A painter who may be best known for her contribution to the Photorealism movement, Audrey Flack has been a working artist for roughly 70 years. Now at age 90, Flack reflects on the art world, from her days as part of the New York School of artists in the 1950s and 60s; her rise to fame as the only prominent female Photorealist; her embrace of sculpture and public art in the 1980s and 90s; and her return to painting only a few years ago.

In this wide-ranging conversation, Flack also shares her experiences in college with renowned modernist Joseph Albers; a strange and unnerving experience with renowned painter Jackson Pollock; how she coped raising children through all of this; and much more. We’re joined by artist Sharon Louden, who is a mutual friend of Flack and myself.

This is Flack’s first-ever podcast, and I’m excited for you to hear the story of this incredible artist who continues to push us to see the world anew. I hope you enjoy this epic interview with the talented artist.

The music in this episode is Ultra (Yung Sherman Mix) by Evian Christ, courtesy of Warp Records.

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A full transcript of the interview can be found below. This transcript has been edited for length and clarity.

Intro by Hrag Vartanian: This episode is a long conversation with artist, Audrey Flack, a painter who may be best known for her contribution to the Photorealism movement in the late 1960s and throughout the ’70s, when she was the only woman helping to define this new form of realism that looked closely at photographs to help render the world in paint.

Instead of riding the wave of fame from that era, Flack actually stopped painting in the 1980s, preferring to focus on sculpture and other projects, but she’s back to painting. And in the last few years, she’s picked up the brush again, and is creating works that continue to speak to her love of images. She’s a veteran of the New York art world and her art is in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum, the Museum of Modern Art, the Whitney Museum, and dozens of others.

I invited her to the studio to record her first ever podcast so we can hear what it was like for an artist who began life as an abstract expressionist painter before turning to realism in public art, and then returning to her painterly roots. The conversation includes discussion of her time in college under the direction of renowned modernist, Josef Albers, as well as an unnerving experience with Pollock. Yes, Jackson, Pollock. And how she coped raising children throughout all of this, including the fact that one of her children is autistic. And I’m sure you can imagine how hard that was to accommodate during the ’60s and ’70s during the period when few resources were available. I also want to mention that you can periodically hear a little stray ping during the interview, as unfortunately there was an errant device in the studio we weren’t able to track down until all of it was done. We’re joined for the interview by artist, Sharon Louden, who’s a mutual friend of Flack and myself, and I hope you enjoy this epic interview with the talented artist.

So Audrey, thank you so much for being here. This is really exciting. So I want to start at the beginning. Where were you born? And tell us a little bit about your childhood.

Audrey Flack: Oh, wow. Let’s see. I was born I can’t tell you how many years ago. A lot of years, 90 years ago in Brooklyn. 

Hrag Vartanian: Wow. What part of Brooklyn?

Audrey Flack: Brighton Beach. 

Hrag Vartanian: And what was Brighton Beach like then? 

Audrey Flack: Well, I moved away when I was a year, so I can’t quite tell you, but I think it was probably mixed, maybe Jewish. I don’t know, now it’s very Russian.

Hrag Vartanian: Yep. But a lot of Russian Jewish.

Audrey Flack: Yeah. But I have the ocean in my bones. I do.

Hrag Vartanian: So that started there.

Audrey Flack: I need to be near the ocean.

Hrag Vartanian: So after a year, where did you move to? 

Audrey Flack: I think I moved to the Lower East Side. You know, we were poor. So you moved a lot because you got a free rent.

Hrag Vartanian: What does that mean?

Audrey Flack: Well, if you moved, I think every six months or every year, you got free month’s rent. So people moved a lot. And then where I really grew up after a couple of years on the Lower East Side was Washington Heights, which is getting very popular now.

Hrag Vartanian: Super popular.

Audrey Flack: Nobody heard of it then, you know?

Hrag Vartanian: Yeah.

Audrey Flack: So I grew up on 175th Street and Fort Washington Avenue. And the Hudson River is my river. And I remember when there was not one building on the Palisades. The Palisades were just a beautiful rock formation. 

Hrag Vartanian: Okay, so now fast forward a little bit. When did you decide you were going to become an artist? 

Audrey Flack: You know, Hrag, I don’t think it was a decision. I think for some people it’s a calling like to the clergy, you just gotta do it. And I think in those days, it takes that kind of intensity and feeling because there weren’t that many artists, I mean, it’s so different now. 

Hrag Vartanian: Right. So what was the calling though? Because usually there’s a calling, there’s a purpose or a mission. Usually that’s what the calling is. So what was your mission? 

Audrey Flack: Oh, that came later. Early on I was hyperactive and they would have put me on Ritalin or, you know, whatever. ‘Cause I couldn’t sit still. I still can’t sit still. And I went to a school where you had to sit with your hands clasped on the desk. And I would jerk around and itch and move. And then I was called “bad” and I was always thrown out of class. I thought I was pretty stupid. I didn’t have a good image of myself, but outside, one teacher took pity on me and gave me a sheet of Oak tag, just kind of paper and some crayons. And I became the class artist and it was the only thing that put the world in order for me, was seeing. Physiologically my eyes are really sharp. You know, I’ve been in foundries with a lot of macho guys and I’m saying, “The statue is not straight. She’s at a very slight angle,” and we’ve had arguments for hours. You’re shaking your head, right?

Sharon Louden: I’m just laughing because I can just see you doing that. 

Audrey Flack: Yeah. And they’re all, “Oh, she’s being difficult, she’s a lady,” and then they’d measure and they’d take plumb lines. And of course I was right. You know? So the other thing that I think was important besides having, I think, superior vision, my daughter has perfect pitch or something. My body calmed down my hyperactive senses. We made a diorama in kindergarten and I lost track. I was, I was projected into sacred time. Out of the profane time. 

Hrag Vartanian: You knew it, you were in the zone.

Audrey Flack: I was in the zone. I didn’t know, I was a little kid, but I was in the zone that only … I loved it. 

Hrag Vartanian: Did you have artists around you? ‘Cause often, you know, I mean, was your family supportive of the idea? 

Audrey Flack: Never saw an artist. They didn’t know what an artist was, you know? And then when I heard about Music & Art High School, I thought, oh my God, a high school where I could study art. You needed to have a portfolio. I didn’t know what it was. So I said, “Mom, what’s a portfolio?” Nobody knew. So they said, go to Woolworths, go to the five and ten. They have everything. So I took my allowance and I traipsed over to Woolworth and I asked, “Do you have a portfolio?” to the girl at the cosmetics counter while I’m trying on lipsticks and nobody knew what I was talking about. Finally, somebody said go over there to the stationery department. And lo and behold, there was a little 8 by 10 leatherette folder with gold-embossed writing that said ‘portfolio,’ and I said, “Oh my God, here is a portfolio.” So I bought it and I couldn’t understand why there was writing paper and letters and envelopes in it, but I took it out and I made my 10 drawings. And I went to take the test and I got out, my father drove me in his old Buick and I opened the door and I wanted to fall through the floor and die because I saw these kids with these huge black portfolios. And I had this little stupid … I knew immediately what it was. 

Hrag Vartanian: I love it. Okay. So that was at the high school you went to?

Audrey Flack: Well, Music & Art, greatest, most important thing.

Hrag Vartanian: Where was that?

Audrey Flack: Music & Art was on 135th Street and Convent Avenue. 

Hrag Vartanian: Got it. Okay. So you went to high school, you left high school. What happened then? 

Audrey Flack: You know, there were three lucky things that happened to me. Because I was supposed to get married and have children. My mother’s mantra was “Too much education ruins a girl’s chance of marriage.” Although she was a very bright woman who was an addictive gambler, but she had those ideas. So the next lucky thing that happened was that another friend of mine said she was taking a test for Cooper Union. A free — ’cause we didn’t have much money. No girl in the family had ever gone to college. I found out about the test and got in. 

Hrag Vartanian: Amazing. 

Audrey Flack: Got in. And the third one was I’m about to graduate Cooper and still being in trouble, still being Audrey. I get tapped on the shoulder by the Dean who says, “Go up to the president’s office,” and I thought, oh, they’re gonna throw me out. I’m not going to graduate, terrible things. I was used to this and I go and I opened the door and there’s an apparition. It’s Josef Albers sitting in an easy chair talking to the president. And Albers had just left Black Mountain. He took over Yale and he had inherited students that were painting in a very tight, academic manner. And they didn’t know what the hell he was talking about in his German accent yah, is talking modernism, und they did not know, they did not care. And he was going to lose his job.

Hrag Vartanian: Why?

Audrey Flack: Because he left as dean of Black Mountain to come to Yale and there was, they didn’t know what … he was losing the students. He had no connection with the students. They didn’t understand the language of modernism and Albers was not communicating very well.

Hrag Vartanian: Got it. 

Audrey Flack: He had this idea that he would import a couple of revolutionary rebels to help him revolutionize the school. 

Hrag Vartanian: So is that how you ended up at Yale?

Audrey Flack: I got a scholarship.

Hrag Vartanian: So you went from Cooper Union to Yale? 

Audrey Flack: Yeah.

Hrag Vartanian: Got it. Okay. So you got a scholarship, so both of you, Sharon and you both are Yalies. 

