Born to the Calling: An Interview with Audrey Flack

by Ira Goldberg | October 1, 2011

Head of Medusa from Audrey Flack, Student at The Art Students League of New York
Audrey Flack, Head of Medusa, 1989. Patinated bronze, 10 in. (with base).

Ira Goldberg: When did you first discover art? Or when did it discover you?

Audrey Flack: When did it happen for you Ira?

My first sojourn into art was photography. My father came home with a 35-mm. camera. I was about twelve, and I got into photography. I saw Vermeer’s Laughing Woman and Cavalier at the Frick Collection, when I was around eight years old. I saw something in that painting.hand

For me, it was earlier. I was a very hyperactive child, and could never sit still. I still have a super-hyper brain. I don’t sleep very much. When I was about five or six-years old, I would get sent out of class as punishment for giggling, talking, or fidgeting.

I felt terribly alone in the hallway but it was also a relief and provided a great sense of freedom. Artists need freedom. My teacher must have had compas- sion for me because she handed me crayons and a sheet of oaktag paper.

I remember oaktag. It was thin and shiny, the paper version of Formica.

Yes, and that’s when I began drawing. I remember feeling happy when I drew; the rest of the world disappeared. The teacher must have noticed my talent because pretty soon I became the class artist. I sketched pumpkins, Christmas trees, candy canes, Valentine hearts. I remember making a calendar for the class which showed up years later in the paint- ing I did of Marilyn Monroe. Art calmed my brain, essentially it saved my life. This is what my book Art and Soul discusses. When I wasn’t drawing, I made Indian bead jewelry, rings, belts, and necklaces.

Did you do lanyards, too?

Lanyards, of course. The ones that move up and down. How do you live without art? I don’t think I could have.

I sometimes look at art as this big cradle that takes care of me. It’s a relationship one would have with the most caring parent.

Beautifully put. I don’t know how the world can exist without it, and I’m very concerned about art right now. True art exists outside of corruption, greed, and the desire for power and money. It changes the paradigm.

When I was about fourteen years old and just entering Music & Art, I went to the Metropolitan Museum of Art and came across a painting by Carlo Crivelli, a fifteenth-century Venetian artist. It’s hang- ing there now, just go through the doors on the second floor and walk to the right. It is a Pieta and it is a masterpiece. I was thunderstruck, transported by its emotion, beauty, and technique. In other words, I had one of those supreme art experiences. The Met wasn’t like it is now; so few people went there, it was almost empty. I went to the bookshop (which was the size of a small bedroom) to buy a reproduction of Crivelli’s painting. They had none. I ordered a black and white reproduction which cost me seven dollars, an entire month’s allowance.

Was Music & Art High School the first art school you went to?

Yes, it was. Before that, I never heard of art lessons, I never heard of the Art Students League. My mother just wanted me to get married. The boys got the lessons. My brother, not me.

Very stereotypical situation at that time.

There was a music conservatory in an apartment in a building across the street. I begged for piano lessons, which were a dollar twenty-five an hour.

What year was this?

I was ten-years old, so it was 1941. We didn’t have a piano, so I made a paper keyboard.

You were really driven.

Driven. Well, you know, I think artists are driven. Not everyone is an artist but everybody should make art because creation is essential to our humanity. An artist that really doesn’t become an artist becomes a killer. Look at Hitler. Or becomes depressed. Or becomes suicidal. If you are really an artist you are born to the calling; it is like being a member of the priesthood.

You have to be awakened to that calling. It’s not something that you necessarily feel born with. Art is also about cognition. You have to be cognizant that you are compelled to do it. In your case, you were spread out among every medium. It seems like you had an equal calling for music, for every area of craft, or visual art, for painting, for sculpture.

Yes, I love playing music and making art. I play the five-string banjo and have a band called “Audrey Flack and the History of Art String Band.” I write songs about artists: Jackson Pollock, Lee Krasner, Van Gogh, Picasso, Caravaggio, etc. I was a good classical pianist, but my innate skills as an artist far exceeded mine as a musician.

Well, you’ve demonstrated that.

A girl who lived on the other side of my building told me about a school that specialized in art and music. After that I prayed to whatever powers that were out there that I could get into the High School of Music & Art.

You had to pass a test?

