This show presented anew Audrey Flack’s Photo-Realist work, including three major paintings from the ’70s and 20 of the color photos she used as the basis of these and similar paintings. Born in 1931, Flack found success in her 40s with imposing, labor-intensive paintings that are both kitschy and saturated with personal meaning. The photographs have never been shown before, nor has a group of Flack’s objects that were on display in a vitrine; this was the first time since the ’70s that the paintings were seen in New York.
In the painting Marilyn: Golden Girl (1978) the face of the film star in black and white appears once in full view and again at an oblique angle as if reflected in a mirror. Placed amid colorful lipstick tubes, a lit red candle and cherry-topped cupcakes, a painted biographical text recounts an incident from Marilyn’s childhood in which she was unexpectedly treated kindly by a teacher who powdered the girl’s nose instead of beating her after she ran away from her orphanage. The last line reads: “For it gives a glimpse as the powder goes on and the mirror comes up of a future artist conceiving a grand scheme in the illumination of an instant—one could paint oneself into an instrument of one’s will.” As if illustrating the point, two rainbows thickly applied with a palette knife break the otherwise smooth surface of the painting. Flack’s audacity lies in treating the Marilyn icon with sincerity, avoiding any mockery or critique, and also with empathy, using those rainbows to draw a parallel between Marilyn’s self-invention and her own.
Flack’s photographs, dense with objects—clocks nestled among bright fruits and cosmetics set against candles—reframe the moralistic still life of European tradition and the American 19th-century trompe l’oeil. (You can see suspending strings and wires, which are eliminated in the paintings.) What’s disarming, and by extension powerful, is the lack of irony in the choices she makes. Shooting in lush, deeply saturated color (her images were originally made as slides to paint from but were printed as Cibachromes for this show), using objects that point to the past but are noticeably contemporary—the orange is stamped “Sunkist,” the dice are transparent green resin—she seems to relish seeing how far she can push the images while still conveying the underlying vanitas theme.
Flack’s allover compositions—artificially structured, impossible in reality—and knowing yet earnest embrace of kitsch have led many critics to see her work as a precursor to Jeff Koons’s paintings of collaged advertising imagery. Perhaps more striking is her impact on artists like Marilyn Minter and Dike Blair, who likewise use clichéd photos as source images, and whose exacting techniques transform clichés into deeply personal meditations.
Photo: Audrey Flack: Marilyn: Golden Girl, 1978, acrylic and oil on canvas, 48 by 60 inches; at Gary Snyder.