Recent Pages from an Ancient Past

Audrey Flack at work.

In Greek mythology, Medusa was viewed as a monster.

Once ravishingly beautiful, she was raped by Poseidon, Lord of the Sea. An enraged Athena turned Medusa’s hair into serpents and made her face so hideous, anyone who stared at it would turn to stone. Ultimately, Medusa is beheaded by Perseus, who uses her head as a weapon and brings it back for Athena’s shield.

Medusa was pregnant at the time of her slaying, and so upon her death the winged horse Pegasus sprung from her body.

Not only was this great literature, but it inspired much art, including works by Caravaggio and Rubens.

Contemporary artist Audrey Flack says Medusa was a victim, one who was raped and punished for it. Not only is Medusa the subject of Ms. Flack’s paintings and sculpture, but many of her goddesses and female subjects have Medusa-like hair, wild snaking ringlets filled with everything from paint squirting out of tubes to organic matter. It is the spirit of woman who emanates from her tendrils.

Audrey Flack: Recent Pages from an Ancient Past is on view at Mason Gross Galleries, and Metamorphoses: Pictures by Audrey Flack is on view at Douglass Library, both at Rutgers University, through June 30.

Ms. Flack was honored at the June 3 Feminist Fete. She looks like a rock star, with tight jeans, vest, short blond spiky hair, gold sneakers and chains around her neck. From one hangs a medal she won as best artist, Music and Arts High School, New York, 1948. Another has a tiny coin with a female head. “It’s Faustina, the only woman on a Roman coin,” says Ms. Flack, 81.

And she is in a band – she plays banjo, writes lyrics and sings in Audrey Flack and the History of Art Band, accompanied by an upright bass player, guitarists and another banjo player.

This isn’t her first bluegrass band — Audrey Flack and the Art Officials, and the Flacktones came before. Ms. Flack took up banjo at Yale when, she recounts, as a student she had a crush on a banjo player. “I didn’t start out writing feminist songs.”

They sing about Jackson Pollock – Ms. Flack knew him as a young Abstract Expressionist, but was disappointed when, in a bar, drunk and with a stubbly beard, he tried to kiss her rather than discuss art – and Cooper Union, where Ms. Flack studied 1948-1951 (she earned her BFA at Yale in 1952).

There are songs about Picasso, another womanizer (“he said women were either goddesses or doormats and treated most of them as doormats), and Camille Claudel, the sculptor who was model, lover and assistant to Rodin, and institutionalized by her family for what may or may not have been schizophrenia.

She also sings “The ism Blues”: Modernism, Impressionism, Surrealism, Photorealism. Ms. Flack never fit the isms. While at Yale, she didn’t fit in with Abstract Expressionism – Josef Albers, Franz Kline, Willem deKooning —  feeling a need to draw and paint realistically. “In high school, I was told Rembrandt was old-fashioned,” she says.

Although she is credited with having made the first true Photorealist painting in 1964, she was surrounded by minimalism, conceptualism, post-minimalism. And even within Photorealism, her subject matter was the subject of scrutiny: she chose everyday objects and presented them with vulgar and kitsch dimensions: saccharin sweets in a pastry shop too close for comfort, makeup pots and jewelry, cigars, beer cans, Jack Daniels, money, playing cards, skulls.

“What makes Ms. Flack’s work controversial is her tendency to infuse tacky pop imagery, executed in gaudy colors, with religious significance,” wrote Carol Stricklund in a 1992 New York Times review.

“Dizzying to look at, her paintings… simultaneously repel and attract the viewer,” writes Helen Molesworth in the exhibition catalogue. “The protean ooze of the textures, many of which are doubled by their reflection, speaks to a kind of specifically American excess…”

“Critics can’t deal with her work because it goes too much against what contemporary art is about,” wrote Thalia Gouma-Peterson in the book Breaking the Rules, about Ms. Flack.