Yes. I asked my brother whether I should take the test for music or art. He said, Well, you can always take piano lessons. Take the test for art. No one in my family had ever heard of art lessons. Can you imagine how ignorant we were? In my heart, I was already an artist. From the time I was five years old, a girl named Margie Ponce and I played in the park together. We must have recognized something in each other even though we were not totally conscious of it. We were different than the other kids. We played differently. We saw differently. We were already artists.

Years later, Marjorie exhibited at the Cordier Eckstrom Gallery, which was next to French & Co., where I exhibited. She married Marvin Israel who was a famous art director. Marvin had an affair with Diane Arbus for many years. Many people say Arbus killed herself because Marvin would not leave Margie.

Back to the subject of Music & Art—Flora, the girl in the building who told me about Music & Art, was doted upon by her parents. My home life was quite different. My mother was a gambler and as long as she could lead her own secret life, I was left on my own.

Audrey Flack photorealist
Audrey Flack, Wheel of Fortune (Vanitas), 1977–78. Oil over acrylic on canvas, 96 x 96 in.

You don’t mention your father at all.

Oh, he was a powerful man who loved me but he worked all the time. Both of my parents were immigrants who had to make their own way.

Were there battles in the house about the gambling?

Yes, oh, yes, terrible battles. My mother came home late, lost the food money. Sometimes when she got caught up in a poker game, she didn’t come home at all. Ironically, she looked and acted like a proper school teacher. No one knew the addictive drive that was coursing through her veins. My brother and all of my uncles were gamblers. It was not easy.

Flora told me that you needed to submit a portfolio with ten works of art as part of the entrance exam for Music & Art. I did not know what a portfolio was, so I asked my parents. They didn’t know either nor did they know where you could get one. My mom said, Go to the 5 & 10 cent store. They have everything. So, I trekked over to 181st Street and St. Nicholas Avenue where there was a Woolworth’s five-and-dime. It was in a dangerous area: you had to cross Amsterdam Avenue, which was the dividing line between the Irish and Jewish neighborhoods. There were gangs, I was on full alert. I saved my allowance, and went to the five- and-dime. I remember stopping at the cosmetic counter and testing lipsticks before I asked the salesgirl where I could find a portfolio. She had never heard of such a thing but said someone in the stationary section might know of it.

The stationary counter was filled with paper clips, pencils, pens, school notebooks, and loose leaf folders. And like a miracle, there it was: a brown vinyl, 8 x 10 leatherette folder with the word portfolio embossed in gold letters diagonally across the front. I opened it up and found envelopes and paper inside but I figured I could replace them with my drawings which were the same size because I drew on typewriter paper. I handed the salesgirl my allowance and went home with my precious possession.

I drew a picture of Old Grand-Dad from a bottle of Old Grand-Dad whiskey; the Four Roses from a bottle of Four Roses whiskey; the movie star Greer Garson from a blurry photograph in the Daily News; a cartoon of two girls walking and sketches of trees and people in the park. On the day of the test, I had to get from my apartment on 175th Street to Music & Art which was on 135th Street and Convent Avenue up a very steep hill. I asked Flora if she would go with me. She said her parents were taking her.

I asked if I could go with them but they refused. I was trying to figure out how to get there when my father offered to drive me. It was a very kind act.

Why did they refuse?

They were very snobby and secretive. I don’t know. They were overprotective.

You were a bad influence?

No, they didn’t even know me. I don’t know. Flora was alone a lot. She was not a regular kid. She was overindulged.

So your father took you.

Yes, and I will forever appreciate it. He drove up the hill and parked the car. I looked out the window and instantly knew something was drastically wrong. I saw hundreds of students walking with real portfolios, big, black portfolios.

And you felt like a dork.

I wanted to die. I wanted the sidewalk to open and swallow me up. It was then that I realized I was holding a tacky writing tablet, not a portfolio. I asked my father to take me home. I refused to get out of the car. My father opened the door, pushed me out and said, “You’re a Flack, Flack’s don’t quit, go take that test.” I stood on the street, paralyzed with fear and filled with humiliation. I looked around and everybody was gone. I thought, Alright, I’ll do it. I found my way to the classroom and tried to insert my portfolio in between the pile of big black ones, hoping nobody would notice it or me.

