Audrey Flack, Self-Portrait: The Memory

 
 

Written by Erin Adelman

Self-Portrait: The Memory Painting by Ausdrey Flack
Self-Portrait: The Memory
Audrey Flack
1958
Oil on canvas
50 in x 34 in
1993.40
 
Audrey Flack (born May 30, 1931) has been a prominent force in the art world for over seven decades. Her career began during her teenage years in the late 1940s when the Abstract Expressionist movement was gaining attention. Flack worked alongside her well-established male counterparts, such as Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning. Beginning at a young age, Flack learned to negotiate a space for herself as a female artist in an industry dominated and dictated by male artists, critics, collectors, and academics. She graduated from Cooper Union in 1951 and enrolled at Yale University, where she studied under Abstract artist Josef Albers. During the course of this formative time in her early career, Flack crafted a series of self-portraits that are emotive, personal, and exploratory. These self-portraits serve as a bridge between her interests in Abstract Expression and Photorealism. Her painterly style is evident in a collection of self-portraits she created throughout the 1950s. This personal series “moves between two distinct referents: the creative artist who in Western culture is traditionally assumed to be masculine, and the young woman who is the ‘object of the gaze.’” As the subject of these paintings, Flack brings an assertive presence, one that is aware and in control of the relationship between herself and the viewer. Self-Portrait: The Memory (1958) is Flack’s intimate examination of herself as a subject, as an artist, and as a body changing through time. 

Self-Portrait: The Memory fuses abstraction with the personal image of a self-portrait, creating a cathartic space for the artist to address grief, mortality, and transformation. In the painting, Flack stands before her canvas with one hand raised in the action of painting and her head turned toward the viewer. Much of her body and the surrounding space is rendered through frenzied lines and bold swatches of color. In contrast, Flack’s face is purposeful and life-like detail. Despite the shadows that shroud her eyes, Flack commands the gaze of the painting. She watches the viewer with a direct and pensive expression, bringing a self-aware and controlled energy as a subject. With her furrowed brow and lips tense, her visage imbues the painting with a sense of solemnity and intensity. 

Active brushstrokes provide a visual reminder of Flack’s own hand as the artist of the painting. Flack’s own body is partially solid, partially abstract. Drips of paint run down her torso, and a cloud of brown lines and brushstrokes surround the hand raised in the act of painting. Her legs fade into contours and paint splatters at the bottom of the canvas. These active brushstrokes imbue the painting with a strong sense of movement and dynamism, while also calling attention to the literal action of the painter herself. This quality recalls the way Abstract Expressionists valued the physical presence of the artist on the canvas. A canvas or window over her left shoulder, conveyed as a simple outline, indicates that the spatial depth of the painting extends beyond Flack at her canvas. Its vibrant blue color contrasts the shadowed and sorrowful expression on the artist’s face. This blue patch “suggests that she is using her force of will to go on, to find some joy and brightness in the midst of sorrow.” Hovering in the background is an underpainting of two heads, gray and abstracted and drifting in an undefined space.

Flack’s early self-portraits are sites of emotional complexity and intense contemplation, and these motifs are particularly evident in Self-Portrait: The Memory, which was executed following the death of her father. Modern art generally is interested in experimentation, abstraction, with an emphasis on material and techniques over meaning and emotion. However, Flack’s artwork has frequently been concerned with exploring and provoking feelings, both in the artist and in the viewer. In her own words Flack acknowledges that her artistic ideology conflicts with that of the Modernist movement: “I approve of sentiment, nostalgia, and emotion (three heretical words for modernism).” Though many of the other artists working during this time did not convey sentimentality and tenderness in their art, Flack chose to do so. She was negotiating a space for her unique vision and mission as an artist, particularly as a modern artist. Rather than rejecting emotion and the personal, Flack grapples with intense grief and confronts the intangibility of memories in Self-Portrait: The Memory. Reflecting on this painting and the events that inspired it, she said, “I loved my father and was devastated by his death. All I had was his memory.” Because the two faces hovering in the background are not fully detailed, it is difficult to say who they might be representing. However, it is possible that the faces are of Flack and her father, representing the memory that is referenced in the painting’s title. Memories—which by nature are distant, faded, and nearly unrecognizable—are the lasting imprint a deceased person can impart to those who are still alive. The underpainting may act as a visual representation of the illusory nature of memories and the intangibility of remembering. At the center of the picture plane Flack stands resolute and immovable. However, the nebulas of abstract lines spiraling around her body convey a feeling that is in opposition to her steadiness. Though Flack’s own body is motionless, the space around her is teeming with energy. It is as if her body is caught between what is and what is not yet, the concrete and the abstract. As she confronts the inevitability of death, she also confronts the physical and emotional changes of her own body existing in particular spaces at particular times. The canvas before her figure represents what art is for Flack: a cathartic space to feel, to grieve, and to transform despite the cerebral and detached expectations of Modernism.

