The Life of Audrey Flack, Pioneer of Photorealism

Audrey Flack photographed against a floral painting
Audrey Flack, circa 1980 (Photo: Nancy R. Schiff/Getty Images).

Audrey Flack, born May 30, 1931, is an American artist. Her work, primarily painting and sculpture, has placed her at the forefront of pop art and photorealism.

Fast Facts: Audrey Flack

  • Full Name: Audrey L. Flack
  • Occupation: Artist
  • Known For: Pioneering the photorealist genre of art, particularly with portrayals of women, everyday objects, and moments in relatively recent history.
  • Born: May 30, 1931 in New York City
  • Notable WorksKennedy Motorcade (1964), Marilyn (Vanitas) (1977), World War II (Vanitas) (1978)

Early Life and Education

Flack was born in New York City in 1931, in the northern Manhattan neighborhood of Washington Heights. As a teenager, she attended a specialized arts public institution, the High School of Music and Art. Her formal art education began in 1948, when she began her studies at New York’s Cooper Union. Flack remained there until 1951 and was then recruited to Yale, largely thanks to the influence of German-American artist Josef Albers (who was then in charge of Yale’s art department).

While at Yale, Flack continued developing her own style while being influenced by her teachers and mentors. In particular, her early work demonstrated an Abstract Expressionist style in the vein of Albers’ work. Flack graduated with her Bachelor of Fine Arts degree in 1952. The following year, she returned to New York and studied art history for a year at New York University’s Institute of Fine Arts.

Abstract to Realism

At first, Flack’s work in the 1950s was a clear offshoot of her training with abstract expressionists. She also embraced “kitschiness” in a self-aware, ironic way. However, as time went on, she began to feel that the abstract expressionist style she was utilizing was not achieving what she felt was an important goal: communicating with audiences. Because of this desire to create art that was clearer to viewers, Flack began moving towards realism.

Audrey Flack
Portrait of artist Audrey Flack sits next to a painting of President John F. Kennedy and First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy riding in the back of a limousine on the day he was assassinated.  Nancy R. Schiff / Getty Images

She enrolled in the Art Students League (ASL), where she studied anatomy under the tutelage of Robert Beverly Hale, and began finding inspiration in artists from past eras rather than more recent movements. Her work began to be categorized in the “New Realism” movement, and, eventually, shifted all the way into photorealism, in which an artist attempts to reproduce a photographed image as realistically as possible in a different medium.

Flack was one of the first students at the ASL to fully embrace photorealism and use photographs as reference for her work. Photorealism, in many ways, is a sister genre to pop art: depicting ordinary, mundane items, often as still-lifes that imitate the realism of photography as closely as possible. In 1966, Flack became the first photorealist painter to have work in the collection at the Museum of Modern Art. 

Increased Influence

In some cases, Flack’s work moved past the typical still life paintings and depicted historical events. One of her most famous works is Kennedy Motorcade, November 22, 1963, which, as its title suggests, depicts a scene from the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. Her historical paintings, including her Vanitas works, often featured some kind of socio-political commentary. Her still life paintings often did as well; for instance, her paintings of female-coded items such as makeup and perfume bottles tended to involve some commentary on gender roles and constructs.

Artist Audrey Flack
Portrait of gallery owner Louis Meisel and artist Audrey Flack and her hyper-realist painting of Marilyn Monroe, New York, New York, March 10, 1978. Allan Tannenbaum / Getty Images

In the early 1970s, Flack developed a new technique for her paintings. Instead of just using a photograph as a reference, she actually projected it as a slide onto the canvas, then developed an airbrushing technique to create the layers of paint. The 1970s also saw Flack paint her Vanitas series, which depicted everything from jewelry to scenes of WWII concentration camps.

By the 1980s, however, Flack had switched her primary medium from painting to sculpture. She is entirely self-taught in sculpture, as opposed to her significant formal training in painting. There are also other significant differences in her sculptural works versus her paintings. For instance, where her paintings focused on ordinary objects or historical scenes, her sculptures tend to depict religious and mythological subjects. For the most part, women are depicted in her sculptures, representing somewhat idealized but imperfect and diverse variations on the female form and femininity itself.

Contemporary Work

In the 1990s and 2000s, Flack had a fair amount of work commissioned. At one point, she was commissioned to create a statue of Catherine of Braganza, the British queen after whom the New York City borough of Queens was named; the project met with several objections and was never completed. More recently, her statues Recording Angel and Colossal Head of Daphne (both completed between 2006 and 2008) were commissioned by and installed in Nashville, Tennessee.

Audrey Flack's 'Recording Angel'
Audrey Flack's 'Recording Angel' statue stands outside the Schermerhorn Symphony Center in Nashville, Tennessee.  Raymond Boyd / Getty Images

In more recent years, Flack has returned to her roots. Finding the photorealist movement rather “restricting,” she shifted back to Baroque influences. She wrote a book in 1986, collecting her thoughts on art and being an artist. Flack has also taught and lectured both in America and abroad. Currently, she is an honorary professor at George Washington University and a visiting professor at the University of Pennsylvania. She is based out of New York, where she splits her time between New York City and Long Island.

Sources

  • Blumberg, Naomi and Ida Yalzadeh. “Audrey Flack: American Painter and Sculptor.” Encyclopaedia Britannica, https://www.britannica.com/biography/Audrey-Flack.
  • Flack, Audrey. Art & Soul: Notes on Creating, New York, Dutton, 1986.
  • Morgan, Robert C. “Audrey Flack and the Revolution of Still Life Painting.” The Brooklyn Rail, 5 Nov. 2010, https://brooklynrail.org/2010/11/artseen/audrey-flack-and-the-revolution-of-still-life-painting.