I actually took a test for the High School of Art and Design, the same type of thing.

They gave me a stick of charcoal and newsprint paper. I’d never seen this before. It was the first time I drew from life. I remember sitting up very straight and very tall and being very charged at looking at a model. I remember the sound of the charcoal on everybody’s paper. And I remember glancing around and thinking my drawing was good. It was really good, even better than those around me. I could really see. And this rotten Flora, I found out later, had been taken lessons at the Art Students League for two years.

No kidding.

She had oil paintings, watercolors. She’d been going on Saturdays. That was my first experience with the competitive art world. You think she would have told me. Flora and I both got into Music & Art, and just like you, the minute I stepped through the doors, I knew that this was where I belonged. I saw scruffy art students that looked like me; the music students looked different, a little nerdy, carrying their cellos and violins. But it was my world; I belonged. I never felt I belonged anywhere before that. It was marvelous. Music & Art was a great school. Great! I still have friends from Music & Art. I heard about Cooper Union from a friend, this time it was from Margie. You had to take a test. And a similar thing happened.

But this time you had a better portfolio.

Well, I don’t remember needing a portfolio. It was a series of grueling tests. I did really well, and got in. A distinction was made between students who were interested in commercial art and those that were fine artists. There was no doubt that I was a fine artist. I was a painter. That was it. Milton Glaser, Seymour Chwast, and Ed Sorrel were in my class. They were already commercial artists. I began hanging out with Jackson Pollock, Franz Klein, and Bill de Kooning. The passion for art filled the air, it was rapture.

Audrey Flack photorealist
Audrey Flack, Time to Save, 1979. Acrylic and oil on canvas, 80 x 64 in.

When you first realized that, there must have been a sense of absolute elation in knowing that your calling is completely true.

There is a sense of elation but there is also elation in the work and the learning process. What I think, Ira, is we find a family. You found Vermeer; I found Crivelli, Memling, Petrus Cristus, Tintoretto, Cézanne, and Rubens. These artists become our family. We are a tribe.

Did you have instructors or guides who advised you to look at these artists, or did you just discover them on your own?

Both are true. In Cooper Union a professor named Nicholas Marsicano led me to the masters but it was way back in Music & Art that I discovered Carlo Crivelli.

What were they teaching you? Outside of your core classes, were there studio classes? Were you working from the model?

There were a lot of studio classes. Painting, watercolor. Ms. Ridgeway taught us watercolor, and I have a love of watercolor to this day. Great teachers. Eventually I became a good teacher myself. I want to pay tribute to the teachers. There is a saying, “Those who can, paint; those who can’t, teach.” That’s not true. At Cooper, Marsicano was an original member of the Artists’ Club. He was one of the early abstract expressionists who never made it to the top. (I hope someday he will be rediscovered. He would go to the library and bring books on Giorgione and talk about the masters in terms of abstract expressionist painting. By the way, back then, the Whitney was on Eighth Street, where the Studio School is today. I’d take the subway down to 8th Street and walk from Sixth Avenue over to Astor Place. I’d pass the Whitney, so I would go to the Whitney almost every day.

There was a doorman who also served as the coat check man and the guard. His name was Sylone Brown. He was a grey-haired, black Southern gentleman, who wore a grey doorman suit with gold trim. I was a scruffy art school student who wore paint-stained jeans and was loaded with paintboxes, sketch pads, and canvases. After a while we became friends. His greeting was regal. He would bow and say, “Well, Ms. Audrey, how are you today?” And then he would gently take my books and my paints and put them on the top shelf. “Please be careful with the paintings, Mr. Brown,” I would say and he assured me he would watch over them. I eventually wrote an article about him for the Cooper Union newspaper and as a result he got a raise in salary. I saw the first Gorky show at the downtown Whitney. I was thunderstruck by his work.

It was a different world, you know. When I was at Cooper, we were in the middle of the abstract expressionist explosion. I rented a studio in a condemned building on Eighth Street. De Kooning was around the corner. Co-op galleries sprung up and began to fill the neighborhood. The Tanager, Camino, March gallery. Oh, but, Ira, you knew every artist. We knew each other. If you didn’t know their name, you knew their faces because we were so few. There were only two galleries, Sydney Janis and Kootz. They were the only ones who sold. None of us sold anything. We didn’t even think about selling. It was different than it is today. Charlie Egan opened his gallery and rarely sold in the beginning. The rumor was that when he began to sell his artists’ work, he didn’t give them the money. He was a drinker, De Kooning left him because of that.

