Plasters and Disasters: Audrey Flack's Recent Sculptures
April 11 - May 2, 2007
“[Audrey Flack’s] recent plasters and bronzes suggest a certain timelessness. […] She understands that there are regressive forces – unenlightened forces in society – that are ignorant of the renewing and regenerative powers of art.”
Robert C. Morgan “The Heroine-ism of Audrey Flack”, 1999
Although she lived for much of her childhood in Washington Heights, Audrey Flack was actually born in the neighborhood of Kingsborough Community College in Brighton Beach, Brooklyn on May 30th, 1931. Her love for art developed at a young age, and she was able to study art formally at some of the most prestigious art schools on the East coast, including Cooper Union, Yale University, the Institute of Fine Arts at New York University, and, as did many of the most important modern artists of the twentieth century, the Art Students League in midtown Manhattan. In the 1950s, Flack painted in the Abstract Expressionist style, but she made a prodigious name for herself in the 1970s as a major innovator within the photorealist movement, becoming the first major photorealist painter to have a work enter the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Flack began to make sculptures in the early years of the following decade and continues to do so today.
Since 1982, Flack has focused her attention on creating sculptures of powerful female figures ranging from small to colossal in scale. This exhibition explores the process of Flack’s working method and the maquettes (preliminary sketches) for future large-scale sculptures. Although these maquettes are the most fragile, most embryonic versions of her sculptures, they also represent the state of each piece at its most pure form – they are the models that the artist actually works on before each sculpture is transferred to a foundry for casting into metal. In her book Art and Soul, Notes on Creating (1986), Flack stated:
I need the substance of sculpture, the compactness of scale reduction in the form of a recognizable human figure – something solid, real, tangible. Something to hold and to hold on to. Something that won’t fly away or disintegrate. Bronze, heavy-weighted, yet portable. I want people to be able to own these pieces as well as exchange them. My fantasy is to be able to produce them in great numbers, large editions, inexpensive, affordable – votive figures, some to be left as markers, some to be carried with their owners. Another part of the vision is to use some of these small sculptures as maquettes for larger-than-life-sized single figures, to be placed outdoors at significant sites. These would act as beacons or markers. (Flack, Art and Soul, p. 26).
The artist continues the tradition of figurative sculpture in America that began in the 1830s with the work of Horatio Greenough, the country’s first professionally trained sculptor. Additionally she carries on the tradition of colossal sculpture in America that was epitomized by such works as Hammatt Billings’ thirty-six foot tall National Monument to the Forefathers in Plymouth, Massachusetts (1854-89) and the French sculptor Frederic-Auguste Bartholdi’s one-hundred and fifty-one foot tall Statue of Liberty (1886). The medium of sculpture has always been reserved for the depiction of heroes, sometimes glorious, sometimes tragic, but more often created by men. In traditional sculptures, heroes are depicted as male and allegories as female. Flack has continuously challenged traditional sculptural images with her program of commanding women from a feminist point of view; these women are always powerful and stalwart but do not lack fluidity and grace. Flack has not sculpted the male figure to any great extent. In an interview with David R. Brigham in American Art (1994), she stated that she intends to sculpt a male figure, but that she “would like to sculpt some new male heroes. We need a new vision of a male hero, a true hero, who’s kind and gentle and cares about the earth and all people” (American Art, 1994, 19). Thirteen years later, given the climate of recent political and social events, it is understandable why she has continued to work with and develop female heroic figures.
