
Flack: Probably. I don’t even know if it was thought out. It was just in the air. You were just lesser. You were a little woman. And turns out he was actually very impressed with the painting. He sat down and then took off his coat. I worried even more because we didn’t have cell phones so I couldn’t call Clover the babysitter and say, “Stay out!” But luckily he left before she returned with the children. Marberger put the painting into a terrific show at Fischbach which was on Madison Avenue and was a very hot gallery at the time. Little did I know that the show was called Six Women Artists. I had no idea, I had never been called a woman artist. I didn’t think I was a woman artist, I thought I was an artist like everyone else.
When the time came for the opening, I put on my best tight jeans, black turtleneck sweater, high heel shoes, and hoop earrings. I was all ready for the opening. We lived in a second-floor apartment and I was halfway down the stairs when I heard the babysitter yell in the hallway frantically, “Come back! Come back! Hurry!” I came running back, Melissa was standing in front of the bathroom looking startled. She had apparently somehow stuffed every block and toy into the toilet which was overflowing, and turned on the sink faucets which were overflowing! And things were bobbing up and down on the floor. She was standing there in a very autistic state. I tried to calm her. I saw she was alright and proceeded to put my hand down the toilet bowl and pick out all the wads of Play-Doh, toys, and a couple of old diapers. I turned off the water valve, sopped up all the things I could, calmed the babysitter down, dried myself off, and ran out the door hoping to make the opening before it was too late.
It was raining, I forgot my umbrella and was soaked when I got there. Madison Avenue was basically closed except for the glamorous, gorgeous glass swinging doors of the Fischbach Gallery, and luckily the opening was still in progress. I went in, tried to act calm, pulled myself together. I saw a crowd around my painting discussing the merits and the problems of using photography. That was considered blasphemy. I was so happy to be with artists. To be in my world because I had been isolated with the autism with two kids and no money. We were broke. Then the lights blinked, the gallery was closing, and it was time to go. Everybody said, “Come on Audrey, we are going out for dinner, join us.” I said I had other plans. I had to run home, take over the kids, pay the babysitter, and, you know, go back to my life; but I could never tell anyone, I couldn’t mention it.
Most of the Abstract Expressionist women didn’t have children—the only one who did was Grace. They bought into the line that you can’t be an artist and have children. I think Grace did a terrible thing. The author of Ninth Street Women lauds her and thinks that she’s a great artist because she sacrificed her only child for her art, but you don’t sacrifice a child to get more painting time or more bar drinking time. When you have a child, you have a responsibility to that child.
Rail: As you went through your career, often you worked in almost exclusively male situations. One was your sketching club and the other was the loosely defined group of pioneering photorealists. In both cases you were the sole female artist.
Flack: I never thought of myself as a woman artist. I was just an artist. I remember being part of that sketching group with Phil Pearlstein, Harold Bruder, and Sidney Tillim and a few others—all men. One night the model didn’t show up, so all the guys looked at me. I thought, no matter how much they respect me as an artist I am still a woman and I am the one to take my clothes off. I said to Sidney, “Why don’t you pull your pants down?” And so he started to unzip his fly and I said, “Okay, go ahead!” Then he got cold feet and took his socks off and said we could draw his toes.
Grace, Helen, Joan, Lee, Elaine; they really weren’t that friendly with each other. They were for themselves and they were very competitive about promoting their men. Lee did not like Elaine. She used to say to me, “Just look at her, she calls herself Elaine de Kooning not Elaine Fried. I never changed my name, I’m Lee Krasner. I’m not Lee Pollock.'' So she was very mad at Elaine, and Elaine got back at her by calling her dog Jackson. She would say, “Come here Jackson. Now, sit!” She always loved to do that. So there was a lot of competition between these women and they certainly didn’t band together and help each other.
Of the photorealists, I was closest to Richard Estes. We saw each other a lot because he also lived on the Upper West Side in an old building on Central Park West. It's important for artists to know—that they don’t have to live the stereotypical glamorized, mythologized life of the drunken, crazed, debauched artist in a barren loft. The mythology is so old around that. There are artists who live a more stable life. Who live in an apartment, who have kids and take care of them and behave like decent human beings. You don’t have to be an alcoholic or hang out in bars. You don’t have to be insane.
Rail: A couple of years ago in the New York Times there was a profile on you that revisited the scuttled planned public sculpture for the Borough of Queens, for which you won the commission. We're at an interesting place with public art now. We have a house near Albany, and my local post office has a WPA mural. It’s about 12 feet across on one wall and it’s pretty rudimentary and features a local scene—The Indian Ladder (1940) by Sol Wilson. The Iroquois had been there in that era, and they built ladders up the cliffs, and one in Thatcher State Park is depicted in this mural. Every time I go to the post office I look at it and sort of knock my head against the wall thinking that if you were commissioned to do a mural today—in this little, primarily-white town in Upstate New York—what the heck would you do? How would you approach such a project today?