Audrey Flack: When did you go, Sharon? 

Sharon Louden: I went ’89 to ’91 for MFA. 

Hrag Vartanian: So can I ask both of you, about Yale and that experience? 

Audrey Flack: You go ahead, Sharon. 

Sharon Louden: No, Audrey, you …

Audrey Flack: It was different when you went there.

Hrag Vartanian: Why don’t we start with you, Audrey, and then we’ll ask Sharon to chime in to see how it goes.

Audrey Flack: Well, I thought I’d died and went to heaven. I mean, this is, I’m a New York kid.

Hrag Vartanian: Right.

Audrey Flack: And this is an Ivy League school, with real ivy growing on the building. I remember seeing … I remember my first day and I saw these boys in Shetland sweaters and cashmere sweaters tied around their waists. 

Sharon Louden: Oh my God.

Audrey Flack: Playing football in the mud. And I’m thinking, those sweaters are gonna get dirty. Don’t they care? 

Hrag Vartanian: Oh, money. 

Audrey Flack: Yeah. It was quite amazing. By the way, that was my first protest.

Hrag Vartanian: Protest? Tell us more.

Audrey Flack: Well, we had to sign into the school.

Hrag Vartanian: Okay.

Audrey Flack: And you had to go to the secretary’s office and sign papers. And part of it was race, religion, and gender. Well, clearly I’m White and clearly I’m female. But I’m also Jewish. And it was a quota system, which I did not know. Very strong quota system. 

Hrag Vartanian: Right. 

Audrey Flack: So I refused to sign any of it. And they said, “You can’t go to the school unless you sign this. You can’t be allowed in.” And I said, “Well, I don’t think this is right. I’m not signing it.” And they made me sit in that hard bench in that secretary’s office until five o’clock in the afternoon. Word went up to the president of Yale and I said, oh my God, what did I do? They’re going to kick me out. Why did I do this … but they let me in. They had one Black woman medical student. So that took care of that. I was one of the couple of Jewish people. And women. 

Hrag Vartanian: Why do you think they gave you a pass not to sign the document? 

Audrey Flack: Maybe they didn’t want trouble. Maybe I was … 

Hrag Vartanian: You look like trouble, Audrey.

Audrey Flack: I never, no … I don’t, oh! 

Hrag Vartanian: That’s why I’m doing my job interviewing you. I want to know. 

Audrey Flack: Oh no, no, I don’t know. I just really basically want to do my work. 

Hrag Vartanian: Was Yale overall a positive experience? Mixed bag? What would you call it? 

Audrey Flack: It was fabulous. I had the best classes that I ever took. I took every art history class. There was one woman teacher who they gave the worst times to. Her name was Elizabeth Chase, Betsy Chase, and I went to contact her and she had died, but she taught a course called “Iconography of the Bible.” Changed my life. 

Hrag Vartanian: What about that class? 

Audrey Flack: Oh, it’s brilliant. I know more about the saints than, you know, any good Catholic.

Hrag Vartanian: Ooh. Okay. I’m going to ask you about that when we talk about your paintings. ‘Cause I can kind of see how maybe that helped you sort of formulate some of them. So how about you, Sharon? What was your experience at Yale? 

Sharon Louden: No, it was, it was intense. It was really intense. I really enjoyed it, actually. There was, it was an important time. It was transformative. I mean, pretty similar. Yeah. In a way, but I didn’t have Albers there though. 

Audrey Flack: Oh. Lucky you. 

Hrag Vartanian: So tell me, how was Albers as a teacher, Audrey? 

Audrey Flack: Oh, my. Albers and I, you know, I think, I’m afraid to say this. I think he’s a dangerous man in the sense that he’s dogmatic.

Hrag Vartanian: Right.

Audrey Flack: And he had his ideas and I think he ruined a lot of people. A great teacher, a good teacher doesn’t need to make clones.

Hrag Vartanian: That’s right.

Audrey Flack: And he needed to make clones. What happened with us is he had his color theory. I think one of the things he said was, “If you don’t listen to me, I might as well commit suicide.” That was one of his sayings.

Hrag Vartanian: That’s charming. 

Audrey Flack: And he looked so grandfatherly. You know, he had these pink Bavarian cheeks and white hair, and there was this myth about him. And I was very impressed. But I was slinging paint from 20 feet away and always hanging out with Pollock. Which is why he wanted me there.

Hrag Vartanian: Oh, wow. So he knew that. 

Audrey Flack: He knew that. Oh, he knew that.

Hrag Vartanian: So when did you start hanging out with him? Was it at Cooper Union that you started hanging out with him? We’re going back and forth. That’s why I’m confused, how he would have known. 

Audrey Flack: Well, when he interviewed me. At Cooper.

Hrag Vartanian: Okay, at Cooper Union. Got it. 

Audrey Flack: He said, “Oh, you know Jackson Pollock?” And I said yes. “You know Franz Kline?” Yes. And, “How do you paint?” And I had to bring my paintings up there for him to see. And then he said, “Yah, yah, you will go.” So he knew that I was what he needed to help revolutionize the school. If you’re sitting there with a student that was painting with a brush with two hairs in it and applying gold leaf.

Hrag Vartanian: Yup.

Audrey Flack: And I’m slinging paint from a bucket, that student has got to be affected by me.

Hrag Vartanian: Right.

Audrey Flack: And he was right. I mean, we did it for him. 

Hrag Vartanian: So you were, at that time, you were still an abstract painter doing all over paintings, right? 

Audrey Flack: I was an Abstract Expressionist. 

Hrag Vartanian: Okay. So now, how did you meet Jackson Pollock and Franz Kline and all these people? 

Audrey Flack: But with Albers, by the way, we had to have an extreme break.

Hrag Vartanian: What does that mean? 

Audrey Flack: Well, I stopped having anything to do with him, midway, and I thought he was gonna kick me out. To his credit, he never did.

Hrag Vartanian: Huh? So why? What happened?

Audrey Flack: Well, there was an incident. I was making a grid on a painting and the grid had squares and it was only the basis for my color, for my spatial theories. What color was going to be in front of the grid? What was going to be in back of the grid? You know, I was playing around with that. I wasn’t interested in the fact that this grid was squares. 

Hrag Vartanian: Right. 

Audrey Flack: Albers came in and says, “Ah, squares.” He was doing this homage to the square paintings while I was there.

Hrag Vartanian: Which he’s known for, yep.

Audrey Flack: And he sat down and he got very excited, but he got a little too excited in the wrong way.

Sharon Louden: Oh my gosh.

Audrey Flack: His hand went up from my knee and I was watching it in disbelief saying, you know, I’m at Yale. This is not happening. This is Joseph Albers. This is not happening. And it was happening. And he finally got up to my crotch. Right between my, I jumped up and the chair got knocked over.

Hrag Vartanian: Oh, wow.

Audrey Flack: That was it. I never, never spoke to him again. Never took a class with him. But to his credit, you know, I saw him watching me, keeping an eye on the work. He could have done something awful. He didn’t. 

Hrag Vartanian: Okay. Well, I mean, you say to his credit, but really he still transgressed. So, you know, to your credit, you stayed in the program. 

Audrey Flack: Oh God, it was so many great — I took an art history course with Charles Seymour, Jr. What a great course. I learned so much. 

Hrag Vartanian: Wow. Okay. So now let’s hear about, I guess I’m curious about the Jackson Pollock and Franz Kline. What’s that all about? 

Audrey Flack: Sharon, don’t you wanna, we got to get some more from you now. 

Hrag Vartanian: She’ll jump in. She’ll jump in. We’re setting the stage still. I want the Audrey Flack story. 

Sharon Louden: I love hearing all of this. 

Hrag Vartanian: I want the story. We’re going epic now. So, let’s hear. 

Sharon Louden: I’m absorbing your energy. 

Hrag Vartanian: And Sharon’s also here partly to make you and me both feel comfortable because I think she has that effect on us, so. 

Audrey Flack: Oh, you are too. 

Hrag Vartanian: Aw, you’re too kind. 

Audrey Flack: And I like that ATM machine. 

Hrag Vartanian: Yeah. Awesome. All the compliments to Andrew Ohanesian. That’s awesome. So, tell us a little bit about that. I mean, here you are, this young, bushy-tailed painter, shows up at Cooper Union. You know, you mentioned yourself, grew up from a poor background.

Audrey Flack: We were very poor during the Depression and then we were like, I don’t know.

Hrag Vartanian: Lower middle-class.

Audrey Flack: Yeah, middle class. 

Hrag Vartanian: Exactly. Becoming middle-class. 

Audrey Flack: And then became middle-class. 

Hrag Vartanian: Okay. That totally makes sense. So, tell us about that experience and encountering these painters. I mean, did you know of them before you met them? Was it something like, were they even well-known beyond certain art circles? I mean, I’d love for you to set the stage a little bit.

Audrey Flack: Well, the stage was set at Music & Art because in Music & Art, I always wanted to draw like an old master. I would like to say old mistress now, and that got beaten out of every art student. Because then, representational art was scorned. It was bad. It was lower class. Which is one of the reasons that a certain museum in New York has promoted that in those days.

Hrag Vartanian: I think we all know which one. 