In a video screened in the gallery Ms. Flack recounts how some of her still lifes were called the ugliest painting of the decade – and 10 years later acknowledged as masterpieces. Her work is in the permanent collections of the Museum of Modern Art, the Guggenheim, the Whitney, and the Metropolitan museums of art.

“I’ve been called greedy because I have jewelry in my paintings, or swirling liquid in a bottle of perfume. I could have put old shoes in my painting, but this was shocking,” says the East Hampton, N.Y., resident.

The artist admits to working in different styles at different times in her life because of different levels of maturity and understanding. “When you’ve lived a long time you do more work,” she says.

By the 1980s, Ms. Flack gave up painting altogether and took up sculpture. She made heroic, goddess-like figures, based on Classical Greek and Roman sculpture but with contemporary themes. Molesworth describes the bodies as belonging to a post Title IX-era, where women are fit and athletic.

For the Feminist Fete, 40 resin editions of an original Flack sculpture, “Head of an Angel,” were on the block to raise money for the Rutgers Douglass Developmental Disabilities Center and the Institute for Women and Art.

As a young artist and art historian coming of age in a pre-feminist era, Ms. Flack not only juggled the usual demands of career and family, but struggled to meet the special needs of a daughter with autism at a time when autism was barely understood. “You didn’t talk about being a woman or having children – you didn’t have children,” she says in the video. “You couldn’t be serious if you were a woman with children, and particularly a woman with a child with a problem.”

She recounts those years: “I kept telling the doctors there was something wrong. They said I was nervous. It was the dark ages – no one heard of autism.”

Melissa – a “beautiful” child, says her mother — didn’t sleep, and her speech was affected. In two oil paintings from 1964, Melissa’s enormous eyes gaze off the canvas. “Some children and adults with autism will avoid gazing at you because they don’t understand the eyes are a modality of communication,” says Sandra Harris, executive director, Douglass Developmental Disabilities Center.

The DDDC has an early intervention program to diagnose those on the autism spectrum or at risk, serving as a clearing house to make referrals in central New Jersey.

Ms. Flack selected DDDC as the beneficiary because she knows how important it is for a family to get help as early as possible. DDDC works with pediatricians to help them recognize early warning signs when parents bring children for well visits, says Jacqueline Dobres, a behavior analyst and early intervention coordinator. “Once they realize the diagnosis parents come to us. We can help with the transition from preschool to a school district and let them know what is available in their community.”

New Jersey is one of the leading states for autism services, and many families come for these services, leading to a high rate of autism in the state, Ms. Dobres acknowledges, although there may also be environmental factors leading to autism in the state as well.

The Institute for Women and Art, the organization hosting the Feminist Fete, is also a beneficiary. “This is our third Feminist Fete,” notes Ferris Olin, founding director and curator, along with Judith K. Brodsky, of the Institute for Women and Art and the Mary H. Dana Women Artist Series. Last year’s Fete honored the Guerrilla Girls, and the previous Fete honored Faith Ringgold.

“There are many distinguished artists who deserve to be recognized,” Dr. Olin says, citing an article in a recent edition of The Economist showing the gender disparity between male and female art sales.

“Audrey is an appropriate honoree because of her stylistic impact, and the feminist content of her still lifes and domestic scenes,” says Ms. Brodsky. “For a well-known artist to paint her family was unheard of.” Ms. Brodsky reminds us that still lifes, domestic scenes and vanitas were invented by women during the Renaissance, though they were never credited. “Audrey Flack is a postmodern inheritor of this, showing death in life by a clock, indicating the passage of time, and dice, showing the chances of life.”

“We are presenting Audrey with an award for her contribution to feminist art and the art world, and her commitment to raising awareness and support for families with autism,” says Connie Tell, deputy director, IWA, and project manager, The Feminist Art Project. “She has been a champion for both.”

Audrey Flack: Recent Pages from an Ancient Past is on view at Mason Gross Galleries, and Metamorphoses: Pictures by Audrey Flack is on view at Douglass Library, both at Rutgers University, through June 30. http://iwa.rutgers.edu/home/

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