Richard J. Powell, "Barkley L. Hendricks, Anew," in Exh. Cat., Durham, Duke University, Nasher Museum of Art (and traveling), Barkley L. Hendricks: Birth of the Cool, 2008, pp. 41-42
Overflowing with rich color relationships and an inventive panoply of stylistic variation, Barkley Hendrick’s Sir Nelson. Solid! is the quintessence of formal rigor and exacting portraiture. Executed in 1970 in advance of Hendricks first significant gallery show at Kenmore Galleries, the present work attests to the artist’s unrivaled ability to capture light—the way it reflects off of skin, fabric, and metal—as well as his nuanced and canny knowledge of art history, deploying a bevy of references from the Dutch Renaissance to Color Field Painting and Minimalism. Bringing together expansive fields of color, expert depictions of surface and material, and a piercing gaze, Sir Nelson. Solid! coalesces into a portrait that goes beyond merely capturing its subject’s appearance, instead rendering a fierce interiority, a range of visual harmonies, and an inimitable sense of cool.
Barkley Hendricks was born in Philadelphia in 1945 and was recognized for his artistic and musical talent from an early age. In 1963, he was accepted to the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, which would initiate a rapid development in the artist’s style. Hendricks gained acclaim in the Philadelphia art scene and had the opportunity to visit the creative centers of Europe, marveling at the masterworks of the Dutch Masters and the Impressionists who would later inform the treatment of light and subject in his work. Painting against the grain of his peers who were abandoning carefully crafted figuration in favor of exploring the mechanical nature of Pop or asceticism of Minimalism, Hendricks struck out in a direction all his own, turning his gaze to the black people he grew up with, lived with, met on the street, and with whom he had relationships. Explaining his groundbreaking combination of subject and stylistic treatment, Hendricks stated, "I accept the challenge of the material I’m working with: the people in front of me…I credit my early training of life model figures. I had the knowledge of how light works on the epidermis” (the artist quoted in Zoe Whitley, “American Skin: Artists on Black Figuration,” in Exh. Cat., London, Tate (and traveling), Soul of a Nation, 2016, p. 195).
Sir Nelson. Solid! integrates Hendricks' focus on light, style, and representation into an abstract framework, engaging the hegemonic developments in the surrounding art world in a way only the artist could. Broken roughly into two sections, the painting is composed of a blue background and a forest green cloak and hat, both completely flat. The subject as well, as his accessories, are so fully delineated that they appear lifelike, their verisimilitude standing in stark contrast to the planes of tone around them. Despite the contradictions in the two styles, the work feels indisputably finished, a heady concoction of uniformity and dimensionality, solid shapes and open forms.
Sir Nelson’s face is sculpted into life with layer upon layer of pigment, built up in washes of warm brown tone. Hendricks uses a concoction of malleable oils and water-soluble acrylic pigment to achieve the startling level of verisimilitude in the present work. The artist’s mastery of light effects takes his subject beyond the border of the canvas, introducing a sense of liveliness that defies the limitations of painting. Sir Nelson’s confident stare is delineated in luminous reflected arcs, which suggest that he is under a spotlight. His eyebrows are raised, softening the confrontation of his gaze. His scarf ripples through valences of light and shadow, transcending paint to become fabric. Hendricks does not reveal his subject’s identity beyond the title of the work, yet he has captured him so thoroughly, in appearance and energy, that he is unmistakable.
Bringing an uncompromising mimetic representation together with abstract pictorial strategy, Hendricks crafts a radical composition in multiple senses of the word. His subject is confident, and by virtue of his cloak, expansive, dominating the space as a black subject in an unprecedented manner within art history. On a formal level, the conflation of myriad styles within one work also signifies a radical shift, integrating the art historical inroads of the 1960s, particularly the reductionism of abstraction, into the tradition of portraiture.
Honored with a five-venue career retrospective organized by the Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University in 2008, Hendricks’ approach to his subjects, their personality, attitude, and self-possession has earned him a place as one of the leading portraitists of the 20th century. While Hendricks described his process as simply “[addressing] what is in front of me,” the present work reveals a highly critical mind, determined to respond to, and carve out a singular path in, art history (ibid., p. 194).
Please call 1-800-555-5555 to order a print catalog for this sale.
Online Registration to Bid is Closed for this Sale. Would you like to watch the live sale?Watch Live Sale