Audrey Flack: Well, I’ll talk about that because MoMA used to have ads. You’re too young to remember. And they would have a picture of a Bouguereau. I don’t know if people know Bouguereau.

Hrag Vartanian: The 19th-century artist. Academy artist.

Audrey Flack: Yes. Who is a beautiful painter, you know. People scorn him. I love Bouguereau. Don’t be afraid to like those kinds of things. He’s an incredible artist. So they would put a Bouguereau up. And then they would put a Picasso. And the headline read, “Which is the work of art?”

Hrag Vartanian: Oh, wow.

Audrey Flack: And if you were an ignorant dolt, lower-class bourgeois idiot, you liked the Bouguereau, which all the people liked the Bouguereau. But if you were smart and intellectual and with it, you went for the Picasso and that is how MoMA shaped vision. That’s how they shaped modernism. And, and there was a kind of elitist —

Hrag Vartanian: Classism too.

Audrey Flack: Yeah. Yeah.

Hrag Vartanian: Makes sense.

Audrey Flack: And they really dictated in a very subtle way what you were going to like. So it started in high school and I even forged a few Picassos, which are out there. 

Hrag Vartanian: Wait, what?

Audrey Flack: Yeah. They were easy to do. 

Hrag Vartanian: So what do you mean, you forged them? 

Audrey Flack: You can’t forge a Bouguereau. You can’t forge a Flack. 

Hrag Vartanian: Wait, you forged them and then they’re circulating out there as Picassos?

Audrey Flack: I did. 

Hrag Vartanian: Do you know where any of them are?

Audrey Flack: No. 

Hrag Vartanian: Ooh, okay. This is a little mystery I like. Okay, go on. 

Audrey Flack: And then, you know, it was the cubism, it was modernism, really. So I get to Cooper and Cooper is on Astor Place and it’s in the heart of this burgeoning new movement, Abstract Expressionism. And my teacher, Nick Marsicano, was very handsome. A good friend of all of those guys. 

Hrag Vartanian: Got it. 

Audrey Flack: And he was an original member of the Artists Club and you know, all the girls had a crush on him, including me. But he liked me and he would take me around with him. And that’s when I met … And he also taught that, I mean, we were always doing stain paintings before Helen Frankenthaler, but I didn’t want to work that way, but I have a couple. I have a couple in our studio.

Hrag Vartanian: So what years are these? ’40s? 

Audrey Flack: I got out of M&A in ’48. 

Hrag Vartanian: Okay. 

Audrey Flack: So it’s ’49, ’50, ’51. 

Hrag Vartanian: Got it. Okay. So what was it like meeting these, like, did you know who you were meeting? The Jackson Pollocks and Franz Klines? 

Audrey Flack: Oh, they were the heroes. The art world was very small, not like today. 

Hrag Vartanian: Right. 

Audrey Flack: You knew everybody, right? You just knew wherever you went. There were three galleries. Three. There was Sidney Janis, [Samuel] Kootz, and Charlie Egan. That’s it.

Hrag Vartanian: That was it. 

Audrey Flack: And then later the co-ops opened up and then Betty Parsons and, you know, but even when there were a lot of galleries, you knew you could go to every gallery —

Hrag Vartanian: In a day.

Audrey Flack: Yeah. Easily, easily. And you knew every artist around. 

Hrag Vartanian: So were you impressed by these artists? 

Audrey Flack: Oh my God. Yeah. They were great. And they were all honchos, it was very male-dominated. 

Hrag Vartanian: Macho.

Audrey Flack: Very. And I saved enough money to rent a studio. It wasn’t like going to college where you have a dorm room and you go, you have a lunch room. I mean, this is the Bowery. I had to step over bums to get into the front door of Cooper. So I found a studio in a condemned building and it was condemned because it should be condemned. 

Hrag Vartanian: And where was the building? 

Audrey Flack: It was on 8th Street. On Third Avenue. It’s still there. It’s refurbished, but the stairway was slanted and I was on the third floor. And you could look, the floor was so rotted. There was a big hole and you could look right down.

Sharon Louden: Oh my gosh.

Audrey Flack: To the second floor where there was an artist who inked Spider-Man. 

Hrag Vartanian: No way. 

Sharon Louden: Wow. 

Audrey Flack: And I used to ink Spider-Man when he had too much. I did. He gave me the work. 

Hrag Vartanian: Oh, amazing. So were you impressed by these guys, by these artists? Did they treat you well? I mean, what was it like? I guess this is the storied sort of legend of the New York School, right? These are the characters and you were there. 

Audrey Flack: I was there. 

Hrag Vartanian: So what would you tell people about that? 

Audrey Flack: I’ll tell people about that. I’m the last one standing. For reason is that I didn’t drink myself into a stupor. I didn’t shoot drugs. They scared the shit out of me, these people a lot. 

Hrag Vartanian: So were both of those very much part of that scene?

Audrey Flack: Oh my God. That was it. They were all drunks, the women and the men.

Hrag Vartanian: And they were addicts too? 

Audrey Flack: Well, I didn’t know it, but Larry Rivers was shooting heroin at the time.

Hrag Vartanian: Got it.

Audrey Flack: And I think Mike Goldberg, but mostly it was alcohol. 

Hrag Vartanian: Right. And that was just everywhere.

Audrey Flack: That was it, that’s what you did. 

Hrag Vartanian: So were they functional alcoholics? I don’t mean to flatten it, but what was it like? 

Audrey Flack: For me, I put on a good act, I was probably cute. And that was another thing that wasn’t very nice. If you weren’t good-looking, they made really disparaging remarks. Bill de Kooning said if Lee Krasner sat on his lap, he’d spread his legs and let her fall on her ass. It’s kind of not nice. 

Hrag Vartanian: Crass.

Audrey Flack: Yeah. It was. Well, I could tell you some real crass things that he said. You know, these people, and a lot of it is in a book that I’m writing because I almost feel a little bit bad or guilty about saying anything not nice because I think Bill de Kooning’s a great painter. I love his work. 

Hrag Vartanian: But he’s a human being. 

Audrey Flack: But the guy was a drop-dead alcoholic drunk who [used] terribly abusive language with his daughter and probably abused her in many, many ways. And she wound up an alcoholic drug addict who killed herself.

Hrag Vartanian: Right. 

Audrey Flack: And it’s been glamorized. It’s not glamorous. It’s not glamorous. It is not glamorous. And I don’t think people should look at it that way. 

Hrag Vartanian: That’s a great point. 

Audrey Flack: Got to see the underbelly. 

Hrag Vartanian: Absolutely. Well, I mean, what you said earlier, you know, people were struggling. It’s not like people were making a lot of money. I mean, was there a career for people?

Audrey Flack: Oh, that was the beautiful part about it. Art was just, it was your life. You just talked about art on the street, you talked about art in the Cedar Bar and it was idealism. It wasn’t money. It wasn’t collectors. And when that happened, things started breaking up, but there was an intensity and you went for the sublime. Which is what I think Pollock did. It was beautiful. It was a beautiful moment in time, but also dangerous. 

Hrag Vartanian: Why dangerous? 

Audrey Flack: Well, I became quite close to Grace Hartigan and Elaine de Kooning. But later after they stopped drinking. But the women … that’s why Sharon, I’m so glad you’re my friend. I’m always looking for a woman artist. It was all these macho guys around and these women acting like the men and they felt that their work had to be brutal and strong and heavy, heavy lines. And you know, when you really think in terms of art history, how the movement is defined, it’s completely male. The same, by the way, that they tried to do with Photorealism. 

Hrag Vartanian: Right. Cause you were the one woman in the movement. That’s right. 

Audrey Flack: And they try to define it as cars, motorcycles, deadpan faces like Chuck, unemotional, unfeeling, cool colors.

Hrag Vartanian: Right. So now tell me a little bit about, I guess you went to the Cedar Bar. What was that like? What did it smell like? What were people like? As a woman, did you ever feel like you weren’t welcome? 

Audrey Flack: Oh no. They like women, the guys like women and women were… you know, [for] most of those guys, women were to be used and poked and prodded and slept with. If you had a woman, she was going to send out your announcements and your brochures and posts for you. 

Hrag Vartanian: Gotcha. Were women welcome to join the art conversations and the debates? 

Audrey Flack: Well, yeah, in a way. But they knew they had to be tough. And I think, poor Elaine [de Kooning], I think about her. I think her toughness sorta did her in. We had lunch every week at Eddie’s luncheonette in East Hampton. It was a little hole in the wall. And we used to go out and do watercolors together and Elaine … Elaine was brilliant, but she puffed away on her cigarettes like Bette Davis. And she had this tough manner and she was dying of lung cancer and told no one, I didn’t know, I’m watching her puff away. And there was kind of behavior. Grace [Hartigan] was the same until Grace joined AA. Or Joan Mitchell. You don’t want to know about Joan Mitchell. 

Hrag Vartanian: I’ve heard stories about her.

Audrey Flack: Oh God, you don’t want to know. And I think with her, there was some mental illness as there was with Pollock. So what are you talking about? A group of people that kind of scorned … I felt like, oh my God, I was bourgeois and that’s a dirty word. You know, I better not show that. But I was, you know? I wouldn’t go to bed with them just to say I went to bed with them. 