It was a different time. There was passion and love of art. Heated discussions took place at the Artists Club. When the Coop galleries had their openings, always on Tuesday evenings, it was like a block party. Everybody showed up, artists filled the streets. When de Kooning made a new painting, every artist knew it and wanted to see it. You knew the name of the painting. You waited outside his studio to see if you could get in. If you brought him a bottle of alcohol, you could get in. It was thrilling.

Did you bring him a bottle of alcohol?

Yeah, sure. All the artists went to the Cedar Bar. There was a dark side to it; if you were a young woman artist and you were alone, you were considered fair game, a piece of meat. Women were not treated well. It was dangerous and scary.

Were you among the group of women?

Yes, but I was a lot younger than most of them. I was awestruck and a bit frightened, but I didn’t show it. I wasn’t into drugs. I would sip a glass of wine or a whiskey sour but that’s about all. So many of the others were alcoholics. One night at the Cedar Tavern, Pollock hit on me. “Let’s fuck,” he said. But he was drunk and had a three day stubble. I wouldn’t even kiss him. Suddenly, my illusions burst. I never returned to the Cedar Bar.

When did you go to the league?

It was after I graduated from Yale. Here is how it happened. I was a wild abstract expressionist painter slinging paint from fifty feet away, hanging out with de Kooning, Kline, and Pollock, but in my heart, Ira, I always wanted to draw. And I always wanted to draw like an Old Master. In my third year of Cooper Union, I got called into the dean’s office, thinking I was in trouble again, but on the contrary, Joseph Albers was sitting there waiting for me. Two years before, he had become Dean of the Yale School of Art. He had left Black Mountain and was hired to revolutionize the Yale school because it had become old-fashioned and strictly academic. Students were painting with gold leaf and with brushes with two hairs in them. They didn’t understand the language of modernism. He inherited all these students who didn’t know what he was talking about. Albers was a Bauhaus modernist. He only painted squares. He was in trouble. The school was failing, he did not know how to reach the students, and he was afraid he was going to lose his job. He came up with a brilliant idea—he would import a couple of avant-garde rebels to do the work for him. He went to Cooper Union and asked the dean for their most revolutionary artist students. “Who are the rebels, the enfant terribles?”

I think the true core of humanity needs human representation—not that I am putting down abstract art because I think it is valuable. But we are delighted and enlivened and inspired by images that we can relate to.

Guess whose name came up? Albers asked to see my work. Once again, I packed my paintings into my father’s car and he drove me up to Yale. Albers kept me waiting a full hour. I was quak- ing. He strode in, pink cheeks, white suit, with his hands clasped behind his back. He carefully looked at every painting and questioned me about each one. “Ya, ya, you are good. You will go to Yale.” He gave me a scholarship.

We accomplished his mission: we revolutionized the school. I was standing there throwing paint from fifty feet away. The tight academic students loosened up. The school changed to become one of the best in the country. But there was one great flaw. Albers threw the baby out with the bathwater. He didn’t allow figure drawing. There were no mod- els. And what he considered drawing was to draw a square, a box, you know, rigid and tight.

Albers did not want me to wear jeans. They tried to pass a law at Yale—this was before women were admitted to Yale—although there was a handful in graduate school. I guess the graduate English majors wore skirts. How could I possibly paint in a skirt? So I just ignored the silly rule.

But I had this burning desire to draw like a master. So I would secretly copy Tintoretto, Raphael, Rubens, Michelangelo, and I had sketchbooks filled with them. When I graduated, I went to the Art Students League and studied with Robert Beverly Hale. It was the best thing I ever did.

How long were you there?

A couple of months but it was enough to instill in me a love of anatomy. I wasn’t there that long because I was young and arrogant. I actually said to Hale, “Well, I guess you don’t have anything more to teach me.” Oh my God. Robert Beverley Hale, I’m sorry and want to learn from you again. He had much more to teach. He was fabulous.

At what point did you leave abstraction?

