An exhibition on view at the Rider University Art Gallery through Thursday, April 5, draws attention to the early work of an artist who made a difference at a time when making art was about making changes in the status quo. The featured artist, Audrey Flack, who is best known for her in-your-face realistic portraits of women, was both a product and a force of these times. Her efforts as artist and writer during the decades following the mid-20th century helped raise public consciousness regarding the role of women in art. It was a time when women were in the front lines, demanding and often fighting for their place in the arts and in our society at large. Flack will speak at the gallery about her work on Thursday, March 22.
Like their subjects, Flack’s heroically scaled paintings, for which she is best known, broke with tradition in order to present women in a context that went well beyond the idealized, decorative femme. As such, the exhibition functions as an introduction to the earliest days of a dynamic period as well as a collection well worth a visit.
The exhibition of some 20 paintings and drawings, made when the much-acclaimed artist was still a student at Yale, has many stories to tell. In part, it is simply about fine painting. Brushwork and color are artful demonstrations of the painter’s craft. It is also a graphic reminder of the many states artists pass through on the way to finding their aesthetic voice. Photorealism, interpretive realism, and elements of abstract expressionism all make strong statements. In addition, the collection serves nicely as a reflection of the art dynamic of the 1950s, a decade when the painterly gesture and a good deal of energy was spent on the deconstruction of the traditional image.
Echoes of De Kooning, Jackson Pollock, and Franz Kline are a presence in Flack’s work. They are tempered, however, by the power of her classical training, her serious concern with subject and technique, and her skill in putting paint on canvas.
An interview with the artist conducted by gallery director Harry I. Naar and published in the exhibition catalog indicates that Flack’s concerns were shaped by both past and present — a mix that is easy to see in the featured art. “I was deeply involved with Pollock, DeKooning, Kline,” she says, “but at the same time I was copying drawings by Tintoretto, Raphael, Rembrandt, and Rubens. I fell in love with Carlo Crivelli, a 15th century Venetian painter whose masterpieces hang on the second floor at the Met. All of these artists are still on my number one list with a few additions like Bernini, Cellini, and Alfred Gilbert.”
This happy marriage of stylistic concerns can be seen in a variety of ways, making this show a behind-the-scenes glimpse into Flack’s beginnings. Her interest in large scaled portraiture can be seen in “Lillian at Yale,” a life-sized painting in which realism triumphs over abstract expressionism, Flack’s primary interest at the time. And in a series of larger-than-life portraits the brushwork of abstract expressionism dominates, but the artist’s respect for subject and her concern with classical verities allows these painterly works to function on many levels.
The same is true for “Still Life With Grapefruit,” which greets the viewer as a softly-hued abstraction. A closer look, however, again reveals concern for the essence of the subject without limiting the gestural impact. Flack’s interest in the photo real, which marked her best-known later work, is apparent in an early self-portrait rendered in pencil and charcoal, notable for its finely articulated details. Despite its stylistic range, Flack describes her work as having but one meaning. “Good Art is Good Art. Bad Art is Bad Art. No matter when it was created or what style was in fashion at the time. My abstract paintings and my realistic works all contain the same emotional qualities. They are all me working in different styles, at different times in my life, at different ages and levels of maturity and understanding. None of us can get away from the inner core of who we are.”
Art Talk, Thursday, March 22, 7 p.m., Rider University, Bart Luedeke Center Theater, Lawrenceville. Photorealist Audrey Flack presents a talk in conjunction with “Audrey Flack: 1950-1960, Transition: Abstract Expressionism to Photo Realism.” She will also perform with her Flacktones Art Band. Exhibit on view through Thursday, April 5. 609-896-5033.
The Rider College Art Gallery, on the third floor of the Bart Leudeke Center is open Monday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. and Sunday noon to 4 p.m.