Katy Thompson, Associate Director of Education
“What does Independence mean to me?” This is the question that, in 1975, the Lorillard Tobacco Co. in New York asked 12 American artists: Will Barnet, Colleen Browning, Audrey Flack, Red Grooms, Joseph Hirsch, Robert Indiana, Alex Katz, Jacob Lawrence, Marisol Escobar, Larry Rivers, Edward Ruscha, and Fritz Scholder. Commissioned to celebrate the 1976 Bicentennial of American Independence, the Kent Bicentennial Portfolio: Spirit of Independence (1975) comprises the response of each artist, in print form, to the above question.
FWMoA holds the full portfolio in our permanent collection, and in 2020 we looked at two of the prints: Fritz Scholder’s Bicentennial Indian and Marisol’s Women’s Equality. Today, we’re shuffling back through them to look at Audrey Flack’s Fourth of July Still Life.
Take a moment to examine the individual objects in Flack’s still life. Where did your eyes go first? I noticed the engraved portrait of George Washington in the right-hand corner. Arguably the most well-known and revered figure in American history, even on the sidelines his enigmatic presence draws attention. From there, my eyes went to the figurines in uniform, then to the replica Liberty Bell (a piggy bank!) in front of the American flag and bronze eagle, but tucked behind the trumpet, to the red-white-and-blue crêpe paper and reflective surface. Lastly, my eyes settled on the string of silver beads. Drawing on her memories of the 4th of July, Flack assembled objects which she felt reflected her American childhood growing up in New York. Hoping to evoke the feelings, sounds, and colors of America, Flack stated that she “tried to create an absolutely American still life”. Did she succeed? Can you imagine the sound of the trumpet? The crinkle of the crêpe paper as its strewn on a porch balcony or stairwell banister? The pop and crackle of the firecrackers?
Playing on the consumerist culture of the 70s, many referred to this time as the “BUYcentennial SELLabration”, and Flack’s objects connect to both the commercialization of Independence day and the iconography of the day itself. At the time, the country was grappling with inflation, the end of the Vietnam War, an energy crisis, and the ramifications of the women’s liberation and Civil Rights movements. Can you connect any of the objects to these economic, social, and political issues? The tea and Liberty Bell are obvious nods to the founding of the country, but what about the fireworks? The silver beads? By incorporating everyday objects associated with specific cultural meaning, like the fireworks, she presents a specific facet of the country’s narrative recognizable to all Americans.
Working from photographs, Flack is a photorealist painter who, inspired by the Pop art movement that incorporated recognizable images into fine art, assembles inanimate household objects into table top still lives. Calling back to 17th century Dutch still life practice, Flack pioneered the “Super Realist” style and was the first Photorealist to have a painting purchased by the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), in 1966, for their permanent collection. Taught by Josef Albers at Yale, her early work fell into Abstract Expressionism, studying the relationship between color and emotion. She shifted her practice gradually, as her want to communicate with her art grew, and experimented with multiple mediums, including printing and sculpture. While acceptable for an artist to work from photographs, placing the emphasis on reproducing the photographic quality was not; however, this approach lent itself to an end product with a purposeful narrative rendered in meticulous detail. The “literalness”, or recognizability, of her completed works opened her art to a larger, consumer audience that often finds abstraction off-putting or intimidating. Albers’ teaching is still evident, however, in the use of color and light that plays with and between the objects. The reflective surface of the table, the glossy red of the fig, the smoothness of plastic, and the brightness of the brass trumpet are all callbacks to her formative training. For Flack, art “is an exploration of visual data which has been going on for centuries, each artist contributing to the next generation’s advancement”, evidenced here in both her references to Dutch still life and the artifacts of American history.
How does Flack’s still life answer the posed question? What objects do you associate with Independence day, and which ones would you incorporate into a still life?