Hrag Vartanian: Hmm. So what do you think you learned during that period? Because, I mean, I understand you’re trying to bring it down to earth. It was a real scene with its own problems, challenges, brilliant people, but also people with a lot of other issues, which, you know, they’re human, that’s the way it is. What do you feel like you took away from that period? 

Audrey Flack: You know, Hrag, I’m still evaluating it. Because it’s like, if you’re a little duck and that’s what you see, you know what I mean? It was what I saw. I broke from them after that night with Pollock. 

Hrag Vartanian: Wait, what night with Pollock? Let’s hear about that. 

Audrey Flack: And that’s when I never went back to the Cedar again and it was the end and that’s when my work started changing. I went to the bar …

Hrag Vartanian: Cedar Bar?

Audrey Flack: Yeah. I mean, the beauty of the purity of caring about nothing but the art, that was beautiful. You wonder about Lee Krasner and Elaine, those women who just promoted their husbands. What was that about? But anyhow, you were alone all day in your studio. And so I would fix myself up and put a little lipstick on and, you know, change my dirty sweatshirt and go to the bar. And I remember seeing Larry Rivers and Mike Goldberg — and Mike was very handsome — sitting with two women. And there were booths in front and it’s very crowded and smoky and exciting. Lots of art conversation. Lots of shot glasses of scotch with beer chasers. And they call me over and said, “Come on, sit down.” And they were a little too loud. And I told you that’s when Larry was shooting up and I didn’t know. But I knew that they were drunk and I was very attracted to Mike and had I sat down, I would have been in the in-crowd, right? Mike was having an affair with Joan Mitchell and I just couldn’t do it. So I walked to the back and I sat at a table thinking about what I was gonna do. And right opposite me at the bar was Jackson. [He] had a big head and he was … his hand cupped to his forehead, leaning down drinking, and then he spotted me. You don’t remember, I’m young and fresh. And he started looking at me and I was getting high from just, ah, you know. I mean, I had come across him before and I had said hello at the Artists Club, we had minimal chats, but this was different. And then he staggered over and almost fell into the seat next to me and began rubbing his stubbly face against mine. It was like prickles, like a porcupine. And we started talking. We must’ve been there a couple of hours. So we ordered something to eat like a ham and cheese and, you know, he ordered more drinks and I had a wine and I wanted to talk about his work and I wanted to talk about art. And he wanted me. 

Hrag Vartanian: Right. 

Audrey Flack: And he started pinching me and I said, “Jackson, you know, calm down.” So he did. And then we ate and then he leans over at one and I looked at him. He had these little capillaries broken on his nose. You drink too much, it does things to you. And he … I couldn’t kiss him.

Hrag Vartanian: Right.

Audrey Flack: You know, it was foul. I also thought he was very old. My God, how old was he, 40? Oh my God. So, he was like my hero and my God, he was like a star. And then he leans over and he says, “Let’s fuck.” And Jackson said, “Yeah, let’s go to my place and we’ll fuck.” I said, “No, that’s not going to happen.” “Well, we’ll go to your place.” And he kept going on and on. I said, “Jackson, no, not going to do that,” you know, “Calm down.” I put my arm on his … and it was very sad. He was, like, desperate and he needed a fix.

Hrag Vartanian: Right.

Audrey Flack: So … 

Hrag Vartanian: I’m guessing he was with Lee Krasner then. 

Audrey Flack: Yeah and I’m thinking, he’s married, what is he doing? Why is he … you know, I introduced Ruth Kligman to Jackson.

Hrag Vartanian: Oh.

Audrey Flack: That’s another story. I’m so sorry that ever happened. Anyhow. They were closing the place. I went home alone and it was scary. I had moved to Chelsea by then because my studio in the condemned building, the toilet was in the middle of the room. That was it. It was in the middle. There was no sink, no nothing. There was just no shower, no kitchen. So I moved to Chelsea just for a walk off and I walked home and I said, “I’m never going back.” 

Hrag Vartanian: Oh, wow. So a lot of people would have just sort of turned their back on the scene altogether. And like maybe even art. You, it didn’t …

Audrey Flack: Well, a lot of people would’ve gone to bed with him.

Hrag Vartanian: That’s true, too.

Audrey Flack: A lot of people would have used that opportunity.

Hrag Vartanian: And I’m sure some people did.

Audrey Flack: Most of ’em did. 

Hrag Vartanian: Right. Right. So, but you kept the faith. You kept the faith of your work and dedication. So how did you do that? Because during that era, it wasn’t easy. Particularly as a woman.

Audrey Flack: No.

Hrag Vartanian: So how did you stay true to what it is you wanted to do?

Audrey Flack: You just do. How do you? You just do, I had a million … 

Hrag Vartanian: It’s hard. I mean, as much as I’d like to say it’s easy, it’s not. And I’m sure the same with you. 

Audrey Flack: I had the worst jobs. I mean, I had all kinds of jobs. I was a horrible typist. I got fired from more jobs than you could imagine, you know? And I kept up my habit. That’s what I did. I went on unemployment. I painted in my bedroom. I did what I had to do. You have to do it. When you gotta do it, you gotta do it. 

Hrag Vartanian: You gotta do it. So you left college. What? In the mid-’50s?

Audrey Flack: Got out of Yale ’52.

Hrag Vartanian: ’52. Okay. ’52. Then what, what did you do then? 

Audrey Flack: Oh my God. I worked for the Berlin and Jones envelope factory where I sat next to a gluing machine that put this sticky, horrible glue on the envelopes. I worked for an accountant who fired me immediately. I painted roses on hurricane lamps, on glass lampshades, glass lamps, and I wired the lamps. I designed textiles and tried to organize. If I got a penny for every textile … I still see them walking around with my designs.

Hrag Vartanian: Really? 

Audrey Flack: Yeah. But I couldn’t organize the artists. What did we get? $64 a design and $27 a coloring. 

Hrag Vartanian: Wow. That’s amazing. What was the company you were doing textile designs for? 

Audrey Flack: Well, I worked for a guy named Jack Prince. It was great job because I could just sit there and make these. Did you ever hear of Paul Thek? 

Hrag Vartanian: Yeah.

Audrey Flack: Yeah, well, Paul sat right next to me. 

Hrag Vartanian: No way! The artist Paul Thek? 

Audrey Flack: Yeah. 

Hrag Vartanian: Wow. 

Audrey Flack: Paul and I both worked for Jack and Paul was so beautiful. 

Hrag Vartanian: Wow. 

Audrey Flack: And I started his meat series. 

Hrag Vartanian: What do you mean you started his meat series? 

Audrey Flack: Well, my index finger …

Hrag Vartanian: Okay.

Audrey Flack: … was the first piece of meat cast. 

Hrag Vartanian: No way. 

Audrey Flack: I put it in a butter dish. 

Hrag Vartanian: No way. That’s your finger! 

Audrey Flack: That’s my finger. 

Sharon Louden: Wow. 

Hrag Vartanian: That’s incredible. So were most of your designs for those textiles, were they floral?

Audrey Flack: Yeah, he was so beautiful. 

Hrag Vartanian: But what were your designs like for that? 

Audrey Flack: I did geometrics. I was a great rose expert and I did the Poiret rose, but they sold millions of tons of fabric, even a penny, a yard … 

Hrag Vartanian: Would’ve made your career or made your life. Okay. So now we’re getting into the ’50s, you’re still doing all-over painting. Is that correct? Or have you changed the type of work you were doing in the ’50s?

Audrey Flack: Well, I started to … the Ab. Ex. work started to get shaped. And it started to have a sky, forms, and then I did, you could make out figures. 

Hrag Vartanian: So it was starting to be abstractions. Yeah. 

Audrey Flack: Which de Kooning was doing too, you know? And then I just, this urge to draw. Albers did not allow models. They had no drawing at Yale. Did you have drawing when you went there? 

Sharon Louden: Yeah, we did. We had Bernie Chaet, who I loved. I loved him so much. He was a great teacher. And then William Bailey. Yeah, my God, Bill Bailey and Chaet. They both were big into figuration.

Audrey Flack: Yeah. 

Sharon Louden: But I was abstracting those figures. I told Bailey one time, I said, “That’s still figuration.” He said, “No, once it’s abstract, it’s not figuration,” but I’d have to disagree with that.

Audrey Flack: Yeah. 

Hrag Vartanian: So, Sharon, do you have a question for Audrey? I mean, you’re hearing all these, I’d love to also connect as another woman artist in the art world. Any questions in terms of what we’ve been hearing so far about her sort of earlier years? 

Sharon Louden: I love that you have stayed to your truth. You stay to your truth as you always do. You stay to your truth and that power that got you through that. Did you ever have any doubts about that? Like looking back. I mean, it must’ve been challenging during that time but yet you stayed true to the power that’s within you. 

Audrey Flack: I don’t know if you even have a choice. 

Sharon Louden: Yeah. That makes sense. 

Audrey Flack: I think it became very rough for me when I had kids because you weren’t … old masters had kids, right? The whole Bellini family, the Breughel family, and all the kids went to work for their fathers. And even if you were a talented daughter, like Artemisia Gentileschi, you went to work for your father. But in those days with the Ab. Ex. painters, you didn’t talk about children and you didn’t have children. And if you had children, you ignored them or you sent them away like Grace did, which was terrible. So I had children and I didn’t mention them. You didn’t mention them because then you would be lesser. You were less being a woman artist in the first place. And if you had children, you’d be nothing. 