Flack’s vision of seeing her works as markers at important sites has come to fruition, as many of her colossal sculptures have been placed in a number of public spaces in the United States over the past sixteen years. Often destined for a public space, the colossal works are part of Flack’s designs for a new type of “civic” art, with women, rather than men, as the focal point of city, citizenship and community. A group of four twenty-foot bronze figures comprise her most well-known large-scale project, Civitas: Four Visions (Gateway to the City of Rock Hill), installed at the Rock Hill Gateway in South Carolina in April of 1991. In the same year, one of her first major sculptural commissions was made for the City University of New York: Islandia: Goddess of the Healing Waters, a nine-foot high bronze figure, is part of the Edward Durrell Stone addition (Edward Larabe Barnes Atrium) to the New York City Technical College on Jay Street in Brooklyn. More recently, Flack has completed a fifteen-foot high sculpture entitled Recording Angel (2006, figure 1) for the Schermerhorn Symphony Center at the Nashville Symphony, which overlooks the Country Music Hall of Fame. The Recording Angel is certainly a reference to one of the nine muses, goddesses of the arts, considered elemental to human inspiration, necessary for the conception and creation of works of art. The wet-style drapery on her abdomen and her wings remind one of the Hellenistic Nike of Samothrace at the Louvre – it is as if Flack has reconstructed that once-whole, now-fragmented ancient work. Yet the Recording Angel is a muse for our own time: she holds a CD disc in her right hand. Her left hand is held upright with her thumb and forefinger together, holding a feathered quill. Flack wanted the quill to be fitted with a laser, incorporating light into the sculpture as well as symbolizing the burning of music onto the disc.
Both photorealist painting and large scale figurative sculpture have been domains largely dominated by male artists, and this has remained so particularly in the case of sculpture. For Flack, as it was for other female sculptors of the nineteenth and twentieth-centuries whom she greatly admires (including Camille Claudel, Malvina Hoffman, Anna Hyatt Huntington, Marcello and Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney), participating in the creation of sculpture is far from an easy task. The very medium seems gender-identified as male, as the majority of carvers, founders, modelers and other craftspeople who help to bring a sculptural sketch or maquette from the artist’s studio to its final realization, have traditionally been, and have remained, men.
Many sculptors who happen to have been women have often complained throughout history of being ill-treated at the foundries where their sculpture is brought to completion, and Flack could be counted among them. Recently, at a foundry where one of her large scale pieces was being cast, a founder directed technical questions to Flack’s husband (who is not a sculptor) rather than to her; such an event would seem more probable in the nineteenth century than in the twenty-first. Harriet Hosmer (1830-1908), one of America’s greatest and most successful nineteenth-century sculptors, complained of similar treatment, among other biases, against women. Additionally, people in general have a hard time understanding that sculpture is created in many stages and often requires the help of assistants (both male and female) to bring a work to completion. In her essay, “The Process of Sculpture,” published in the Atlantic Monthly in December of 1864, Hosmer felt compelled to discuss how sculpture is made, step-by-step, hoping to end rumors in the American and British press that she did not make her own sculptures. In fact the use of assistants was an accepted practice among sculptors of either sex. Flack too uses the necessary help of foundry assistants, but, as she has herself noted, “All sculptors need assistance, but making art is like making love. You cannot have somebody else do it for you” (American Art, 1994, 6).
Sculpture is a difficult, physical medium that often produces disastrous setbacks, hence the title of our exhibition. In Art and Soul, Flack recalled a clay sculpture that literally melted from its armature in her studio (p. 23). To produce the very earliest models of her sculptures, Flack uses wax and clay. These works are then “destroyed” during the casting process. She has lamented, as have most sculptors, of the numerous pieces ruined in molds and poorly cast, after which the maquettes have been lost and are difficult to replicate. In this exhibition, one can view versions of Flack’s sculpture in a variety of materials often used in the early stages of creating a sculpture. A pointed-up plaster version of the artist’s Recording Angel exhibited here (figure 2) shows the small penciled markings on the sculpture used to transfer measurements to a huge block of clay or marble. Through pointing, the artist can have any sculpture “blocked out” in another malleable material in either reduced or enlarged versions. Flack refines and models the rough enlargement, a process which can take several months. She oversees the entire technical process of her works, spending almost as much time at the foundry as in her own studio.
