No artist has better exemplified a particular generation, urban aesthetic, notions of race or personal sensibility more acutely than Barkley L. Hendricks. His paintings can be described as nothing short of the definition of cool as his subjects—taken from live studio models and often from photographs by the artist—are often presented against stark, monochromatic backgrounds that serve to direct the viewer’s attention to each character’s facial expression, particular style of dress, hairstyle or effortlessly casual pose. His portraits were both challenging and incredibly radical to the 1970s art world as they “are neither clinically rendered photorealist representations nor culturally idealized or romantic images. Rather, they are tightly rendered and emotionally stirring, honest portraits of everyday people—his family, friends, associates, students and local characters from the neighborhood. They are people with distinctive style, personality and attitude that caught his attention and inspired a creative response. But to mainstream society of the 1970s, these images were both visually and conceptually loaded and thus potentially dangerous” (Trevor Schoonmaker, “Birth of the Cool,” in Exh. Cat., Durham, Duke University, Nasher Museum of Art (and traveling), Barkley L. Hendricks: Birth of the Cool, 2008-2010, p. 25). To paint the stylish, confident everyday Black man or woman in the 1970s in the same style as “high” canonical portraiture completely invalidated the preexisting boundaries of what art is and should be. Such bold statements were unprecedented yet appreciated by patrons and critics alike.
Born in Philadelphia in 1945, Barkley L. Hendricks exhibited creative tendencies from an early age, first as a musician and then as an artist. He was accepted to the prestigious Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in 1963 where he quickly rose to prominence within the Philadelphia art community. While at PAFA, Hendricks first visited the legendary European art centers that would prove to have a lasting effect on his idiosyncratic brand of portraiture. While visiting the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam and the Prado in Madrid, Hendricks observed Rembrandt’s distinctive use of light and shadow, Frans Hals’ attention to detail in the folds of a sitter’s clothing and, most importantly, the use of a piece of glass or mirror in the composition to reflect a second landscape within the picture plane. This artistic tool is no better illustrated than in the powerful self-portrait entitled Innocence & Friend where Hendricks’ studio windows are reflected in the artist’s own red-brimmed aviators.
Hendricks’ engagement with the iconic paintings hanging in Europe’s most prominent museums extended beyond the similarities in rendering of paint. At a time when naturalist figurative painting had been abandoned in favor of Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein’s ironic Pop figures drawn from mass media imagery or Agnes Martin and Brice Marden’s reductive, Minimalist approach to the medium, Barkley L. Hendricks seemed to singlehandedly revive the portraiture genre altogether. Yocks, painted in 1975, is a true masterpiece and major achievement, inspired by two figures Hendricks met in Boston. He elaborates: “There was the shine of the green leather coat and the ‘bling’ of the gold teeth…Yock was the name given to a dude who knew how to ‘rag.’ Rick Powell would call them dandies” (Barkley Hendricks, “Palette Scrapings” in ibid., pp. 105-107). With their decadent leather jackets, stylized platform shoes, twin tooth picks and undeniably lush white fur collar on the right figure, these Yocks are modern day aristocrats as seen through Hendricks’ eyes. Similarly, the man featured in The Way You Look Tonight/Diagonal Graciousness epitomizes the cool factor which defines Hendricks’ entire oeuvre. Dressed in head to toe black and set against a white and white gold leaf background (much like a Renaissance icon), it is the figure’s accents such as his rings, bright pink bubblegum and red cardinal that Hendricks focuses on as the defining aspects of the character. Staring down the viewer behind his red lip-shaped sunglasses, the figure both challenges and welcomes the viewer’s participation.
An innovator who was recently honored with a three-year, five-venue traveling retrospective exhibition in 2008-2010, Barkley L. Hendricks and his commentaries on the state of black figures within the trajectory of art history are firmly absolute. Trevor Schoonmaker, Chief Curator of the Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University sums up Hendricks’ inimitability as an artist, stating “Hendricks stands out as an artist ahead of his time. His work has defied easy categorization, and his unique individualism has landed him outside of the mainstream, but his bold and empowering portrayal of those who have been overlooked and underappreciated has positioned him squarely in the hearts of many. His personalized realism has a timeless appeal; speaking with today’s younger generation of artists gives one a sense for just how respected he is. By representing the black body in new and challenging ways, Hendricks’ pioneering work has unwittingly helped pave the way for future generations of artists of color to work with issues of identity through representation of the black figure. Today his body of work is as vital and vibrant as ever, and it should prove him to be a lasting figure in the history of American art” (ibid., p. 36).
"His portraits are unique in that they are neither clinically rendered photorealist representations nor culturally idealized or romantic images. Rather, they are tightly rendered and emotionally stirring, honest portraits of everyday people—his family, friends, associates, students and local characters from the neighborhood. They are people with distinctive style, personality, and attitude that caught his attention and inspired a creative response. But to mainstream society of the 1970s, these images were both visually and conceptually loaded and thus potentially dangerous."
Trevor Schoonmaker, "Birth of the Cool," in Exh. Cat., Durham, Duke University, Nasher Museum of Art (and traveling), Barkley L. Hendricks: Birth of the Cool, February 2008 - April 2010, p. 25
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