Flack chooses to portray herself in the act of painting, calling attention to her identity as a female artist. As both the creator and the subject of the painting, she is in control of how her image is crafted in front of the viewer. The viewer stands where a mirror theoretically would be before Flack. She looks outward toward this space, “challenging authority and proclaiming the artist’s refusal to accept ‘the perfect image of herself.’” Her image confronts the viewer with quiet strength but without timidity or passivity. Flack is looking at herself while simultaneously looking at her viewer. And as she confronts her reflection and her viewer, she creates and controls her own image upon the canvas. Female subjects in art have historically been represented as passive and unaware of the gaze of the viewer. In contrast, Flack depicts herself as a watchful and assertive subject; she is observing the viewer as they observe her. The subject/viewer relationship is equal and measured, and this relationship is defined on the artist’s own terms.

In the following two decades Flack developed into a representational painter, spearheading the Photorealist movement of the 1970s. Though unbelievably life-like, her Photorealist paintings continue to evince the traces of her roots in abstraction. As one of the few female artists during the Photorealist movement, Flack said she “broke the unwritten code of acceptable subject matter. Photorealists painted cars, motorcycles and empty street scenes. Cool, unemotional and banal were the terms used to describe the movement,” whereas her own artwork “was humanist, emotional and filled with referential symbolic imagery.” Second Wave Feminist and Feminist Art arose during the second half of of the twentieth century as a backdrop to Flack’s progressing career. 

Self-Portrait: The Memory foreshadows themes and images that would recur over the next several decades in Flack’s oeuvre. Her Photorealist paintings, such as Queen (1975-76) and Gambler’s Cabinet (1976), combine signifiers of female identity, personal images, and complex compositions to continue exploring mortality, transformation, and the female image. Flack crafts a hybrid form, something that is both a still life and a self-portrait. Queen includes “images of or allusions to a female presence” that are often “overtly self-referential,” such as a queen of hearts, a large rose, and a keychain featuring photos of Flack with her mother. As with Self-Portrait: The Memory, Flack addresses “the passage of time,” which is “continuous and inevitable.” Gambler’s Cabinet includes many of the same objects—a queen of hearts, the double portrait, a clock—as well as three tubes of paint. This creates a slightly more nuanced iteration of the motifs considered in Queen. The paint tubes are positioned in the center of Gambler’s Cabinet, whereas the double portrait and blossoming rose is central to the composition of Queen. This difference emphasizes Flack’s identity as “the creative artist seeking her fortune and painting herself into an instrument of her own will,” an identity she continually emphasizes and defines in her art.

In the context of Confronting Greatness: A Celebration of Women Artists, Flack’s Self-Portrait: The Memory is an example of how female-identifying artists have negotiated a space in the art industry and demanded agency in how their bodies and identities are viewed and represented in art. Linda Nochlin’s groundbreaking essay entitled “Why Are There No Great Women Artists?” interrogates how the notion of greatness has been constructed and uncovers how that idea impacts female bodies and female artists. Art history as a discipline has unknowingly deemed the white male “as the viewpoint of the art historian.” As a result artistic greatness has been equated with masculinity, and female artists have been overlooked and misrepresented in academia and scholarship. However, Audrey Flack is an artist who centers herself as a woman artist throughout her oeuvre. Despite the conventions of Modernism, Flack consistently brought her vulnerable emotions and feminine identity to her work and continues to create art that grows with her.


Works Cited

Brooklyn Museum. n.d. “Audrey Flack.” Brooklyn Museum. Accessed December 7, 2020. 

https://www.brooklynmuseum.org/eascfa/about/feminist_art_base/audrey-flack.


Dietrich, Linnea S., and Thalia Gouma-Peterson. Audrey Flack: Reflections in a Mirror. Oxford,

Ohio: Miami University, 1998.


Flack, Audrey. Audrey Flack On Painting. New York: Harry N. Abrams, Incorporated, 1981.


Gouma-Petersom, Thalia. Breaking the Rules: Audrey Flack, a Retrospective 1950-1990. New

York: Harry N. Abrams, 1992. 


Nochlin, Linda. “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?” Women, Art, and Power.

New York: Harper and Row, 1988.


Tate. n.d. “Modernism - Art Term.” Tate. Accessed December 4, 2020.

https://www.tate.org.uk/art/art-terms/m/modernism.


The University of Arizona Museum of Art. n.d. “Art/Write - Audrey Flack.” Accessed November

19, 2020. https://artmuseum.arizona.edu/artwrite/audrey-flack.