I didn’t leave it. My representational paintings are based on abstract thought. However, I think there is a basic human need to see and reproduce yourself. You go from early childhood, when you want to draw your family—your mother, father, your friends, yourself. You make a big head and a little stick for a body; but that gets beaten out of you in a world dominated by abstraction. That’s basically what happened to many of us. I think the true core of humanity needs human representation—not that I am putting down abstract art because I think it is valuable. But we are delighted and enlivened and inspired by images that we can relate to. These can also be abstract. But if you’re going to pick one essential category, it’s iconic imagery.

Did you feel that abstraction was limited?

In a way, yes. The abstract expressionists had painted themselves into a corner, they were all dying.

As you became representational, did you shift from painting to sculpture?
I was a painter first, and always did watercolors. I always drew. Sculpture didn’t come until much later and then with a violent break. It’s not like I painted and sculpted. I only painted. That was my life. Music went by the wayside, except for the banjo. My focus on painting was intense. If you ever asked me if I would become a sculptor, I would have said no. I was a painter. That was it. Period. I loved Cézanne, the grandfather of us all, he was a great genius. The most awkward painter that ever lived. Probably the least talented, you know. He’s not a Rubens. Cézanne understands the deconstruction of abstract thought in a tree, in a figure, on a table, on a drapery, and he’s showing it to us. I love Cézanne, but I weep in front of a late Rembrandt self-portrait; my heart is moved by a Crivelli, by a Memling. So, it depends on what your lineage is. Each of us gravitates toward different artists. That is the beauty of being an artist. Some people love Paul Klee, and some love Riemenschneider, you know, or Bernini, and somebody is going to love Raphael and somebody is going to love Monet.

Can’t you love them all?

Yes, I love them all, but you are going to have your own favorites. Who do you love?

Cézanne, Titian …

You’re going to have a certain lineage, Ira. My friend Harold Bruder, who is a wonderful painter, loves Bonnard, Pascin, Vermeer, and Matisse. I like the Gothic incised line, I like Dürer and Grünewald. I love Tinteretto. I love Rubens, but I think the Crivelli hit me the hardest.

I do concur that Cézanne is the grandfather of us all, as Picasso also said.

Did Picasso say that?

Yes, he said that Cézanne is my father. But, in the direction I’m going now, and it’s a little bit paradoxical, I have come to discover in Monet how color itself releases the essence of the image, releases the essence of the experience of looking that I am more compelled by now than ever before. There is a magic in putting colors together to evoke a sensation.

That’s so beautiful. And that’s the next step. What our journey as artists allows us to do is to grow. Even though Crivelli is in my heart and I love him, I’m moving on, and I might be moving on to a lighter area because I’ve absorbed that aspect of myself. I’ve dealt with a need that I’ve had for it. Now I can go on to other artists, and that’s the beauty.

Audrey Flack photorealist
Audrey Flack, Banana Split Sundae, 1974. Oil over acrylic on canvas 38 x 501⁄8 in.

Do you paint everyday?

I haven’t painted in thirty years.

Sorry? Time out. I’m literally shocked. What have you been doing?


Just sculpting?

I’ve done prints. I’ll sketch. I do watercolors. I have not made a painting, which is why my dealer got hysterical and practically stopped talking to me. I’m painting my sculpture though.

I see that. Are these shown anywhere?

I have done many public art commis- sions, but I will have a major show of my sculpture next year in Chelsea. But Ira, I want to have some time to talk about your concerns about what’s happening now and where you see art going.

I’ve learned a great deal about the direction of art by attending the College Art Association’s annual conferences. What I am seeing is a constantly broadening definition of art, so much so that it is becoming inclusive of just about anything and everything, and I don’t think that is good for art. In other words, art is losing direction and as a result, many fine arts majors have no direction to focus on other than the image of being an artist, which has become amorphous. Calling oneself an artist seems to be more important than the true act of creating and understanding process.

Absolutely correct.

Everybody, every human being, every squirrel and every elephant needs to create. We’re not going to stop anybody from creating. One of the great things about the Art Students League is that people can come and create. Creating is healing. But not everybody is a great artist.

This is the malaise I think you’re talking about.

Well, I’ve been stepping back and taking an overview. I always do that periodically, and it is important to do it now, to see what is going on. To me, the word artist it is so misused now, I cannot stand it.

