Audrey Flack was pleasantly surprised to learn that her initials have taken on new meaning when she recently bought a “Feminist AF” T-shirt at the Museum of the City of New York. It suits the rebellious 89-year-old painter and sculptor, who presents a different AF version of art history in a new documentary devoted to her long career, Queen of Hearts: Audrey Flack. The film opens with her painting a heroic canvas inspired by Peter Paul Rubens, Superman, and Supergirl. Minutes later, she stands in the paint-encrusted studio of Jackson Pollock, an old friend, describing Renaissance perspective and how Cézanne ignored that perspective when he tilted his still life tables upward, forever changing the picture plane.
Flack knows the standard plotline of Western art history by heart, and was one of the first female artists added to Janson’s History of Art. Her personal art history welcomes fresh characters who challenge what we are and aren’t “supposed” to like. Flack’s rule-breaking work has recently been in the limelight. Beyond the documentary, one of her paintings was rehung at MoMA’s Fall Reveal this month, and the Hamptons Virtual Art Fair gave her a lifetime achievement award in September, where she also had a solo exhibition at Hollis Taggart Gallery. I zoomed with Flack in her Manhattan apartment to talk about the film, and I suspect that after we hung up, she got right back to work.
Hyperallergic: You were filmed working in this documentary. Was that new for you?
AF: Yeah. I told [the directors], ‘I don’t like people around me, I can’t work when somebody’s watching.’ They did have that stop film thing in the studio, so that took a picture every couple of seconds. But nobody was there and I forgot about it. It was okay. I couldn’t do it for too long.
H: The film touches on this briefly, but how did you transition from your early abstract expressionist paintings to photorealism?
AF: It wasn’t a sharp transition. I was an AbEx painter because that was there. But from early on, I wanted to be a realist painter. I think the art world, particularly since modernism, has influenced how we see and how we think. Like we’re not supposed to like Spanish Baroque. It’s just not refined. We’re supposed to like minimalism, that’s very refined. That’s like eating a slice of roast beef and a green pea. On white bread.
I hung out with the AbEx painters, I was young. And I just wasn’t like them. There was this one night I was at the Cedar [Tavern] bar, and Pollock was not in good shape. He saw me and he came over, I had met him a few times before. He was my hero — this was a great man sitting next to me. I wanted to talk about art and his work, and he was wobbly and in such distress. We talked about the menu or what was showing at the Met or something, but then all he could say was, ‘Let’s fuck.’ And I said no. ‘Oh c’mon, come home with me.’ And I said no. ‘Well, let me come home with you.’
Anyhow, that night I said I will never go back. This is not for me. And then my work began to change and get more figurative. And then I was fighting the battle, because in those days you could not find a gallery that showed representational art. But there was a small group of artists that I knew, including Philip Pearlstein, a critic named Sidney Tillim, my friend Harold Bruder, Lennart Anderson. And we formed a little drawing group. And then I had kids and they wouldn’t sit still. I had a little camera, a little Brownie, and I started working from snapshots that were maybe 2 by 1 inch inches. Then a lot of my friends stopped talking to me because I was using photographs. But it was an evolution.
H: How did you became one of the first women in Janson’s History of Art?
AF: By the way, I am responsible for getting Mary Cassatt into Janson’s History of Art. I met Janson and said, ‘Why do you have five Gauguins?’ I’m very angry at Gauguin. He was not a nice man. I really do believe she’s a far better painter than he is. I got her in when Tony Janson took over the book from his father, after my nudging.
H: Can you tell me about MoMA rehanging your painting Leonardo’s Lady (1974)?
AF: I’m thrilled that it’s there, and I did finally go to see it last week. I was with a friend and she said, ‘Of all the paintings in this entire museum, I could tell this was done by a woman.’ No man would have made that painting. That was not in my mind; it was not a feminist statement. But it has that rhinestone pen, it has a porcelain putti, it has a rose, it has this beautiful face. I think it did something that was never done before. Never seen a still life on a heroic scale. Women were not only not allowed to go to art school, but if they did make paintings, they couldn’t do heroic work. They could make still lives and dainty little things. But I didn’t think, ‘Oh, I’m gonna do a still life hero.’ I was just thinking big.
H: What are you working on now?
AF: I’ve got a new series that I call Post Pop Baroque. One of the things I was interested in with photorealism was the absence of line. So if I put my hand up and you see my hand in space, there is no line. It’s form interrupting space. I came across a woodcut of Rubens’s Garden of Love. These guys always wanted to make money, and they had their favorite engravers, woodcarvers, etchers who would translate these wonderful paintings into black and white. And I marveled at these unsung heroes. We don’t look at who did the engravings for these guys, and yet they worked very closely. I’m studying that line which cartoonists and illustrators and comic book artists used, and they also were denigrated. As was I for using the airbrush, by the way. I was one of the first, if not the first, to use it not commercially. And I was very criticized for it by my friends.
And I’m in love with Dürer, so I’m working on Melancholia. I’ve got her quite large and I’ve got little Disney Tweety birds singing to her, and a huge oak tree falling over her. I’ve got this morose woman going through hell. But how do you survive these times? By banging your head in? You’ve gotta get through it. So I want something in this work to recognize what’s happening, but help us get through it. Because to me, that’s what art does. It helps you get through life. We’re all very mortal, we’re all going to die. That’s a very hard fact which I’m facing right now. You know, how many years do I have left? Art helps you deal with that.
Queen of Hearts: Audrey Flack is now available in virtual cinemas.