Barkley L. Hendricks (1945-2017)

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Barkley L. Hendricks, Slick (Self-Portrait) (1977), oil on canvas; Collection of the Chrysler Museum of Art, Norfolk, VA

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This review was originally published in the December 16, 2008 edition of The New York Observer.

In an interview with Thelma Golden, director of the Studio Museum in Harlem, the painter Barkley L. Hendricks states that there aren’t “too many contemporary painters I get inspiration from.” Ms. Golden, citing Mr. Hendricks’ “resonance” in the art scene, seems taken aback. He has, after all, benefited from a marketplace that currently smiles upon figurative art. Money, it would seem, has made Mr. Hendricks’ stark brand of portraiture relevant.

Or, at least, au courant. Given the laconic expression in Slick (Self-Portrait) (1977), Mr. Hendricks probably views this development with no small measure of bemusement. He knows the convolutions of fashion. Mr. Hendricks’ art came into its own some 40 years ago and shortly thereafter gained in renown. As someone who once appeared in an advertisement for Dewar’s Scotch, he’s experienced “resonance” firsthand.

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Barkley L. Hendricks, Bid ‘Em In/Slave (Angie) (1973), acrylic and oil on canvas, 72 x 50″; courtesy Swann Auction Galleries

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Birth of the Cool—the title comes from Miles Davis’ seminal LP—is a selective overview of Mr. Hendricks’ art at the Studio Museum. He’s made still-lifes, watercolors, photos, assemblages and (huh?) black light drawings, but it’s portrait paintings for which he’s best known—and rightfully so: They’re assured, taut and true. The work’s in-your-face immediacy is startling, but that’s not all. Each picture unfolds with, yes, cool deliberation.

Mr. Hendricks’ subjects are painted life size, maybe a little larger. They’re rendered with consummate skill: Mr. Hendricks applies paint with deadpan economy. Rigorous attention is paid to likeness, as is conveying the specifics of gesture, attitude, fashion and, if not necessarily character, then type. To a significant extent, raiment takes precedence. Mr. Hendricks isn’t an effusive temperament; nonetheless, you can feel the pleasure he takes in limning wide collars, hot pants or the sloping overcoat in Steve (1976).

Associations peculiar to the period—the late 1960s and early ’70s—abound: Try not thinking Superfly or recalling then-burgeoning Afrocentrism. Politics are alluded to—Icon for My Man Superman (Superman never saved any black people—Bobby Seale) (1969), for instance, or in the oddly beatific visage of a Vietnam-era soldier in FTA(1968). The work evinces an artist peculiarly aware of, and not unamused by, the sociological and historical ramifications in painting black Americans. As catalog essayist Richard J. Powell notes, Mr. Hendricks’ perplexing interest in stereotypes reveals an intellect attuned to devastating ironies.

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Barkley L. Hendricks, Lawdy Mama (1969), oil and gold leaf on canvas, 53-3/4 x 36-1/4″; courtesy Jack Shainman Gallery

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All the same, Mr. Hendricks is a pure painter. Though his figures are representational, the space in which they are situated is not: Each is surrounded by expanses of flat and uninflected color. The abrupt disconnect between figure and ground recalls Byzantine icons—Lawdy Mama (1969), with its domed format and field of metallic gold, is a blatant reference—and, in the work’s billboard-like punch, Pop Art. Some may want to lump Mr. Hendricks in with Photorealism, but, as an artist trained in working directly from life, mechanical reproduction isn’t an overriding concern. It’s the actual he’s after.

A daunting concentration to detail worthy of Netherlandish painters can be seen in the studio windows reflected in the sunglasses worn by Mr. Hendricks in Slick. But relentless pictorial honing can make him seem an abstract painter. Mr. Hendricks carefully situates each model within the parameters of the canvas; the way they’re juxtaposed within its edges is exacting, as are his subtle elisions in color. In What Goes On (1974), Mr. Hendricks orchestrates white ground, white clothing and brown skin to thrilling effect. Somewhere, Malevich is smiling.

Ms. Golden describes Mr. Hendricks’ achievement as “somewhat timeless.” Somewhat? What a curious aside. Artists play for keeps; their work thrives long after its historical context has come and gone. Mr. Hendricks is wise to this truth. His great loves are timeless through and through: Rembrandt and Caravaggio. In fundamental ways, they’re Mr. Hendricks’ true contemporaries. Birth of the Cool is a long overdue recognition of what is likely to be a timeless achievement. In the short term, it’s wry, pointed and something to see.

©  2008 Mario Naves

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