Hrag Vartanian: So people would just discount you. 

Audrey Flack: Yeah. 

Hrag Vartanian: Wow. 

Audrey Flack: So, and then one of my kids was, is autistic. So I had to deal with all of that without letting anybody know. 

Hrag Vartanian: That must have been really difficult at a time when there weren’t a lot of resources.

Audrey Flack: My dear. I don’t want to live anymore. I was really close to the end. 

Hrag Vartanian: Wow. 

Audrey Flack: Yeah. At a young age, but you know, you do what you have to do.

Hrag Vartanian: And you still made art. 

Audrey Flack: Yeah. That in the middle of the night, I remember that because you know, autistic kids — they’re now beginning to believe the mothers that said Melissa never slept. She was up, so if she finally slept for a couple of hours, I would paint. I have a painting …

Hrag Vartanian: So when did you sleep?

Audrey Flack: I didn’t, but I have that from my father. I don’t need much sleep. 

Hrag Vartanian: Wow. So that’s, that’s incredible, Audrey. I can’t believe that.

Audrey Flack: Life was rough.

Hrag Vartanian: It was.

Audrey Flack: Really, really rough. 

Hrag Vartanian: So now tell me a little bit about the ’60s then. So what changed or what didn’t change?

Audrey Flack: ’60s were still rough. In the ’60s, I was a realist. There was mid-century. Phil Pearlstein lived around the corner. Alice Neel lived two blocks from me. The Upper West Side was, we lived there. 

Hrag Vartanian: So what were they like? What were both of those people like?

Audrey Flack: Phil? Phil’s great. I have to call him. Phil sent me a happy birthday thing and he said, “I’m 97.” 

Sharon Louden: Oh, he remembered you?

Audrey Flack: Oh, I know.

Sharon Louden: That’s good. 

Audrey Flack: Yeah. Phil and I were … we sketched together and I was the only woman again with that whole sketch group. 

Hrag Vartanian: Oh, wow. And Alice Neel, what was she like? Was she an ally as a woman, as a fellow woman?

Audrey Flack: No.

Hrag Vartanian: No. Okay. She was a loner? 

Audrey Flack: Listen, I’ll just tell you …

Hrag Vartanian: You are so polite! 

Audrey Flack: I’ll tell you my Alice Neel story. Alice was a very difficult woman. She looked like a little sweet Irish washerwoman grandma, but oh, watch out for Alice.

Hrag Vartanian: Really? 

Audrey Flack: Oh my God. So, all right. So it was in the ’80s and late ’70s and my Photorealism was hot. I didn’t even realize it then, but it was really hot. And there was some group of young feminists that were having an exhibition. And they invited Alice and me. And I got there and Alice was already sitting, like, on a throne and she wore these long black skirts and like the Italian women, black shoes with the square heels. And she sat with her legs spread apart with the skirt. That’s how Alice sat and she had a cane. Maybe it was an umbrella. I don’t remember. And she had all of these young women artists sitting around on the floor. She was sort of holding court and I walked in. And she picks up her cane and she points it at me and twirls it around and yells, “You whippersnapper! I’m a better artist than you and you’re in all the shows in the museums. And I’m better than you.” The whole place gets quiet. I mean, I haven’t even taken my coat off. I said, “Alice, put the cane down, shut up. You’re a very good artist. I’m a very good artist. Just be quiet.” And she quieted down and I never … now mind you, I was on 104th, she was on 106th. Never saw or spoke to her again. And then my book came out in 1980, Abrams was publishing a book. Anyhow, one morning, the phone rings. Seven o’clock in the morning. Well, you think somebody’s died. “Hello? Hello?” “Audrey?” “Yes.” “It’s Alice. I’m sorry.” Clunk.

Hrag Vartanian: That was it?

Audrey Flack: And then she died. 

Sharon Louden: Oh my gosh. But at least she called you?

Hrag Vartanian: That’s the most dramatic ending of a friendship I’ve ever, or relationship, I guess. 

Audrey Flack: So it was on her mind, and I tell you there’s more. So now is this Alice Neel show, which I have yet to see. And I wrote to the curator and I said, “Congratulations on the show. I’m going to go see it.” She writes back and says, this is two weeks ago. She said, “I was just going to Alice’s studio. And what was on her table? Your book.” 

Sharon Louden: Oh! 

Hrag Vartanian: So she was clearly impressed with your book. 

Audrey Flack: Well, she wanted Abrams to publish a book on her and they were publishing on me. 

Hrag Vartanian: Well, maybe she sort of also accepted the fact that you were talented, too. 

Audrey Flack: Who knows, you know, it’s too bad. It’s too bad, but it was nice that she did that. 

Hrag Vartanian: Now that brings up another question. How supportive were women of each other in the art scene? Or was it like you were saying, everyone was trying to ape what the men were doing in a way? Like, acting as gruff as they are, or however you want to characterize it.

Audrey Flack: They weren’t.

Hrag Vartanian: They weren’t supportive?

Audrey Flack: No, I don’t think they were. And I miss that a lot. And … Sharon!

Sharon Louden: Well, you’re my hero. I mean, what do you think about today though? 

Hrag Vartanian: Yeah, did that change? Was it like …

Audrey Flack: I think it changed.

Hrag Vartanian: Was it the feminist movement that helped change it? I mean, what were the moments that you think changed that? 

Audrey Flack: That was very important, consciousness-raising.

Hrag Vartanian: In the feminist movement, you mean? 

Audrey Flack: Yeah, very important and I think men need it. Men need consciousness-raising. 

Hrag Vartanian: Absolutely. Feminism is for everyone, not just for women, right?

Audrey Flack: Yeah. So I think that changed, but by the time that came around, my group was already gone, you know? I was always looking for a woman artist that I could trust and talk to. 

Hrag Vartanian: Like a mentor. 

Audrey Flack: Well, the mentor I thought was Grace or Elaine, but they … 

Hrag Vartanian: Never quite happened. 

Audrey Flack: They were friends, but no, no.

Hrag Vartanian: So just colleagues, even, you were looking for? 

Audrey Flack: Well, yeah, there she is! It’s such a joy for me to … there’s a difference between men and women. You know, I love men. I married two men, I like men. 

Hrag Vartanian: At the same time? Just kidding.

Audrey Flack: But I was always looking for that and maybe finding it now. 

Hrag Vartanian: Wow. That’s kind of nice to think that eventually you found [it]. 

Audrey Flack: Even with the feminists, though, I had problems because I wasn’t an angry feminist and my work was feminine and that was criticized. 

Hrag Vartanian: I see. 

Audrey Flack: You know? Perfume bottle.

Hrag Vartanian: Right. Lipstick. 

Audrey Flack: And it was female. And then a certain kind of beauty that I wanted. When I went to MoMA with a friend of mine to see …

Hrag Vartanian: Recent? 

Audrey Flack: Yeah, to see “Leonardo’s Lady.” 

Hrag Vartanian: Which was your, I want to just bring up for people who don’t know, when the Museum of Modern Art reopened recently on, I think it’s the second-floor landing?

Audrey Flack: Fifth floor. 

Hrag Vartanian: Fifth-floor landing, I’m sorry. Fifth-floor landing. When you get off the escalator, you see this ginormous Audrey Flack, beautiful, which you get to see from quite a distance as well as close up in a very high-traffic place. And that is named “Leonardo’s Lady.” 

Audrey Flack: Yeah.

Hrag Vartanian: Beautiful painting from the ’70s, correct? 

Audrey Flack: Yeah. 

Hrag Vartanian: Great. So go ahead. 

Audrey Flack: So my friend who was with me said, “You know, that painting was clearly done by a woman.” Now, it’s a strong, powerful painting and it’s big, but she was right, you know. That if you went around the whole museum and you wanted to pick something that was done by a female artist … so there’s something very female in my work. And I think that could — it’s not angry female, it’s not aggressively female. It’s not in your face, spitting at you female. And that caused early on some discern. 

Hrag Vartanian: Tell me more about that. 

Audrey Flack: Well, no, there was an article in the feminist art journal, actually, a very good article about that. 

Hrag Vartanian: So were you conscious of inserting that feminine in the work?

Audrey Flack: No, no. 

Hrag Vartanian: So it wasn’t conscious. So it’s now in retrospect you see it. 

Audrey Flack: The only conscious painting I did was “Chanel.” It was like, yeah. Now I’ll show them, all right. There’s not much of lipstick tubes and perfume and stuff. No, I was just being me, you know?

Sharon Louden: I think that’s through your work, but also you mentioned to me one time in your studio, you said, “You know, I’ve always been feminist. I’ve only painted and sculpted women.” 

Audrey Flack: Yeah. 

Hrag Vartanian: So that’s the “Chanel” painting you’re talking about, correct?

Audrey Flack: Yeah. Yeah. 

Hrag Vartanian: Okay.

Audrey Flack: And there’s a funny story about that painting, too. 

Hrag Vartanian: Tell us.

