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Audrey Flack Is 92 and Still Painting in Her UWS Apartment

She’s in her “Post-Pop Baroque Period,” and has a new gallery show and a memoir.

Audrey Flack has lived and made art in this prewar apartment on the Upper West Side since 1970. Photo: Annie Schlechter
Audrey Flack has lived and made art in this prewar apartment on the Upper West Side since 1970. Photo: Annie Schlechter

“Wait, where is my skull?” Audrey Flack wants to know, sitting in the big, comfy chair in the art studio she made out of combining one of the bedrooms and part of the living room of the Upper West Side apartment that she has lived in since 1970.

The skull is retrieved by her studio assistant, Chloe Pitkoff, and Flack places it in her lap before we take her picture. It’s one of her favorite props, along with the hanging skeleton that she used when she was teaching anatomy at New York University. Boxes of things — props for her paintings and sculptures — are everywhere, even in the bathroom where a table over the tub is piled high with containers, one labeled “body parts.”

Flack, who is 92, became known in the 1970s for her photorealist paintings. They are often in the tradition of still lifes, but with modern-day and sometimes mordant ingredients. In the 1980s, she started making sculptures. Her latest show of 16 new paintings which she is calling her “Post-Pop Baroque” period, is opening at Hollis Taggart March 23, coinciding with the publication of her memoir, With Darkness Came Stars (The Pennsylvania State University Press.) “Elizabeth I, Jackson Pollock, and Vigée Le Brun,” Flack says, all inspire the new work. “Pretty much all of the paintings are cutting through this time stream that we all have.” Flack will also have a show that opens this fall at the Parrish Art Museum.

Flack is also a musician who plays the banjo (not seen here) and has played in two bands, the Art Attacks and the History of the Art Band.

“My studio had been a bedroom,” Flack says of the room in the  apartment that she and her second husband, Robert Marcus, bought in 1970. “The kitchen was horrible,” and even though the then-separate living and dining rooms had been halved by the previous owner, Flack was smitten by the views of the Hudson.“It’s my river,” she says. “And I remember when there was not one building on the Palisades, just beautiful cliffs, nothing.”

She took down the walls to create an open living/dining room. The two sofas were designed by Flack 50 years ago and made by a furniture-maker who had a studio above where Staples is today on the West Side. The coffee table came from Bloomingdale’s.  “Those chairs,” by the window, “I inherited them, and had them recovered,” Flack says.

The cabinet by the dining table is filled with Flack’s collection of religious statuary and antiques. Her first find was a small carved-wood statue of St. Francis from the Paris flea market that she bought for $12 dollars in 1956.

“I credit Ruth Kligman for that,” Flack says, referring to Jackson Pollock’s lover at the time of his death. “Thanks to Ruth I was able to go to Europe — she sold a work to Marcel Marceau.” In 1956, Kligman was curating a show at the Collectors Gallery on 58th Street and asked Flack to help her with introductions to the top abstract expressionists, so Flack directed her to the Cedar Bar, where they congregated at the time. (Kligman was the only survivor of the car crash that killed Pollock and Edith Metzger in 1956.)

Flack’s career began with studying painting at Cooper Union in 1948. Josef Albers selected her for a scholarship at Yale, from which she received her BFA in 1952. She then attended New York University Institute of Fine Art in ’53, earning an honorary doctorate from Cooper Union in ’77. Although she started out making abstract paintings, she later became the first photorealist to have had a work of art purchased by the Museum of Modern Art for its permanent collection. (The Metropolitan, Whitney, and Guggenheim also own her work.)

She pioneered photorealism along with Chuck Close, Richard Estes, and Robert Bechtle. But “I had to be better than the men to be accepted,” Flack says. Her new memoir also talks about the challenges she faced as a woman artist, complicated by her abusive first marriage, and the challenges of raising her daughters — the eldest was born with severe autism in 1959. It also peels back the romantic notion of what went on at the Cedar Bar and the artists involved, especially the women who were her peers.

Her second husband, Flack says, “saved my life; he saved my kid’s.”

In the early ’80s she suffered a deep depression and stopped painting. Instead of spending time in the studio, she would go to the same bench on an island in the middle of Broadway near the apartment and sit there for the day. For two years, Flack made notes trying to figure out what had happened to her and why she had shut down. And after two years she was ready to open the door to the studio, not to paint, but to sculpt, which she did for the next ten years.

“The memoir came out of the notes. That’s how the book happened,” she says. “It wasn’t that I was planning to write a book, not at all.”

The needlepoint pillows on the sofa are by Flack’s mother. The painting above, Isis, 1983, depicts a sarcophagus in the Met museum. “In a crazy way, she reminded me of my mother — I love her, but she is not a typical photorealist painting. You know my work is not typical of anything, and that is something that will never change. It doesn’t fit into any category.” Photo: Annie Schlechter
“I intentionally wanted it luminous,” Flack says of a painting of Florence, “and instead of working from a photograph, I worked from a slide, and I think that is my first painting done from a slide, to capture that incredible luminosity.” Photo: Annie Schlechter
Flack’s collection includes Spanish Baroque Santos art. “I know it sounds ridiculous, but I feel related to Luisa (Ignacia) Roldan (1652-1706) one of the greatest sculptors of all time, a woman.” The bronze head is of Seneca, found at an antique shop on 86th Street, long gone. Photo: Annie Schlechter
These paintings are going to be part of Flack’s new show at Hollis Taggart. Photo: Annie Schlechterr/B)annieschlechter 2023
Flack taught anatomy for many years at New York University and kept the skeleton she used. Photo: Annie Schlechter
Flack’s desk in her studio. Photo: Annie Schlechter/B)annieschlechter 2023
The bathroom is used as a storage area for more props. Photo: Annie Schlechter

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Audrey Flack Is 92 and Still Painting in Her UWS Apartment