Flack cites Luisa Ignacia Roldán (called La Roldana, 1650-1704), the seventeenth-century sculptor of dramatic Baroque polychrome sculptures in terra-cotta and wood, as one of the major influences on her three-dimensional work. She discovered La Roldana’s work in reproduction before she began making sculpture herself. Equally significant to Flack’s artistic program were nineteenth-century sculptors, particularly women artists whose large-scale work was visible to her in the streets and parks of New York City. As a child, Flack was enthralled by the AT&T logo image on the cover of its New York telephone book, based on Evelyn Beatrice Longman’s 24-foot tall Genius of Electricity (also known by the titles Spirit of Communications and Golden Boy, 1914). Flack has specifically mentioned Whitney’s Washington Heights – Inwood War Memorial (1921, now at 168th Street) as one of the influential sculptures that she saw in her youth while walking to the museum complex that at that time comprised the National Museum of the American Indian and the Hispanic Society Museum on 156th Street and Broadway. She was thus certainly aware of Anna Vaughn Hyatt Huntington’s over life-sized sculptural group, El Cid Campeador with Four Warriors (1927-43), which can still be seen at the Hispanic Society of America at Audubon Terrace. Without doubt Emma Stebbins’ Angel of the Waters: Bethesda Fountain (1868) in Central Park seems most closely related to Flack’s current themes of protective angels and idols of civic virtue (Stebbins was the first female artist to receive a commission for a major public work of art in New York City). Interestingly enough, Flack had no idea at the time that these work were created by women artists.
Male artists have also influenced Flack’s sculptures, especially British nineteenth-century sculptors such as Alfred Drury, whose large scale figures for the town square in Leeds, England inspired her when she was working on Civitas for the Rock Hill Gateway, and Alfred Gilbert, one of the major figures of the British New Sculpture movement. Flack has stated that her work is similar to nineteenth-century models in their “attitude towards craftsmanship, thematic references toward allegory and symbolism, an approach toward work, and concerns with proportion” (American Art, 1994, 17). Moreover, Flack has embraced the usage of natural and chemical patinas that were used by La Roldana in the seventeenth century and which were revived in the nineteenth-century, especially after the 1860s when artists and scholars began to realize that the ancients were fond of using color in their sculpture.
This is not to say that Flack’s work is derivative of past models. In fact, the artist has, on the contrary, attempted to change the accepted norm of how the female figure is portrayed in three dimensions. In her essay entitled “Breaking the Mold: Audrey Flack’s Sculptures,” Susan P. Casteras has discussed Flack’s negation and inversion of the way in which women have been portrayed in traditional sculpture:
She does not simply restate timeless interests in the goddess figure; instead she partly reinvents the subject, mobilizing an impressive visual injunction for viewers. […] she reverses and subverts the traditional male way of perceiving the female form in sculpture, instilling in her own figures a sovereignty and superiority, a self-possession and assurance, that sustains these remythologized beings as they invade our space and we enter theirs (Casteras, 1990, p. 129).
In her own words, the past is to be contended with, studied and consumed before something new can emerge, as stated in American Art (1994):
My work evolves after the past has been studied and ingested and the present and the future have been considered. I have great respect for the masters, for the Greeks and the Romans. I’ve gone back to study the canons of proportion of Phidias and Praxiteles. You break the rules when you have to break the rules, when the rules should be broken (American Art, 1994, 6).
Breaking the rules has become Flack’s specialty, sometimes causing problems. Flack’s most recent sculpture is a ten-foot tall sculpture for the Thirteenth Judicial Courthouse in Tampa, Florida, entitled Veritas (figure 3). Installed in 2007, the sculpture will be accompanied by a smaller version of the head of Veritas inside the rotunda and two bronze maquettes in related courthouses. Crowned with stars and symbolically blindfolded, Veritas gestures with her extended arms and hands in a manner that suggests weighing evidence. She steps forward into the unknown future, where truth, one hopes, will reign supreme. Indian Icon, displayed in our exhibition, was an earlier version of Veritas, but was refused by the commissioning body because, unlike the case of Cuewe Pehelle (discussed below), the figure of a Native American was seen as too controversial for the courthouse steps.
One of Flack’s largest commissioned projects failed to come to fruition because of political controversy. At the time of her interview with Brigham in American Art, Flack had just begun work on her future colossal statue entitled Queen Catherine of Braganza (1994, figure 4), a figure that some believe was the namesake of the borough of Queens, New York. Planned for Hunter’s Point in Long Island City opposite the United Nations, it was to obtain a height second only in New York to the Statue of Liberty, at thirty-five feet. Although some two million dollars was raised for the commission and Flack worked for many years on the maquettes and large-scale models for Catherine (figure 5), the project came to a close in the year 2000 after political activists attacked the project on the grounds that Portugal dealt in the slave trade in the seventeenth century; this is an argument that, if put into practice, would be cause for dismantling many a monument to the American forefathers. Additional problems with the casting of Catherine ultimately led to its demise and today only a few maquettes and plasters remain of the original sculptural concept.