I won’t call myself an artist. I’ll call myself a painter.

Well, you’re an artist, and I am an artist. We are artists. An opera singer is not an artist; an opera singer is an opera singer. A musician is a musician. A rap singer is a rap singer. A writer is a writer. A dancer is a dancer. But now, everybody is an artist. So what are we? You’re a painter; I’m a sculptor. We are in the visual art field, and that is what artists do. People who are in the music audio field are musicians. So, I really want to get back to that terminology. Everybody, every human being, every squirrel and every elephant needs to create. We’re not going to stop anybody from creating. One of the great things about the Art Students League is that people can come and create. Creating is healing. But not everybody is a great artist.

The problem is that the image of being a great artist is more important than the journey itself.
The artists image used to be associated with drinking and having some kind of tragic life like Pollock, Rothko, or Basquiat. Now you have to be a public relations expert like Andy Warhol or Jeff Koons.

But that image is completely different. Jeff Koons is a fine businessman. Damian Hurst is the new champion.

Both incredible promoters and public relations people. I just received some literature from NYU about their arts programs. They are giving a certificate in art business. Required courses: Today’s American and International Art Market; Law and Ethics in the Art Market; the Art Auction. Other electives: Wealth Management in the Art Market; The Art Dealer in the Twenty-first Century; Starting a Successful Art Business; Fine Art as a Financial Asset. What the hell has happened?. What has happened to the dream, the highest aspect of humanity?

I don’t see this stopping.

I saw a show where the artist was concerned about coal and mercury in the water. He exhibited a sign that said, “There is mercury in the water” along with some really incompetent photographs of coal mines. Oh, there were huge lumps of coal in the middle of the gallery too. After the coal mine closes, people are sent down to take out the pillars which are often made of coal. People can die, but the owners save the coal. They are gleaning what- ever they can. So this “artist” takes not photographs but scanned images, which are dull. The idea is excellent. He was very proud because they are not photographs, they are scanned, they are real. I said, “They’re boring.”

What happens if you go to a play and the play- wright is writing a story about a very boring life situation. If he writes it in a very boring way, you’re going to be bored. His job is to write in a thrilling way, so you understand how horrible it is to be bored. Students are confused by the fact that they do not have the technical abilities to either paint it, draw it, or print their ideas. They are too caught up in the belief that the reality of expressing it or writing it or saying it, is in itself enough.

I think they assume interpretation somehow taints the reality.

I told the student to get a great camera, learn about lighting. Print up a digital image of it, an inkjet image, and work on it. You might have something that looks great that gets your message across. They don’t have the technical ability. They don’t have the patience for it. They are working on computers.

In the same show there was a video of poor people working in the mud and dirt bringing up bags of gold from gold mines in South Africa. I thought about the gold earrings I was wearing. These students are making statements about the underprivileged in third world countries. But they are preaching to the converted.

I have more respect for Hollywood stars who are going to third world countries and putting their effort and their money into saving kids from sexual slavery or removing land mines. They are doing something. What good is placing a lump of coal in a pristine and tasteful gallery? Well, go over there and help if that’s what it is about. Otherwise, make something that is so magnificent and so wonder- ful that it makes your statement about coal, but it feeds your soul and your mind.

Do you know of an artist named Billy Curmano? I always contribute money to help him continue his artwork. He is a performance artist who wears a wetsuit and swims rivers that are polluted. These kinds of performance artists are very valuable.

I have another friend who is cleaning the Rio Grande and writing about it afterward. She actually goes out there and picks up the garbage. Put your money where your mouth is. In terms of making great art, I think artists who attempt to do that have to be preserved, like dinosaurs. We have to be carefully cared for to survive the deluge.

Schools like the Art Students League are very important and will become more important as time goes by. The league has to be honed and conditioned. I feel very strongly about that. I know that you want to do that, Ira. As long as we have a heart and brain and internal organs and a skeleton and muscles, we will remain human beings and we will need images of ourselves. We will deal more and more with computers and cell phones, but we still have to deal with the fact of our mortality. Nothing does it like art and what we are talking about, that inner calling, that inner recognition of what art does and is. Art helps us live, art can heal, artists restore sense to the world.

This interview was originally published in the Fall 2011 print issue of LINEA.