(published May 10, 2013)
Audrey Flack, an artist highly regarded for her pioneering work as a photorealist in the 1960s and 1970s, gave a lecture at the Allen Memorial Art Museum last Thursday. Flack’s work uniquely stands out because of her technical virtuosity as a painter, depicting images that appear so tangible they could be taken right out of the painting.
Flack discussed her journey as an artist and how navigating motherhood and developing empathy and social awareness for others contributed to her artwork. But above all, her work has been influenced by her strong affinity for feminism and the concept of social consciousness. She attributes this to her Jewish upbringing and her experiences raising a daughter with autism.
In the 1960s, doctors and other medical professionals blamed Flack for her daughter’s disability. During this time, the “refrigerator effect” was a term often used in the medical field claiming that the mother’s lack of warmth can cause the child to develop autism. To those in the lecture hall, Flack asked, “Why was he busy blaming me when my child needed help?” Her compassion, social awareness, desire to understand others and observation of the beauty in victims are constant themes observable in her work.
When the United States underwent one of its greatest ideological evolutions in the 1960s and 1970s, politics and culture, including literature and the art world, responded accordingly. Much of Flack’s work as an artist toys with many of the essential questions that sparked second-wave feminism. Betty Friedan’s Feminine Mystique suggested that there could be more to a woman’s life than her social role, that femininity does not have to be contingent on a woman’s ability to raise children, maintain a household or care for her husband, and that a woman could find meaning and beauty through pursuing her other passions. Flack painted many tabletop settings similar to those captured in the Renaissance and symbolic still lifes called vanitas. However, her vanitas added a modern twist through her photorealist style.
During the lecture, Flack elaborated on feeling empathy for those who were cursed for things out of their control. She showed the relationship between beauty, victimization and helplessness in some of her works. For example, she talked about Marilyn Monroe as an inspiration for her piece “Marilyn (Vanitas)” — to Flack, Monroe suffered so much and grappled with feeling beautiful, finding joy and projecting the sexual image the public expected of her but was not able to feel fulfilled.
Flack also discussed her fascination with the Greek mythological figure Medusa. She reminded the audience of the story of Medusa — a beautiful girl, abducted and raped at thirteen by Poseidon in Athena’s temple and cursed for it by Athena who gave her the infamous snake hair. “Isn’t that what we do to girls wearing dresses now?” said Flack. Flack’s sculptures of Medusa depict her as beautiful, not as the angry antagonist she has most often been historically represented as.
This idea of finding beauty in the victimized was expressed in other works of Flack’s, such as her “World War II (Vanitas),” which depicts an image of men from concentration camps among petifores, silver and pearls. Her vanitas depict victims surrounded by the possessions and status they yearned for — and until her work was interpreted as such, she received a lot of criticism as an artist when this work appeared at exhibitions such as the Whitney Biennial. The subjects of her work suffer for their beauty and for their difference, and it takes social awareness and empathy to see beyond these.