Audrey Flack: Oh, there was a collector named Morton Newman. And I was going around grumbling a lot because all the Photorealist guys were selling. This collector Morton Neumann had bought all of them. But he also … So, he came into the gallery and he told Louis [Meisel] he was interested in my work. And he invited me to his house in Chicago, and we were going to visit Bob’s son who was at Northwestern. And we go to his house. First floor, Picasso, Miró. Second floor, the next level up. And every time you go to another floor of this brownstone. And I get to the fourth floor and there’s a swinging door to the kitchen, and there’s a tiny little thing on the swinging kitchen door, a Louise Nevelson. So I thought, oh my God, this is the only woman. On the kitchen door! Right? Okay. So by now I’m grumbling, we get up to the top, all the guys, every one of my friends, every Photorealist, Bob’s calming me down — my husband — ’cause I’m ready to say, you know, “Fuck you, blah blah, big collector.” 

Hrag Vartanian: I knew I liked you! 

Audrey Flack: Bob said, “Calm down. I don’t say anything. Just be quiet.” So I behaved myself and we went home. He calls Louis the next day and he said, “I want a little Flack.” I said, “Louis, you sell him a little painting of mine, it’s going to go on the other side of the kitchen door. No.” And Louis was great. He said, “No, if you want one, you’re going to have to get a big one.” And he buys my only feminist painting! He bought “Chanel.”

Hrag Vartanian: Did he know or was it just coincidence, do you think? 

Audrey Flack: I don’t know what he knew. He bought it. He liked it. 

Hrag Vartanian: And where did he hang it? 

Audrey Flack: Well, he was a crazy collector. He had things floor to ceiling with cameras going and he hung it … he had drapes over his library. I think it was somewhere over a drape in his library. 

Hrag Vartanian: Oh, wow. That’s amazing. 

Audrey Flack: It’s kind of amazing. Yeah. 

Hrag Vartanian: So, let’s talk about Photorealists. ‘Cause since you’re often kind of associated with Photorealism often, and at least for a lot of people who may only know your work a little bit. What was that like? I mean, was it a movement? How did you become part of Photorealism? What was the thing? Was it sort of like, did you really feel an affinity with all those artists? How did that work? 

Audrey Flack: Yes. Yes. It really was some honest thing that was happening that Ivan Karp and Louis just spotted. They just, something was happening and we were working from photographs. And I had started with a little brownie camera, painting my children and things that moved and wouldn’t stay still for me. But I think we were all interested in the photograph. We were all good photographers. I was a really terrific photographer. I had a Hasselblad camera. I had several contacts, cameras. 

Hrag Vartanian: Ooh, I’ve never seen your photographs. When do we see your photographs? 

Audrey Flack: Well, there was a show of my photographs once on, but I never thought of photography as in and of itself. It was a means for my painting. 

Hrag Vartanian: Right. So where was that photo show you had? 

Audrey Flack: It was a gallery I’m no longer with, it was Gary Snyder and Garth Greenan. 

Hrag Vartanian: Got it. And how long ago was that?

Audrey Flack: A lot of years ago.

Hrag Vartanian: A lot of years. Okay. So, wow. I didn’t know that part of you. I love that. 

Audrey Flack: And there were some beautiful ones that now I’m going through that never became paintings, but Photorealism is a really, really important movement that has never been given its full due.

Hrag Vartanian: Why do you think? 

Audrey Flack: Well, Hilton Kramer once wrote, it was a show at the Guggenheim and he said…

Hrag Vartanian: Oh, the curmudgeon.

Audrey Flack: Yeah, he said … well, there were lines around the block, “Well, now we know it’s not really good because the public likes it.” You know? So again, I think there’s an elitist thing. What I think is very … Photorealism brings back realism. It brings photography back. Very important. And it’s not quite understood that it’s not just artists copying a photograph. Nothing could be further from the truth than that in my work. And I think what is interesting now is Black artists have been very affected by Photorealism. Kehinde Wiley, you know, and they are not afraid to be labeled. What did Rob Store say in my film? And he said it nicely, but he said, “I define good taste.” Right? A lot of these young artists have been very affected by Photorealism, but it’s not been honored the way it should. 

Hrag Vartanian: Got it. So, let’s talk about your work itself in that period. I’ve always noticed that there’s a certain kind of shine, or almost even wetness, right? Almost the surface seems to like glimmer or something in your paintings. Where does that come from? Why was that important for you? 

Audrey Flack: That’s because I was … I had theories about light. And what you’re seeing was I was painting light.

Hrag Vartanian: So why, why that? Because others weren’t painting quite like that. So what was it about you? 

Audrey Flack: They were interested in the light shining off of a car. Richard Estes is a dear friend of mine, he was on, what was he on, 92nd Street. We’re all in the neighborhood. He was interested in the light of a reflection of a glass window.

Hrag Vartanian: Right. 

Audrey Flack: But I got really hooked on light. At one point, I stopped painting and nobody knows I stopped because my paintings kept being borrowed for shows. But I didn’t paint from 1980 until a few years ago.

Hrag Vartanian: What? Really? 

Audrey Flack: Yeah. I sculpted. 

Hrag Vartanian: But you’d stopped painting. 

Audrey Flack: Stopped painting. 

Hrag Vartanian: Why? 

Audrey Flack: That’s a long story. I had to really delve deep into myself, so that’s part of this book.

Hrag Vartanian: Got it. Okay. We’ll read that book. 

Audrey Flack: Which I just got a contract on!

Sharon Louden: Congratulations! 

Hrag Vartanian: Exciting! Is the book finished yet? 

Audrey Flack: Yeah, pretty much. Pretty much. 

Hrag Vartanian: Good, oh I can’t wait. Okay. That sounds exciting. So, but you were sculpting at the time. 

Audrey Flack: I was sculpting for, like, 30 years or something. 

Hrag Vartanian: So how did you do that? Because most sculptors I know I have trouble with space storage. I mean, these are all major issues for an artist, especially in New York. How did you deal with that? 

Audrey Flack: You deal with it one way, by hook and by crux.

Hrag Vartanian: So what does that mean?

Audrey Flack: Closets and things, and if I’ve got a big commission, it was in a foundry. 

Hrag Vartanian: Got it. 

Audrey Flack: And I dealt with a lot, I did a lot of public commissions. All very feminist, very feminist. 

Hrag Vartanian: Right.

Audrey Flack: And now I’m back to painting. I’ve been painting.

Hrag Vartanian: So what brought you back to painting? 

Audrey Flack: Who knows what happened? Michelangelo painted, he sculpted … we get categorized, right? I had a bunch of canvases stacked against the wall of my studio in East Hampton. I bought my house from Jimmy Ernst. You have to come out.

Hrag Vartanian: I’d love to. 

Audrey Flack: And there were canvases that Chuck Close and I made. He made his, and I made mine. But we were discussing how we would get a smooth surface. So we would put layers of gesso, and then wet-sand it and put water. So they’re beautiful. And then one day, I started painting. 

Hrag Vartanian: So it just happened.

Audrey Flack: Yeah, it’s a new series. I call it Post-Pop Baroque. 

Hrag Vartanian: We see a little bit in your documentary.

Audrey Flack: Well, yeah. 

Hrag Vartanian: You see a little bit there. Yeah. “Queen of Hearts” for those who haven’t watched it.

Audrey Flack: Yeah. Yeah.

Hrag Vartanian: Right. So were you taking photographs during that period when you stopped painting? Did that ever stop?

Audrey Flack: I don’t think it ever stopped. 

Hrag Vartanian: Okay. So the photography stayed constant? 

Audrey Flack: Yeah. That’s there, drawing is always there. 

Hrag Vartanian: Okay. So you were still drawing?

Audrey Flack: Painting … it was interesting. It was … you’ll read about it.

Hrag Vartanian: Okay. So what were you drawing then? What were you drawing during that time? 

Audrey Flack: Anything. 

Hrag Vartanian: Anything. So was it realism still? 

Audrey Flack: But I was really, really sculpting. I was really hot into sculpture. Studying it, amassing a library of books. I closed the door to the studio and I didn’t show up for 10 years. 

Hrag Vartanian: Wow. Amazing. 

Audrey Flack: Just learned how to sculpt.

Hrag Vartanian: So now, what do you think of your role now as an elder feminist woman artist in New York? I see how much Sharon admires you and I know other women do as well as most men and everyone else. But I’m curious because you didn’t quite have that kind of role, right? You didn’t have someone who seemed to really play that role for you early [on], even though you mentioned Elaine and a couple of other people. What does it feel like now? Do you feel a sense of responsibility? Do you feel like, “I can’t believe I’m here?” 

Audrey Flack: Yeah, [I’ll] just get back to that. But I think who … like, Luisa Roldán, who was a 17th-century sculptor. I took old mistresses and old masters as my role models. They’re my family. 

Hrag Vartanian: Right. 

Audrey Flack: And I am amazed at, it was around my birthday, how many letters and emails I’ve received. Also after the film of how much I’ve affected a lot of people out there, men and women. And that makes me feel good. You know, that maybe one thing I said gave them courage or hope, or … it really makes me feel good. So I think I’ve had a role. I don’t know. Maybe, I think this is good. Maybe this will go out and there are a lot of women who have children who responded. A lot of men responded.

Hrag Vartanian: So now, when you see your work in places like the Museum of Modern Art, which if I understand correctly, you didn’t know that was being hung. Did you? 

