For young painters today, Abstract Expressionism is ancient history; a few rooms in MoMA’s permanent collection galleries, a handful of images from the pages of Gardner or Janson, all set before a backdrop of a now mythical Downtown Manhattan of $200-dollar-a-month lofts. And yet there is a commonality to be found between painters today, struggling along the L train line and points far east of the East River, and their counterparts of the early 1950s — not the giants, but the smaller creatures scuttling about in the undergrowth. For a chance to revisit AbEx from the unique vantage of the humble and the striving, I suggest a short trip to the Upper East Side’s Hollis Taggart Galleries, where one can currently study a gathering of canvases representing what a very young Audrey Flack was up to while breathing the rarified air of mid-century New York. It’s a collection that reveals intriguing aspects of that period from the vantage point of a student.
In 1949, Flack was enrolled at Cooper Union, situated in the midst of a neighborhood that also sheltered the Cedar Tavern, The Club, the Tenth Street cooperatives, and other notable addresses forever associated with the names of de Kooning, Kline, Pollock, Krasner, et al — a group of artists who had spent the best years of their lives struggling in obscurity. For a student like Flack at this time, the generational difference was as stark as the gender divide. The precocious Flack was 17, her idol Franz Kline 40 and well into the group’s sadly typical alcoholism. Thus personal contact between older and younger artists was circumstantially possible, but awkward, brief, and rare — at best, little more than an encouraging word or two at an opening.
In fact, it was so early in the evolution of New York’s art world (and academia’s meddling in it) that Flack transferred from Cooper Union to the BFA program at Yale in 1953, as part of an effort by the recently hired Josef Albers to enlist students who demonstrated a favorable attitude toward modern art. Albers hoped his recruitment efforts would be, as Robert Mattison states in the exhibition catalogue, Audrey Flack: The Abstract Expressionist Years, “a way of enlivening the program and revolutionizing the school.” Flack’s work at Hollis Taggart is a time capsule of this moment. Spanning her early student days to age 24, it provides a fascinating glimpse into the New York School’s grip on a young and particularly gifted talent.
Though Flack has become an artist with an impressive career as a representational painter, and later a sculptor of public monuments, her early experiments in abstract painting — like those of Pat Passlof, shown at Elizabeth Harris last year — mirror and impersonate the classic AbEx look. The surprise of the Flack exhibition, however, is in how far and in how many ways she was able to transcend the many signature traits of the group. For such a young artist, Flack had the uncanny ability to surmount influence in a multiplicity of styles, even anticipating in some measure de Kooning’s 1970s East Hampton period with her “Figures and Trees for Bill” (1949–50), while a short time later reaching back to Cezanne with “Grapefruits I” (1954) and along the way finding paths into abstract painting that are surprisingly reminiscent of more recent solutions.
For instance, “Abstract Expressionist Landscape (with Sky)” (1951) takes a literal approach to foreground and sky that reminded me of Sally Jacobs’s hybrid of abstraction and naturalist light shown last March at Prince Street Gallery. “Diamonds and Sky” (1951) has a density of texture and color contrast that comes strangely close to late Chuck Close, while suggesting nothing recognizable beyond its underlying geometric configuration. “Black Graph” (1951) is a dark canvas punctured with rectangles that are comprised of playfully — heretically, one could have said in 1951 — manipulated drips crisscrossed and framed to suggest prison windows. De Kooning spoke intriguingly on occasion of leaving a way out, of creating an escape hatch, so to speak, somewhere in his densely cubist screens; it seems Flack understood this idea instinctively. She was apparently too young to be swayed by the critical dogma of the time and felt free to explore the territory behind the curtain. The largest piece in the show, the masterful “Abstract Force: Homage to Franz Kline” (1951–52) is a painting that can easily hold its own against the work of the older and more experienced painters of the early 1950s — yet it is a student piece not seen before in New York. At the show’s opening Flack was eager to show me how this canvas was punctured near the bottom by a stick she was using in imitation of Pollock’s drip technique on a nearby painting in her then cramped studio.
What I believe will be most instructive for younger painters who make it to the show is the vitality and originality of work made in the face of, and often in spite of, powerful influences. With a witty scattering of white highlights, a painting like the mixed-media-on-paper “Schubert Quartet” (1950–51) defies the reverence for the picture plane that was at the time putting New York at the center of the art world map. It is a lesson in an aspect of AbEx that often gets lost in its hagiography: with all the influence of early modernism, the AbEx painters succeeded by grasping the universal notion that painting is an improvisational art that cannot be exhausted as long as there are artists willing to risk thinking for themselves.
Audrey Flack: The Abstract Expression Years continues at Hollis Taggart Galleries (958 Madison Avenue, Upper East Side, Manhattan) through June 6.
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