Durham The fascination of Barkley L. Hendricks’s survey exhibition of paintings is first that it’s a window to the past, a slice of black American style from the late ’60s to the early ’80s rendered in dress (or undress), accessories, hairstyle and stance, with occasional slang in the titles. Art historically, the work also links to other times, since his typical presentation of an isolated figure on a monochrome background evokes both religious icons—especially when he uses a metal-foil surface—and works by Rembrandt and Caravaggio, to whom Hendricks admits his debt and gives his admiration. Additionally attractive is the fact that the figures are not stereotypes or symbols but portraits of the artist himself and his family, friends and students, conveyed with a striking directness and immediacy so that they almost radiate reality and knowability. Hendricks is a sophisticated practitioner who combines impressive references, forms and techniques in renderings that seem to cut to the core, to reveal his subjects as vulnerable individuals even as they self-consciously pose in displays of hipness.
Hendricks (b. 1945) is a native of North Philadelphia who trained first at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, once Thomas Eakins’s turf, which may have amplified his existing interest in the figure, and then at Yale, where in addition to developing his painting skills he studied photography with Walker Evans. He has been exhibiting his paintings since 1966, with solos at Kenmore and Benjamin Mangel galleries in Philadelphia, ACA and Mitchell Algus in New York and numerous museums. Moreover, he has been included in seemingly every major survey of African-American art from “Afro-American Artists, 1800-1969” at the Philadelphia Civic Center in 1969 to “Black Male: Representations of Masculinity in Contemporary American Art” at the Whitney in 1994. Although his work has influenced younger black artists such as Kehinde Wiley and Jeff Sonhouse, his name is not as familiar to the larger art world as the work in his current traveling exhibition would lead one to expect. Probably contributing to that knowledge gap is a production gap: Hendricks, busy with other activities including teaching (at Connecticut College) and photography (especially of jazz musicians), did not complete any paintings between 1984 and 2002. Yet the exhibition’s concentration on the early work (two portraits and a dozen landscapes date from the last few years) is no liability and gives the show greater coherence and impact.
“Barkley L. Hendricks: Birth of the Cool” (the title from a Miles Davis album) was organized by Trevor Schoonmaker, contemporary curator at the Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University, in Durham, N.C., where it debuted. It is the third collaboration between the two men, who met when Schoonmaker curated “The Magic City” at Brent Sikkema Gallery in New York in 2000, and again when he curated “Black President: The Art and Legacy of Fela Anikulapo-Kuti” for the New Museum in 2003. Fela (1938-1997) was a Nigerian singing star and activist whom Hendricks had met and photographed, in addition to seeing him perform and collecting his records and CDs. Hendricks, who plays the trumpet and is a jazz devotee, was inspired by the prospect of an exhibition centered on Fela to paint Fela: Amen, Amen, Amen, Amen . . ., a large oil of the singer in an orange jumpsuit, his left hand on his crotch, his right holding a microphone; a burning, thorn-wrapped heart that resembles a reversed shape of Africa is emblazoned on his chest and a halo caps his head against a background of variegated metallic leaf. In the Nasher show, the framed painting sat on an altar shelf above a jumble of 27 pairs of hand-painted high-heel shoes, representing the women in Fela’s life (singers, dancers, girlfriends). This showy piece leans more toward a poster quality than the earlier paintings do, and eschews their feeling of the real: this is a celebrity.
Compare Fela’s portrait to, for instance, Lawdy Mama (1969), which depicts a young woman from hip level up on a gold-leafed vertical canvas whose rounded top, suggesting a medieval altarpiece, conforms to her enormous Afro—bigger than Angela Davis’s, it conveys a statement of black pride. She wears a dark-striped T-shirt dress, casual yet proper, and her left arm crosses her body to grip her right elbow, a rather constrained pose. Her face is unsmiling, her expression a mix of determination and timidity. The effect of the whole is quiet yet assertive. One studies her face to know her better.
Almost without fail, Hendricks catches such sensitive indications of character in his portraits, and often with very mixed messages. His 1977 Brilliantly Endowed (Self-Portrait) presents him partly—strategically—undressed (the title, the catalogue notes, both touts and mocks a phrase from a Hilton Kramer review of his work). This is not a classical nude but a man with only the most central of his clothes off, which thus contradicts the conventions of heroic or romanticized figures. Hendricks is willing to violate his own privacy; the “undressed” quality is emphasized by the amount of personal ornament he still wears.
The painting’s tonality is Rembrandtesque, the warm brown of his flesh cast into shadows by some yellowish light source at the left; glinting highlights of his rings, bracelets, necklace and glasses frames recall the glint of metal in Northern Renaissance still lifes. His sneakers and the top of his white applejack cap are incomplete—cut off with the brusque modernity of a photograph and creating a small pulse of compression—even as their light color calls attention to them and initiates a triangular path of vision that reinforces the cropping.