Flack: Well, I know how I’d approach it because I think public art is for people. That’s one of the reasons I went into it. Also public art tends to be anonymous. Who ever heard of Bartholdi, the artist who created The Statue of Liberty? Art has sort of become only for the 200 or so rich collectors. I’ve always thought that art is for people. How could you live without art? So, I would find out what the needs and aspirations of the people in that area are. Like we did in Rock Hill, South Carolina. I met with the mayor, the town council, and the town people themselves.
Rail:—this is Civitas group of bronze sculptures, created and installed in the early 1990s?
Flack: Yes, this was Civitas group. It was a gateway to a city that was dying. The textile mills had moved out of the country, and people were out of work. And this brilliant architect, Michael Gallis, who was a protege of Louis Kahn, liked my work and he called me to help design this gateway. We were going to try to put the city back on the map. Actually, Charles, it worked! The art worked and the city is now flourishing.
Rail: The group has four figures?
Flack: Four big statues in the middle of an eight-lane-highway. I found out that the people who worked the textile mills were derogatorily called “lint heads.” They lived in shacks and they were ashamed.
My father made dresses. He was a manufacturer. He wasn’t a glamorous fashion designer, he just made them. He had machines and I saw the lint and I sewed the buttons onto the dresses. So I spoke to the people and said, “There’s nothing to be ashamed about. This is your heritage, your history.” By the way, these shacks are now a historical part of the city and a tourist attraction. I love wings, but when I made these statues I made the wings out of bolts of textile material. I used ribbons and pieces of material blowing against the figure in the wind and they loved it.
Rail: And they are portrayed as classical figures.
Flack: I had had enough of generals on horses. The public figures that we had statues of at that time were the Statue of Liberty and the Alice in Wonderland statue by José de Creeft in Central Park. So, I mean, you’re looking all over the place and there’s some general on a horse—either holding a gun or a sword—or a soldier going to battle. If there’s ever a woman, she’s looking up at the general adoringly, with one breast hanging out. I wanted to put more strong and intelligent women out there. I didn’t want them to have the bodies of a Maillol or a Lachaise. A size triple D, 84x bra and a tiny little waist. And Lachaise statues always had these tiny little feet. Full-breasted and big round-buttocked women with feet that could barely support them. I wanted my women to be beautiful, strong, and intelligent. I sculpted them in a 19th‐century representational style, which I loved and was thrown out with the onset of modernism.
Rail: What are your thoughts about the Kehinde Wiley’s Rumors of War that was in Times Square?
Flack: It’s a great placement! People certainly got to see it.
Rail: But atypical for a monumental sculpture.
Flack: Yes. The big difference between Kehinde Wiley’s and what I was trying to do is that I wanted to bring harmony. I want to bring some kind of peace between people. What I see happening now is that there’s such anger. Deserved anger. There’s no excuse for what we’ve done to Black people, to Native Americans—it’s horrifying. So his sculpture is very confrontational and angry. Both of us as artists want to right the wrongs. I am also sick and tired of these generals on horses but I wanted to put forth the female principle, balance the planet. Kehinde Wiley is making an aggressive political statement. I like the idea of his Black general on a horse but mine would have a different demeanor. That’s the great thing about art. We artists can say what we want and create it in the way we want. That makes me stop and think, “Well what exactly is the role of art today? What has happened?” I hear that they put it up in Richmond, Virginia next to a confederate—
Rail: —Yes, the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts had a hand in that, I believe.
Flack: That’s interesting. That in itself is a valid confrontation. As you know, I’ve made my share of confrontational images, including a painting of Hitler.
Rail: How was that received?
Flack: It’s at the Oberlin Museum [Allen Memorial Art Museum] and I don’t think anyone ever sees it because I don’t think they ever put it up. He looks kind of fiendish. He doesn’t look like a nice guy.
Rail: And what was your impetus for making that painting?
Flack: I think about Hitler a lot, and I read a lot about him. I’m Jewish. I grew up during World War II, and my brother was one of two soldiers left alive in the Battle of the Bulge. I did a series of political paintings. I did Kennedy, Rockefeller, the Tehran Conference, Hitler. I was doing political work. My work is political. I painted Anwar Sadat’s portrait for the cover of Time magazine in which I subtly combined the Egyptian and Israeli flags. When you think of putting a woman—a heroic woman—out there where you’ve never had one, that’s pretty damn political. To me, political art doesn’t necessarily have to be antagonistic. Is the statue good enough—is Wiley’s statue good enough to last? Is it beautiful? Does it transcend? In the case of Wiley, is the idea and the political intent more important than the art itself? You need years of study and experience to realize large realistic sculpture. It takes tremendous amounts of trial and error. And it can’t be done mechanically or mainly by technicians if it is to be great.
