Audrey Flack (American, born 1931), 'Cover Girl,' 1962. Oil on canvas, 11 by 14 inches. Ulrich Museum of Art, Wichita State University, Wichita, Kansas. Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Arthur Cohen

Audrey Flack (American, born 1931)

Cover Girl, 1962
Oil on canvas, 11 x 14 in.
Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Arthur Cohen

Although she prefers the term super realist, Audrey Flack is best known as a photorealist, an artist whose work stems from one or more photographs and is so detailed and precise that it seems to re-create the source imagery in paint, pencil, or other medium. Flack executed her signature paintings in the 1970s, the decade photorealism became popular in American art, using a projector to enlarge the original photographs on her canvases and an airbrush to
apply paint in a manner that mimicked their slick surfaces. The use of mechanical aids was another common practice in photorealism. Flack distinguished herself from her contemporaries by wedding this distinctly 20th-century technique to imagery inspired by a much older artistic genre. The subject matter of her paintings was inspired by 17th-century vanitas paintings--still lifes in which images of flowers, food, skulls, candles, and history books were employed to evoke thoughts of life’s temporality. These same objects, as well as photographs, cosmetics, and other personal and contemporary miscellany, appear in Flack's typically large, garishly colored works.
Created with thick, visible strokes of paint in a limited range of colors on a small canvas, Cover Girl is stylistically distinct from Flack’s hallmark 1970s paintings, but it prefigures them in several ways. Her attention to the shiny caps of Cover Girl foundation-makeup jars and to the gold lipstick tube hint at the precision with which she later depicted light reflections captured in photographs. Here the artist experiments with clustering objects together, the compositional approach characteristic of her later paintings. Especially notable is her choice of objects (the bottles, tubes, and jars of makeup), which links this early painting to many subsequent ones, such as Chanel (1974). Cosmetics, used to defy the effects of time, became one of her most frequent vanitas props.

Although Flack limited the kinds of objects she depicted in this early work, she nonetheless might have been alluding to the social and political unrest of the 1960s. In that time, the viewer might interpret a female artist’s focus on cosmetics as an early feminist critique of the demands upon women to enhance their appearance. Furthermore, by including both light foundation and coarse washing powder for black hair, Flack was perhaps indirectly acknowledging racial tensions and the civil rights movement. Many of her other 1960s paintings are focused on world leaders and peasant laborers, confirming her interest in political issues and supporting such an associative reading of Cover Girl.

--Emily Stamey, Ulrich Museum curator of modern and contemporary art