Queen of Hearts: Audrey Flack is a love letter to the artist and a mini-lesson in 20th Century gender politics and American art history.
Lauded as a pioneer of photorealism, Flack was famous in the 1970s for her depictions of historical events and for the Vanitas series of compelling still life creations, some of them eye-popping mash-ups of religious symbol and burnished riches from the makeup counter and jewelry store.
These huge, luminous paintings put her on the art map, but various personal and professional struggles prompted Flack to stop painting in the 1980s and turn to sculpture.
Here too she was successful, with such public works as Nashville’s Recording Angel, and Monumental Gateway: four bronze figures, each 20 feet high, for the city of Rock Hill, South Carolina.
Queen of Hearts: Audrey Flack traces the career of the now-91-year-old Flack by letting her do most of the talking.
Directors Deborah Schaffer and Rachel Reichman weave in interviews with friends, colleagues and a handful of art historians and curator types, but interviews with Flack herself are the main attraction.
The nonagenarian artist is outspoken and energetic and makes a terrific guide to her own life and times.
And what a life. Flack describes her start as an abstract artist and the thrilling days of attending the Cooper Union School of art in the 1950s.
She tells engaging tales about her childhood and family life — snippets of those early days turn up in her paintings — and outlines some of the highs and lows of her journey as an artist.
It’s very much a woman’s journey.
From Josef Albers getting handsy with her while she attended Yale to the exigencies of being a single mother and somehow finding time to paint, Flack’s history as a painter is also history of second wave feminism, entailing general survival in a male-dominated society and specific work in a milieu where women were barely acknowledged.
The feminist content of her photorealist paintings brought harsh criticism (from the all-male art critics). A backlash against photorealism itself helped nudge Flack toward depression, hastening the end of her painting and the pivot to sculpture.
Her return to painting a few years ago is lauded in the film.
Flack is good company, funny and wise and always engaging. It’s wonderful to know this film will introduce her work to a new audience.
But celebratory though Queen of Hearts: Audrey Flack may be, it’s also a bit of a history lesson for women — maybe even a cautionary tale.
“It was hard to be a woman artist then,” Flack says in the film.
The “artist” part is probably redundant.