New York

Audrey Flack

Armstrong Gallery

Audrey Flack is one of our most important painters, but these works are not her most important paintings. Not that they’re uninteresting, but they’re more interesting because they’re Flack’s early “expressionist” work than because of anything inherent in them. This exhibition’s timing seemed to pose them as America’s answer to the European “neoexpressionists”—the Germans (who are really as conceptual as they are expressionist, using living paint to resurrect dead signs, in the spirit in which one tries to return to origins after one’s innermost ideas and beliefs have been defeated by history) and the Italian “neomythical” painters. But Flack understands nothing about expressionist or mythological painting, though she knows how to quote both in a lively art-historical manner, as though trying to make an old picture interesting for a freshman class.

Let’s take the appropriately German-derived Dance of Death, 1959, with itsdouble use of what seem to be the figures of Albrecht Dürer’s Adam and Eve from either the woodcut (B.17) of the Fall of Man from the Small Passion, 1510–11, or the drawing (L.518) of the same scene from 1510, in the Albertina in Vienna. Put these two couples together with a bagpipe-playing skeleton standing cross-legged on on foot, and you’ve got a sort of all-American, comic-book dance of death. The work is a composite of quotations that don’t synthesize, a compost heap of history that doesn’t fertilize a vision. The erotic couple haven’t got the spunky verve of Dürer’s figures (though Flack “expressionistically” masturbates the lines that shape them), and the death figure has none of the sinister nerviness and bite of similar figures by, say, Hans Baldung-Grien or Hans Holbein. If this is “baroque,” as some critics have asserted, it’s baroque without baroque’s visionary quality—or, it’s the vision made commonplace.

I suppose it was “daring” to have made such imagery in the late ’50s, when artists were casting about for an alternative to Abstract Expressionism, but the results weren’t so significant, and still are not. The self-discovery that led Flack to find herself in other traditional images, using them allegorically to articulate her persona—sometimes, I think, coming close to what David Riesman called “false personalization,” which he felt was endemic to other-directed Americans—is not yet operational here. (Does false personalization explain the American reduction of tradition to the quotable, almost à la Disneyland?) The works were exhibited because they have become unexpectedly trendy, and because they show a major feminist realist struggling—the expressionist phase is meant to be a struggle (expressionism, supposedly, is eternally immature)—to identify herself. The Sturm and Drang here is lovable but hollow, and very far from the powerful enchantment and subtle meaning of the mature works. Flacks’s expressionism is tasteful, and insufficiently protragic.

Donald Kuspit