Get to Know Audrey Flack, Icon of Photorealism

Audrey Flack’s bold and uncompromising art blends Pop Art with Baroque and Abstract Expressionist influences.

May 1, 2024By Anastasiia S. Kirpalov, MA Art History, Modern & Contemporary Art

audrey flack facts


Audrey Flack is a late-generation Abstract Expressionist. She was relatively successful but she decided to make a sharp turn in her style and subject matter. This is how she became an icon of photorealism. Behind the kitschy surface of her works, Flack explores contemporary issues concerning femininity, consumerism, violence, hate, and love. Read on to learn more about the fascinating life and career of Audrey Flack.


1. Audrey Flack is the Last Living Abstract Expressionist

Diamonds in the Sky, by Audrey Flack, 1951. Source: Audrey Flack Official Website



Audrey Flack, born in New York in 1931, was raised in a middle-class family of Eastern European Jews. A loud and misbehaving child, she was often punished by isolation, with only a piece of paper and a pencil to entertain herself. Ironically, these tedious punishments helped Flack discover her calling. As a young art student, she found her inspiration in the great masters of Cubism, as well as the fashionable and radical American movement of Abstract Expressionism.


Young, ambitious, and talented, Flack soon found herself in the middle of the loud and crowded art world, meeting her heroes face to face. Her idol was Jackson Pollock. However, on one unpleasant day, the drunk master harassed Flack in the famous Cedar bar which was the main meeting point of the most progressive artists of the time.


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Audrey Flack sometimes said that her alcohol intolerance saved her life and allowed her to build a long-lasting career. In the circles of Abstract Expressionists, excessive drinking was the norm, which soon started to disturb some artists, particularly women. Flack was a close friend of Grace Hartigan and Joan Mitchell, however, she always noted that these friendships became possible only after Mitchell and Hartigan became fully sober.


2. Flack is the Icon of Photorealism

audrey flack madame painting
Jolie Madame, by Audrey Flack, 1972. Source: Smithsonian Magazine


Despite her relative success as an Abstract Expressionist, Audrey Flack never felt content enough. She felt that over-intellectualism and free interpretation of abstract art stood in her way of communicating with her audience and exploring the topics that were truly important to her. In the 1960s, Flack radically changed her approach to art and switched to the new and radical movement of Photorealism.


Many still-life paintings by Flack feature recognizable brands and packaging instead of generic symbolic objects. She started implementing brand aesthetics in her images in the early 1960s, just when the Pop Art movement started gaining popularity. However, Flack’s art never truly fitted into a single category or genre. Some art critics note that something disconcerting seems to be hiding beneath the surface of Flack’s works, making them hard to like. The hyperrealistic forms and vivid colors make the paintings look like cheap postcards, while their large size feels intimidating and aggressive, overpowering the viewer’s mind and attention span. This uncanny feeling is part of Flack’s charm and it allows her to plant deeper meanings behind pop culture imagery, trinkets, and table arrangements.


3. Audrey Flack Uses Optical Tricks in Her Art

flack strawberry painting
Strawberry Tart Supreme, by Audrey Flack, 1974. Source: Audrey Flack Official Website


While creating her compositions, Flack usually arranges a collection of objects on her table, takes a photograph, and then projects the image onto her canvas. The use of photography is an important feature of photorealist art. Although her works technically fit the criteria of photorealism, some significant differences make Audrey Flack’s art truly unique. Her bold and uncompromising use of color contrasts the bleak palette of most photorealist artists, while her compositions go far beyond simply surprising the viewer with the artist’s technical skills. For Flack, hyperrealism is not the goal per se but a method that allows her to establish a connection with the audience and communicate her ideas.


One of Flack’s favorite artistic tricks is trompe l’oeil—a hyperrealistic optical illusion that originated in Antiquity but gained immense popularity during the Renaissance. Trompe l’oeil paintings look like they are surpassing the limits of canvas and intruding into reality. Given the scale of Flack’s works, the three-dimensional illusions make her compositions even more appealing and intimidating.


4. She Reimagined the Genre of Vanitas

flack marilyn painting
Marilyn (Vanitas), by Audrey Flack, 1977. Source: Jewish Women’s Archive


One of the central clusters of Flack’s work is her reinterpretation of vanitas—a unique painting genre that originated in Europe in the 16th century. Vanitas was an allegorical still-life that expressed the futility of earthly existence and the necessity of spiritual salvation. Vanitas works usually featured fruits, game, and jewelry as symbols of wealth and abundance, and mirrors as an emblem of vanity and excessive self-love. These objects were paired with human remains like skulls. This disturbing context was supposed to demonstrate how every person would eventually die, regardless of their social status and physical pleasures experienced in life. Faith and devotion to God were the only way to save one’s soul.