Audrey Flack: No, they didn’t let me know.

Hrag Vartanian: They didn’t. So what does that feel like [when] you see that? I mean, is it an out-of-body experience? I’d love to get a little sense of what that feels like. For a lot of artists that is the pinnacle, right? That’s what they want. 

Audrey Flack: You know, Hrag, it’s a wonderful question. I remember sitting when the garden was not cement, right? You take paradise, you put up a parking lot. And I remember going to MoMA as a kid from high school and Cooper. And I would take my sneakers off and put my feet in the earth. And I think someday, someday. Maybe my painting will be up. And so now, I was 89. ‘Cause I just, when they put it up and … 

Hrag Vartanian: You were 89 years old when they put it up? 

Audrey Flack: Yeah. A couple of months ago. 

Hrag Vartanian: Right, right. 

Audrey Flack: Now I’m 90. And I was really surprised that they didn’t tell me. I wasn’t invited to the opening.

Hrag Vartanian: Right.

Audrey Flack: Because MoMA was my home, MoMA … Was my mother. And you know, if you’ve had any kind of difficulties with your mother, which, I had an oddball mother. So I was surprised I started getting emails. “Hey, I just saw your painting on the fifth floor.” It felt good, but things are not the way they were. And the museum is not the same museum that I knew and loved. It’s not the artists’ museum that it was. 

Hrag Vartanian: Does that make you sad?

Audrey Flack: Yeah. 

Hrag Vartanian: Yeah. 

Audrey Flack: Yeah. I feel bad about it. It feels very corporate. 

Hrag Vartanian: Right. So, did it not feel like this? Because it also has a reputation of always being rather corporate, right? MoMA. Was it not like that before? 

Audrey Flack: I never thought of it that way. Now maybe my consciousness wasn’t raised enough, but it was smaller.

Hrag Vartanian: Right. Not as alienating. 

Audrey Flack: Yeah. I mean, this is overpowering and bigger and …

Hrag Vartanian: It’s an airport terminal, really. 

Audrey Flack: Yeah. And, you know, the architecture of it upsets me. 

Hrag Vartanian: It’s funny. I’ve never heard anyone say, “I love the architecture at MoMA.” Which is so funny, you think someplace like the Museum of Modern Art could get that together, you know? It feels so alienating.

Audrey Flack: It does. It does. 

Hrag Vartanian: It’s such a weird thing. You kind of wonder who’s this for and what are they trying to communicate? 

Audrey Flack: Yeah. And very often, these architects who we can call “starchitects” …

Hrag Vartanian: Right. 

Audrey Flack: Just, it’s for them, really. 

Hrag Vartanian: Right. 

Audrey Flack: So there’s this kind of hotshot, corporate … I don’t even want to use the word “glamorous” ’cause I don’t find it glamorous. I just find it off-putting. 

Hrag Vartanian: Interesting. 

Sharon Louden: Do you think that, I mean, where do you think you would want that context for your work then? 

Hrag Vartanian: Oh, that’s a great question. 

Audrey Flack: And by the way, I think most artists, almost every artist I know feels the same way.

Hrag Vartanian: Right. 

Sharon Louden: Yeah. 

Hrag Vartanian: I agree. I don’t know anyone who feels otherwise. 

Sharon Louden: I don’t, it’s not aspiration for me, but what…

Hrag Vartanian: Yeah. What is a good context?

Sharon Louden: What’s a good context? Where do you think you would feel … 

Hrag Vartanian: Where do you think, when you see your work hanging in that context, you’re like, “That’s really where it should be.” Do you prefer in people’s homes? Do you prefer in libraries? Do you prefer in small museums? What kind of space works for you? Or maybe what works for your work, do you think? 

Sharon Louden: Not a kitchen door!

Hrag Vartanian: Not a kitchen door! 

Sharon Louden: Or a bathroom!

Audrey Flack: It’s a big question because a lot of artwork now is made big for museums and it has to be big and it’s no longer scaled for …

Hrag Vartanian: I mean, it can’t even fit in people’s homes unless they have a ginormous home.

Audrey Flack: And that is a big painting that could fit in someone’s home. But museums, like, I like the rooms of the Met. I hope they don’t change it. You know, I go see, I visited Carlo Crivelli who … 

Hrag Vartanian: Oh yeah, love the work. 

Audrey Flack: You love Crivelli? Oh!

Hrag Vartanian: With all the fruits and the patterns. 

Audrey Flack: Oh my God, and his cucumber, a sexy cucumber. Oh, you know, let me tell you one nice thing that’s happening.

Hrag Vartanian: He’s a Renaissance painter. For those who may not know. 

Audrey Flack: He’s a 15th-century Venetian painter, who’s very eccentric, and they put him down. They wrote them out of art history. Vasari would not write about him. And they call him “decorative.” Well, he loves ornamentation and decoration, but his faces are so expressive. Oh my God. The “Pietà.” 

Hrag Vartanian: Beautiful. 

Audrey Flack: Oh, and the grimacing Mary. So, I found him when I was 14 and I have been in love. I wrote a paper on him. So a couple of years ago, about two years ago, I get emails from a director of a museum in Birmingham, England saying, “I have your paper on Crivelli. I am a Crivelli-lover. I want to come and talk to you. Somebody is writing a thesis on Crivelli and … ” You know, Crivelli-lovers are like a cult. 

Hrag Vartanian: Right.

Audrey Flack: You just love … and he was a bad boy, by the way. Did you know that? 

Hrag Vartanian: No, I didn’t. What does that mean? 

Audrey Flack: He abducted somebody’s wife and locked her in his basement. 

Hrag Vartanian: Oh my.

Audrey Flack: Yeah, he was a bad boy. So we got thrown out of Venice. Anyhow. Okay.

Hrag Vartanian: For kidnapping. 

Audrey Flack: But God, the guy’s a genius, a genius. Who you’re supposed to look down on.

Hrag Vartanian: Right. 

Audrey Flack: Like Bouguereau. So he comes over and he said, “I am really trying to put on a Crivelli exhibition.” And I had made a couple of Crivellis. I mean based, you know, one is called “Pollock’s Cans” and it was a drawing, big drawing of the “Pietà” with Pollock’s paint cans. And I just made another Crivelli, which has one of his beautiful Madonnas and a 15th-century skeleton and I said, I was going to put his fruits and cucumbers on the right. Right?

Hrag Vartanian: Mhm. 

Audrey Flack: So Madonna’s in the middle. And then my husband, who’s ailing, was sitting in the kitchen and the light was hitting his face. And I got my camera. I took a picture. And I struggled with it, but he’s on the right side of the Crivelli Madonna and on his shirt, which Hannah [my daughter] gave, it says, “Somebody in Brooklyn loves me.”

Hrag Vartanian: Aw, I love that. 

Audrey Flack: So, it’s a crazy painting. It’s a crazy painting. It’s a beautiful painting. That is going to be in the Crivelli … The guy, what’s his name? Jonathan Watkins, got the grant. He’s getting something from the Met. He’s getting four Crivellis.

Hrag Vartanian: So the loans are coming through. 

Sharon Louden: Wow.

Audrey Flack: We are going to go see a Crivelli show!

Hrag Vartanian: That’s amazing! 

Audrey Flack: Isn’t that amazing? That’s like getting Caravaggio or Leonardo. 

Hrag Vartanian: So I’m getting … 

Audrey Flack: I’m having two paintings in that show. 

Sharon Louden: Oh, that’s so great. 

Hrag Vartanian: So I’m sensing a trend here also of you taking a look at, or sort of trying to look at art history or art that other people dismiss. 

Audrey Flack: Yes. And the new work, the Post-Pop Baroque stuff, it’s based on a lot of engravers and woodcut artists who are completely unsung.

Hrag Vartanian: Amazing. So why do you think you have that tendency or that interest?

Audrey Flack: I think I just love that stuff. And then it turns out that you’re not supposed to like it. 

Hrag Vartanian: Right, right.

Audrey Flack: Like you’re not supposed to be different than other people. You’re supposed to like what MoMA tells you to like.

Hrag Vartanian: Right.

Audrey Flack: You’re not supposed to like Bouguereau. 

Hrag Vartanian: So we’ve been talking a little bit art history. This is really very much a 20th century where that was sort of this hegemony of this story of Modernism and all these stories that you were supposed to take as accepted gospel. Right? Whether it’s [Clement] Greenberg or you had mentioned also, you know, the critics and stuff and all these people. Now, what do you think about what’s happening to art history now? That things are sort of being rearranged and people are kind of jettisoning some of those older ideas we’ve had. What do you think about that? Do you think it’s doing a service, a disservice? 

Audrey Flack: Major, major question. Really, I think about it a lot.

Hrag Vartanian: So what do you think?

Audrey Flack: I have a lot of thoughts. At first, when I heard that Yale was discontinuing that course, which I took, which changed my life. 

Hrag Vartanian: The survey. 

Audrey Flack: Yeah. 

Hrag Vartanian: Of Western art, I believe. 

Audrey Flack: Yeah. History of art. I was upset, but then I thought, you know, there were no women in Janson.

Hrag Vartanian: Right. Which was the big textbook that was often used to teach. 

