Contemporary Art

Barkley L. Hendricks: In the Footsteps of Old Masters

By Hadley Newton

Encountering a portrait by Barkley L. Hendricks is much like meeting an impressive individual; the experience is engrossing, powerful and intimate. For over four decades, Barkley Hendricks painted himself, his friends and his relatives, creating a body of work which not only detailed his personal world but also illustrated and immortalized the cultural markers of late 20th century America. No artist has better exemplified a particular generation, urban aesthetic, notions of race or personal sensibility more acutely than Hendricks. The paintings on offer on 19 May, Yocks (1975), The Way You Look Tonight / Diagonal Graciousness (1981) and Innocence & Friend, are testaments to the artist’s ability to conjure compelling personalities.  

Hendricks began painting during an era dominated by abstraction and the mass media imagery of Pop. He attended the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts in 1963, where he became engrossed in art history, particularly in the portraits of the Renaissance. 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 and Frans Hals’ attention to detail in the folds of a sitter’s clothing. Upon entering Yale University, where he received his B.F.A. and his M.F.A., he discovered that most of his fellow students worked exclusively on abstract subjects. Rather than shifting his own focus to reflect the interests of his peers or the art industry more generally, he remained committed to capturing the human figure. By applying the techniques of aristocratic portraiture to his paintings, he grants the friends and peers who serve as his subjects a level of authority and clout rarely afforded to modern individuals.  

BARKLEY L. HENDRICKS, YOCKS, 1975. ESTIMATE $300,000–400,000.

However his incorporation of Old Master techniques is not simply a rote imitation. For instance, in Yocks, the artist places the two figures in front of a stark white, monochromatic background (now considered a signature aspect of his works). The flat void of the background places a firm emphasis on the opulence of the two men, standing amicably and looking out at the viewer. Hendricks explained that the painting was inspired by two men he met in Boston, writing, “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 Exh. Cat., Durham, Duke University, Nasher Museum of Art (and traveling), Barkley L. Hendricks: Birth of the Cool, 2008-2010, pp. 105-107). With their decadent leather jackets, stylized platform shoes, twin toothpicks 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 challenges the viewer to return the gaze.   

Hendricks also applied the principles of other genres of Old Master painting to his compositions. Innocence and Friend, plays with the topic of the vanitas. The artist renders a banana and an orange and his own visage on square, silver-leafed canvases. The artist treats his own face as an element of a still-life, as a vessel through which to test the principles and techniques of painting. In his reflective sunglasses, you can see the interior of his studio, a reference to the Renaissance illusionistic trick of incorporating a piece of glass or mirror in the composition to reflect a second landscape within the picture plane. Hendricks suggested, “I was not fascinated with myself as much...However at times, I could not resist myself as a subject. I used my head as the subject for a test canvas to enhance my skills with gold leaf and iridescent paints" (ibid.). For Hendricks, portraits were not only a record of his friendships or his environment, but also provided an opportunity to test the limits of figurative painting.   


The work of Barkley Hendricks has often been underplayed and underappreciated because of its evasive status in the canon of modern art. In addition, his subjects – stylish, confident, black individuals – represent a world outside of the traditional bounds of 20th century art. As Trevor Schoonmaker, Chief Curator of the Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University notes, "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 – 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 ibid., p. 25). Today, Hendricks’ works are garnering attention for their potent power and personality, which continue to feel fresh and relevant. Schoonmaker organized a three-year, five-venue retrospective exhibition in 2008-2010 of the artist’s work, firmly placing his work within narrative of American art history. Schoonmaker writes, “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” (ibid., p. 36). While Barkley Hendricks passed away in April, his painting and the personalities they represent hum with an alacrity and spirit that will resonate with and inspire viewers for generations to come.  



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