Flack’s take on vanitas barely addressed spiritual matters but offers a comment on her contemporary culture glossed over with pop cultural imagery and bright colors. The prime example of her approach is the painting titled Marilyn. Here we see painted photographs showing a familiar face of the young Marylin Monroe from her early days of fame. Monroe’s fate and tragedy were, in a way, a perfect embodiment of contemporary vanitas: no amount of fame and money could save you from a sad existence or a tragic death. The story of Marilyn Monroe was also the unsettling illustration of a living human transforming into an icon devoid of personality. She is seen as a pretty doll put on display, one who serves the function of entertaining and bringing joy to the public. Norma Jeane Mortenson could be depressed, sad, and wounded by the unfair world, but Marylin Monroe was never allowed such luxury and that’s exactly what Flack is trying to convey here.


5. Flack is a Political Artist

audrey flack world war 2 painting
World War II (Vanitas), by Audrey Flack, 1978. Source: Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts


Audrey Flack’s art is not devoid of political commentary and it often reflects upon tragic aspects of history that still linger on. As a political artist, Flack explores the relationship between real people and written history, as well as the concept of fame and how a living person can be transformed by it by becoming a symbol of something great or something horrific.


Many of Flack’s works reference World War II and the Holocaust due to her personal experience and family sacrifices. Her brother, a World War II veteran, returned from the front with severe PTSD that caused violent outbursts and horrified the Flack children. Several works of the artist feature images of Nazi concentration camp survivors, as well as political figures such as Anwar Sadat, John F. Kennedy, and Adolf Hitler.


When it comes to gender politics, Audrey Flack is an active feminist. Raised in male-dominated environments of Abstract Expressionism and mid-century realism, Flack was used to receiving unfair criticism on the sole basis of her gender. Today, she aims to reinstall women’s perspective into the history of art. According to Flack, her current goal is to reclaim Madonna by turning the Virgin Mary from a silent symbolic figure who gave birth to the Messiah to a living and grieving mother. In a way, her story feels painfully relatable for Flack who is a mother of a nonverbal autistic child.


6. Exhausted by Painting, Flack Turned to Sculpture

Self-Portrait as a Suicidal Saint Theresa, by Audrey Flack, 2012. Source: Audrey Flack Official Website


In the 1980s, Flack’s disillusionment with the Photorealist movement had reached its peak, and she decided to make another radical shift in her career. From colorful glossy canvases, she moved on to creating oversized bronze and composite sculptures. Despite her vast educational background in painting and drawing, Flack was never formally trained as a sculptor and she was entirely self-taught in this department.


As her chosen medium changed, so did the subject matter. Instead of still-life compositions, Flack turned to making female figures, mostly those showing ancient goddesses and saints. Her goal was to broaden the horizons of female representation and make ancient archetypes relatable to contemporary women. Her sculptured bodies are idealized yet represent living women with agency and will.


7. Audrey Flack Associates Herself with the Old Masters

Audrey Flack in front of her painting Wheel of Fortune. Source: Jewish Women’s Archive


In her interviews, Audrey Flack often says that she always wanted to paint like an Old Master but that she prefers to call herself a Radical Contemporary Old Mistress. Indeed, since her switch to realism, she moved away from studying the modern avant-garde movements and started focusing on Baroque and Renaissance art. In recent decades, she almost entirely departed from photorealism, finding it restrictive and limiting. Today, she creates most of her works in a style inspired by Baroque. She, however, still often implements symbols and figures from contemporary popular culture.


Over the seven decades of Audrey Flack’s ongoing career, she revived and revolutionized the old and conservative genre of still-life and bridged the gap between the contemporary age and the centuries past. Today, she teaches prospective art students in Washington, DC, and Pennsylvania and she is still making art, despite her age. She also plays banjo in a band called Audrey Flack and the History of Art Band. Most of the band’s songs are written by Flack and they tell stories about famous artists, ranging from Camille Claudel to Lee Krasner.

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By Anastasiia S. KirpalovMA Art History, Modern & Contemporary Art Anastasiia holds a MA degree in Art history from the University of Groningen, the Netherlands. Previously she worked as a museum assistant, caring for the collection of Impressionist and Post-Impressionist art. She specializes in topics of early abstract art, nineteenth-century gender, spiritualism and occultism. Outside of her work, she is interested in cult studies, criminology, and fashion history.