Audrey Flack: And I sort of am responsible for getting Mary Cassatt into that. She wasn’t in there.

Hrag Vartanian: Wow. 

Audrey Flack: I’ve got to pull my thoughts together. I think you cannot teach an art history course that contains everything. It’s just too big. It’s too big. Chinese, Japanese, Afghani, Indian, whatever, you can’t do it. You can’t do it in one course. I think you cannot deny the development of Western art. I look back at it now and I say, well, what did I learn? I learned art made by White Christian men. And here I am, Jewish. And if you think about it in all the museums — and I’ve been to a lot of museums all over the world — the only thing, only painting I’ve ever seen that I can conjure up is [Marc] Chagall’s rabbi. 

Hrag Vartanian: Mm. Okay. 

Audrey Flack: And there might be one or two, but basically it’s the history of Christ on the cross.

Hrag Vartanian: Right, right.

Audrey Flack: But you cannot deny the development of drawing and what some of these old masters and mistresses accomplished. It’s undeniable. 

Hrag Vartanian: Okay. But is anyone trying to deny it?

Audrey Flack: Well, I think a lot is being thrown at us by young and less developed artists who have not developed skills and lived long enough. There was a time when it was when I was around Yale. I would remember that anything you say is art is art. And I remember saying, well, if somebody comes into the classroom and shoots somebody and they call that art, is that art? I don’t think that’s art. I do not, I do not call that art. So then, you know, what is art? Who is it for? 

Hrag Vartanian: Who do you make work for, Audrey? 

Audrey Flack: You know, I think about, by the way, Thomas Kinkade and I … I don’t let anybody go. 

Hrag Vartanian: Right. 

Audrey Flack: But art takes you out of this veil of tears, out of this profane time we live in and great art brings you to another place. It really does. And that … look, we’re all going to die. 

Hrag Vartanian: I’ve heard.

Audrey Flack: You’ve heard?

Sharon Louden: Yeah. 

Audrey Flack: And I’m facing it. You know, you gotta face it. We try very hard not to. But art can do something that can cut across time, cut across centuries. I stand in front of a late Rembrandt self-portrait and I just … 500 years are gone, but he’s right there for me. Was it a Pontormo that was at the Frick? Oh my God. Some Mantegna just brings you to another place. That is something that art does and it does … now, you’re a young artist. You want to express yourself. You’re having a hard time. You’re not making any money. You are a person of color. All important. But I think you have to keep in mind maybe there are different kinds of art. Maybe I’m just talking about one specific kind of art that I can’t live without. 

Hrag Vartanian: Right. And maybe you see your own work as part of?

Audrey Flack: I do. 

Hrag Vartanian: Right. So now, what … 

Audrey Flack: What do you think?

Hrag Vartanian: Hmm. Usually people I’m interviewing don’t turn it back on me, but I’m happy to respond. 

Audrey Flack: I’m just curious, because you see a lot. 

Hrag Vartanian: Yeah. I guess part of the concern I have sometimes with these kinds of new, you know, adding on to the cannon things is I think that at the end of the day, it still reinforces the centrality of this kind of dead, White, Christian, European, male artist necessarily. And I don’t necessarily think … obviously I think it’s important work. I enjoy it. I go to museums and see it and I’ve studied it and all those. But I do think sometimes its centrality is overplayed, too. Do you know? I do think it’s part of a much bigger conversation that’s global. And I think sometimes seeing the work of Italian Renaissance masters, just to use an example, makes more sense when you understand what was going on in Iran at the same period. Or what was going on in Western Africa and the textiles. Cause someone like Crivelli has all these lush textiles and these things, but where were the textiles coming from? Where’s the language coming from? So I do think those connections actually make the work more interesting. Because my bigger concern is this kind of idea of the individual genius that gets played into Western art history so much. And I think it takes a village to make a painting in some ways. I think it takes a community of people thinking about art. It takes a community of people writing about it, showing it, do you know what I mean? And so I think, sometimes, when we don’t see those connections, we end up not having the full picture. And I feel like people are trying to give us a fuller picture. And I think sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t because not everyone is very good at that. But that’s my take. So, you know, I think as, like in the case that we could talk about Photorealism. I feel like Photorealism is also particularly interesting when you look at what was going on in the rest of the world at the same time, too, whether it was films in Senegal that were dealing with different types of representation. Or there at the same time, what was going on in India and modernism and what was going on in terms of representation there. I actually think those interconnections are really, I think just make the work more interesting. 

Audrey Flack: Absolutely. 

Hrag Vartanian: So I guess that’s the part that I’m really interested in. Because I don’t think it diminishes the work. I think if anything, it just sort of makes the work feel more connected, to be quite honest. 

Audrey Flack: I could not agree with you more. 

Hrag Vartanian: So that’s my take. How about you, Sharon? What’s your take? 

Sharon Louden: No, no, I’m just listening. 

Hrag Vartanian: No, no. Audrey asked me a question. So now I’m asking you. 

Sharon Louden: I can agree with you, both of you. I mean, there is a full picture.

Hrag Vartanian: You can’t agree with us? 

Sharon Louden: No, I can’t agree with you more! But I don’t like what Janson and Gardner did, you know? I think that one time I mentioned that those books should be burned and a friend of ours, a good friend of Hrag’s, Alpesh Patel said, “No, you can’t burn them unless it’s an art piece. You always have to be able to have that as a reference to go from.” And so, I learned from him that I think it’s important not to ignore it, but to recognize it.

Audrey Flack: Oh my God, we covered so much. Well, just about art, that it is not a commodity, which it’s become. That it’s for everyone. It’s not just for a couple of wealthy collectors. That you shouldn’t be afraid to like what you like and it’s just … I don’t know how we could live without it in this world. I think we’re better for it, whether there are, you know, young upstarts. But I think the young upstarts have to keep in mind that what we’re really interested in, I think, is beauty, and I think concepts of beauty have changed. I struggled with it with my Queen Catherine, you know, the concept of the canons of proportion, which were based on Greek and Roman and certainly a totally, totally different, an African face or Asian face. Totally different than a White Greek male face. So I think a kind of tolerance. Also, I think a slowing down from the hysteria that we’re in. I think slow art, internalizing and keeping your eye on … you know, we need healing, we need healing. We’ve been through hell, and this pandemic can just go on and on. What was it? 300 years in Europe, it went on? And I think, yes, there’s time for protest and there’s time for anger and there’s time to present all of that stuff. But there’s also a need for other kinds of images, for images in the collective unconscious that bring you some kind of peace or healing in the other part of your brain. And art can do that too. So I think that’s important to be let in now, particularly since there’s this revolution taking place, and it is. It’s undeniable and it’s important and it’s opening my mind every day, I’m learning new things. So during that time about people and revolution, our bodies can get sick and our minds can get sick. 

Hrag Vartanian: Right. 

Audrey Flack: And so there’s something that art can offer us through imagery and beauty and peace or something for what, for whoever responds to whatever is presented. That’s what I think is very important now. That’s the wisdom of being my age. You got to have it. You don’t want to go through all that and get sick. 

Hrag Vartanian: Right. The way you describe it, it almost sounds like an anchor. Art is like an anchor or something almost. 

Audrey Flack: Yeah. It helps us live.

Hrag Vartanian: And ground. 

Audrey Flack: It helps us live. It helps us deal with our mortality.

Hrag Vartanian: Right. So how about you, Sharon? 

Sharon Louden: I want to ask you what you would say to women artists today and, because where we are now, and my feeling is that we still need a lot more community and exchange and sharing. And also a strong community of people who identify as women. What would you say to them? 

Audrey Flack: I’d say, I love you all. Keep doing it and keep together and be kind to each other. And kind to the men too, because they need it more than we do even.

Sharon Louden: Interesting. 

Audrey Flack: And you know, more power to us. 

Sharon Louden: Yeah. 

Hrag Vartanian: Beautiful place to stop. Thank you, Audrey, for being so open with us and for sharing your life experience and your insights. It’s so wonderful to hear and I hope people do explore your work more because I think there are so many layers and I am so excited to learn about your photography, which I didn’t know about. So I’m going to probably have to bother you about that at one point. So I really want to learn about that, too. And thank you, Sharon, for joining us. 

Sharon Louden: Oh my gosh, thank you. 

Hrag Vartanian: And making us both feel comfortable to have this conversation.

Sharon Louden: I love, I love you both. And Audrey, man, you have been a hero for me and a backbone for me my whole life. So thank you for everything that you’ve done. 

Audrey Flack: Thank you. This is my first podcast! 

Hrag Vartanian: Woohoo! 

Audrey Flack: Thank you! I’d like to hear it. You will have to let me know when it’s on. 

Hrag Vartanian: Will do, will do, thank you again.

Hrag Vartanian: This episode, the music is “Ultra (Yung Sherman mix)” by Evian Christ, courtesy of work records. I’m Hrag Vartanian, the Co-founder and Editor-in-chief of Hyperallergic. Thanks for listening. 

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Hrag Vartanian

Hrag Vartanian is editor-in-chief and co-founder of Hyperallergic. You can follow him at @hragv.

One reply on “Audrey Flack and the Last of the New York School”

  1. This was so good- loved hearing all of her stories, what a life! Hrag and Sharon, (and Audrey!) thank you!

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