Slightly before the creation of Catherine, in 1993, Flack began work on a figure of the Greek nymph Daphne, a six-foot high head of the daughter of Peneus who ran endlessly to escape the grasp of Apollo. To prevent Apollo from capturing her, Peneus allowed her to be transformed into a laurel tree before Apollo could catch her; Apollo remained in love with Daphne, the tree became sacred to him and the laurel leaf became his most important symbol. Flack’s Daphne, exhibited at the Guild Hall Museum in East Hampton in 1996, speaks through a tape recorded message that mesmerizes and tantalizes viewers. As nymphs like Daphne were connected to the earth, its beauty and unspoiled nature, originally Flack envisioned Daphne to be part of a series of architecturally designed temples. The temple for Daphne was to be called the Temple of Ecology (1993) for which the artist made drawings and plans. The sculpture, with its multitude of branch-like elements and still expression, radiates the mythic and ecological nature of the nymph.
Not all of Flack’s large scale works are Greek figures in origin, and not all of the suspected “disasters” ended as such. Cuewe Pehelle (1997, alternately spelled Quewe Pehelle), a seven-foot tall sculpture of a Native American girl, actually began as a commission for a traditional sculpture of a Greek muse for Lebanon Valley College in Annville, Pennsylvania. Flack felt compelled, however, to create a Native American figure for the college, after discovering pictures and stories of the murders of women and children from the Susquehanna tribe in 1763 (known as the “Paxton Massacre” or the “Conestoga Massacre”). Certain that the figure would be rejected by the college because of its theme, Flack was surprised that not only did college officials embrace the work, but came up with the title for it, which is the original form of the word “Quittapahilla,” Algonquin for “a stream that flows from the ground among the pines.” The fruits and ears of maize in the figure’s hair make reference not only to Native American cultivation but also to the traditional agricultural production of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.
Flack’s works can be seen at some of the most prestigious public spaces and museums in the United States. Museums that hold her works include the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; the Museum of Modern Art, New York; the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York; the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; and National Museum of Women in the Arts, Washington D.C. Her other recent public works include Cuewe Pehelle (1997), installed at Lebanon Valley College in Annville, Pennsylvania; Beloved Woman of Justice (2000), installed at the Howard Baker, Jr. Federal Courthouse in Knoxville, Tennessee; and a fountain version of Islandia at the Parrish Art Museum in Southhampton, New York. The Art Gallery of Kingsborough Community College is proud to welcome home this Brighton-born, world-renowned artist and present the working models of her recent sculptural work.
Caterina Y. Pierre, Ph.D.
Assistant Professor of Art History
Kingsborough Community College
Audrey Flack’s work appears courtesy of Louis K. Meisel Gallery, New York.
Indian Icon, 2006
44” x 21” x 13” (with terra-cotta base)
Cuelle Pehelle, 1997-98
33” x 15” x 13”
Medicine Woman, 1989
19” x 9 ½ ”x 9 ½ ”
Recording Angel, 2006
pointed-up white plaster with two plaster pieces
34” x 20” x 14”
Galatea, c. 2003
35” x 20” x 14”
Bella Apollonia: The Art Muse, 2001
30” x 9 ½” x 9 ½”
Islandia (head), 1987
21” x 8 ½ ” x 9”
Islandia (bust), 1987
17” x 16” x 11”
Local Girl, 1995-97
21” x 6 ½” x 6 ½”
Sky Gateway (Pair of heroic female figures for an unrealized project), 1990
20” x 7” x 7” (each)
Ginette Flack: Portrait of the Artist’s Mother, 1995
white plaster on a black wood base
20” x 10” x 9”
Woman with a Heart and Dagger (working model on stand), 2006
26 ½” x 21” x 11 ½ ”
“Patina” green forton resin
11” x 8” x 8”
Recording Angel, 2006
solid red wax
35” x 20” x 26”
Recording Angel, 2006
hand-painted green resin composite
19 ½” x 10” x 9”
67” x 30” x 42”