Rail: This, of course, was the criticism of photorealism. That it was mechanical. But I found it really interesting when I did an archival collecting initiative for the Archives of American Art and observed the working methods of some of the greatest photorealists: you, Richard Estes, Tom Blackwell, John Salt, Don Eddy, Ron Kleemann. Everyone’s process was so radically different. You would have a very tough time copying a photorealist painting because practices were so unique, even if everyone started with the same photograph.
Flack: You chose your own camera. Richard and I used totally different lenses, different cameras, different printing processes, and we looked at the photograph in different ways.
Rail: Talking about the transformative nature of art, you tell the story of an experience you had going into a Thomas Kinkade store during a highly difficult period, and how you found the work soothing. When I look at your career, you’ve always unabashedly embraced art that treads heavily on what Greenberg would consider the wrong side of the tracks in the avant-garde and kitsch duality. Art that references or embodies any tinge of consumerism was anathema to Greenberg, as was art that recalled 19th-century academicism. He would, of course, consider Thomas Kinkade…
Flack: 100 percent baseline kitsch. Well, you know, that’s a big question because that goes along with academicism, which gets thrown out with modernism. It’s still not accepted.
Rail: But you’ve stayed with it. What is the place of figurative and narrative art today?
Flack: It’s interesting. At the High School of Music &Art, I was taught strictly abstraction. Picasso; the Cubists, and modernism prevailed. I was taught to scorn realism. No decent art school taught it.
Rail: And, of course, one of your teachers at Yale was Josef Albers, who ultimately gave you something to push against, more than to follow.
Flack: You get the Bauhaus. You get modernism. You get Abstract Expressionism. Realism and figurative art is out. Pop art is based on modernist principles.
Rail: Most would say it’s postmodernist.
Flack: But it’s flat. Any modelling, any romanticism, that’s out! I mean, the fact is, people love it.
Rail: Where do you think it fits today?
Flack: People still love it! You know they love Andrew Wyeth’s Christina’s World (1948). There was a painting hanging at the Modern years ago called Hide-and-Seek (1942) by Pavel Tchelitchew. People adored it. Stood before it for hours. It is now hidden in the basement. So I think people have been brainwashed.
You know, Thomas Kinkade is not a 19th century academic, he’s just a super sentimental populist. But I think a good deal of the public is starved for that. The public loved photorealism, but that exists in an entirely different realm. It has not yet received its full recognition. It brought back realist painting as well as photography. I remember there was a show—I think at the Guggenheim and there were lines of people waiting to get in—and Hilton Kramer said, “Well now we know it’s no good, because the public likes it.” What kind of elitist attitude is that?
The Museum of Modern Art used to take out ads in the New York Times showing a picture of a Picasso or a Stuart Davis—I love Stuart Davis. He was one of my teachers at Yale. But they had a modernist painting. And then on the other side they would have a very realistic academic painting. And the headline read, “Which is the work of art?” And if you were a lower class dolt, you would pick the academic one. But if you were smart and sophisticated, you’d pick the Picasso or Stuart Davis. And those were the actual ads. And I think it’s still going on. I think there’s a brainwashing. Interestingly enough, I think it’s Black artists today who are bringing back realism—
Rail: And narrative.
Flack: And narrative. They are doing it. What I find even more interesting is that this little sketch group I was in was trying to do it. We were breaking away from Abstract Expressionism. We referred to ourselves as New Realists. That period has never been properly contextualized. But we were trying to do it then.
Rail: Without a sense of irony.
Flack: Right, we were just doing it. And I see a lot of young artists, particularly Black artists, who are painting realistically now. Many of these artists are, of course, young and need more time to perfect their craft. I think all artists have to be careful not to get caught up in the hysteria of money and power and fame and glory and doing it quickly. I think it’s hard to resist. Money is very tempting. I understand that, and so is fame and glory and power. But in the end, when you’re alone in the studio, and your life is turned upside down by something, it’s you and the work. And that’s what could save you. Not money and somebody else. So I think it's a little cautionary tale.
Rail: How does it feel to be painting again, good?
Flack: Yes it does. I’m also trying to finish my book. My memoir.
Rail: Tell me more about that. What’s it going to be called?
Flack: The same as the documentary film: Queen of Hearts: Audrey Flack. I started it over 30 years ago when I stopped painting and went into a kind of depression. For a couple of years I had this horrible painting block—which I had never had—and I was trying to figure out what was happening to me and I began to take notes and that was the start of the book. It will be illustrated.
I want to put out another point of view of what I think. Because very often we’re controlled by what the “powers” want us to think. Like the days when everything was abstract and representational art was considered inferior. There’s a lot that needs to be straightened out. Ultimately, I say: you are yourself. Nobody will ever take your originality or creativity away, so don’t be afraid to honor your masters and mistresses.