For most of his career, Hendricks painted real ordinary people that existed in his community including “family, friends, associates, students, and local characters from the neighborhood.” (Trevor Schoonmaker quoted in: Genevieve Hyacinthe, “Love is the Message: Barkley Hendricks’s MFSB Portrait Aesthetics,” Open Cultural Studies, 2017, p. 615) For example, in the present work, Hendricks dressed up his neighborhood companion, William Corbett, in the illustrated fur-trimmed camel coat. The artist’s decision to depict black figures stemmed from his frustration at their lack of representation in museum collections. Although repeatedly expressing great admiration for Old Master painters such as Rembrandt, Caravaggio and Dürer, Hendricks longed to represent individuals he personally knew with an elevated sense of dignity and heroicism reserved for stately portraits hung on museum walls. Colescing his knowledge of art history with his direct engagement in black popular culture, Hendricks forged a distinct style of his own, ambiguously positioned between the provocative playfulness of Pop Art, the critical gravitas of Conceptual art and the incandescent grandeur of Baroque-style portraiture. As Thelma Golden, the Director of the Studio Museum in Harlem, states, Hendricks’s portraits are “period pieces that represent a hybrid of black cultural consciousness and contemporary art practice.” (Thelma Golden quoted in: Ibid., p. 607) Therefore, Hendricks’s portraits can be interpreted as intimate cultural artifacts; personal visual documentations that reflect a broader transformation of black subjectivity during these volatile post-Civil Rights decades.
Hendricks’s North Philly Niggah (William Corbett) perfectly embodies the artist’s nuanced handling of the culturally complex black body. The work remained in Hendricks’s personal collection until 2008 when it was exhibited at his first solo retrospective, Barkley L. Hendricks: Birth of the Cool, curated by Trevor Schoonmaker at the Nasher Museum of Art. The present work also featured prominently in Thelma Golden’s seminal 1994 exhibition at the Whitney Museum of American Art, The Black Male: Representations of Masculinity in Contemporary American Art. Indisputably original and formally sophisticated, Hendricks’s painterly musings on identity and representation directly influenced a new generation of noteworthy artists to pursue similar themes, among them Kehinde Wiley, Mickalene Thomas, Lynette Yiadom-Boakye and Rashid Johnson.
Furthermore, despite the socio-political context that engendered Hendricks’s iconic portraits, the artist often pushed back on the public’s tendency to over-politicize his work, once stating: “Anything a black person does in terms of the figure is put into a “political” category … I paint because I like to paint.” (Barkley Hendricks quoted in Karen Rosenberg, “Barkley L. Hendricks on Why You Shouldn't Call Him a Political Artist,” Artspace, March 15, 2016) Indeed, Hendricks’s technical brilliance is not to be overlooked. The artist’s dexterous manipulation of paint, highly evident in the dazzling tonal complexity of North Philly Niggah (William Corbett), establishes the notion that beauty, although culturally specific, possesses a universality that transcends race.
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