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Contemporary Art

The Style & Substance of Barkley Hendricks's Revolutionary Portraiture

One of the most influential artists to have emerged in the late 20th century, Barkley L. Hendricks revolutionized portrait painting with his postmodern depictions of cool, stylish and self-aware black subjects. Two paintings by the artist come to auction at Sotheby's this autumn. His masterwork North Philly Niggah (William Corbett), 1975, will highlight Sotheby’s Contemporary Art Evening Sale (14 November, New York). The following day, Sir Nelson. Solid!, 1970, will star in Sotheby's Contemporary Day Sale (15 November).


Created mostly between the late 1960s and the early 1980s, Barkley L. Hendricks's vivid, precise images of everyday black Americans, depicted in stylish, colorful attire, liberated the black body from a white-centered gaze and imbued his subjects with a degree of regality, autonomy and self-assertiveness unprecedented in Western art history. These decidedly cool paintings channeled such disparate artistic references as Dutch Golden Age portraiture, Pop art and Color Field painting to create an aesthetic utterly unique to Hendricks. Created five years apart, Sir Nelson. Solid! from 1970 and North Philly Niggah (William Corbett) from 1975 embody both the central and enduring themes in Hendricks oeuvre as well as illustrate important developments in his style.

Overflowing with rich color relationships and inventive stylistic variations, Sir Nelson. Solid! was made in advance of Hendricks first significant gallery show at Kenmore Galleries. The captivating portrait attests to Hendricks’s dexterity in rendering the nuances of light reflecting on skin, fabric and metal – as well as the artist's playful fluency with art historical references. While traveling in Europe in the mid-1960s, Hendricks had found himself at once awe-struck by museums filled with Old Master portraits by the likes of Rembrandt and Velásquez, while simultaneously dismayed by the absence of images of or by people of color. The experience prompted the artist to turn his gaze to the black people he grew up with and create portraits imbued with the elevated dignity, vulnerability and immediacy these subjects had long been denied. Sir Nelson. Solid! integrates Hendricks's interest in such art historical precedents into an abstract framework that reflects his time and place in history and contemporaneous developments in the art world.

Separated roughly into two sections, the painting is composed of a blue background and a forest green cloak and hat, both rendered completely flat. These passages of pure color are reminiscent of the works of Color Field painters such as Ellsworth Kelly and Morris Louis who were meeting with success at the time. Though Abstraction was the artistic trend of the era, Hendricks stayed true to his portraiture though such flattened fields of color were his nod to the developments within the greater art world. The subject, as well as his accessories, are so fully delineated that they appear lifelike, their realism standing in stark contrast to the surrounding planes of tone. Despite the contradictions in the two styles, the work feels indisputably finished, a heady concoction of uniformity and dimensionality, solid shapes and open forms. The artist’s mastery of light takes his subject beyond the border of the canvas, introducing a sense of liveliness. Sir Nelson’s confident stare is delineated in luminous reflected arcs and though Hendricks does not reveal his subject’s identity beyond the title of the work, he has captured him so thoroughly, in appearance and energy, that he is unmistakable.

Created five years after Sir Nelson. Solid!, North Philly Niggah (William Corbett) from 1975 embodies the height of his poetic postmodern practice. In this rare large-format portrait, Hendricks has dressed up his neighborhood companion, William Corbett, in a fur-trimmed camel coat. Corbett appears statuesque, exaggeratedly lengthened and emanating subtly from the monochromatic background; he stares at the viewer with a bold yet unassuming gaze. The painting’s lush color palette, inextricably linked to the subject's fashionable attire, is dominated by tonal variations in peach and punctuated by the magenta cotton shirt and Corbett's own radiant brown skin. The degrees of color underscore Hendricks's elevated sensitivity to color's abilities to induce moods and emotions in the viewer.

Rendered in a photorealist style derived from tightly rendered brushstrokes, the canvas possesses a velvety smoothness that cleverly mirrors the textured furred lapels and the shimmering folds on the subject’s elegant overcoat. These vivid stylistic attributes act to reinvigorate the Victorian legacy of dandyism with a relevant, contemporary spirit, thus expanding and reimagining the possibilities of black male expression.

In its evocative depiction of identity, North Philly Niggah (William Corbett) is testament to Hendrick's nuanced handling of the culturally complex black body. Curator Thelma Golden included the painting prominently in her seminal 1994 exhibition at the Whitney Museum of American Art, The Black Male: Representations of Masculinity in Contemporary American Art. Of his practice, Golden remarked that Hendricks’s portraits are “period pieces that represent a hybrid of black cultural consciousness and contemporary art practice.”1 North Philly Niggah (William Corbett) 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.

Portraits such as North Philly Niggah (William Corbett) and Sir Nelson. Solid! intimate cultural artifacts; personal visual documentations that reflect a broader transformation of black subjectivity during the post-Civil Rights decades. At once aesthetically captivating and socially aware, Hendricks's paintings influenced a new generation of noteworthy artists to pursue similar themes, among them Kehinde Wiley, Mickalene Thomas, Lynette Yiadom-Boakye and Rashid Johnson. The artist’s dexterous manipulation of paint, evinced by the dazzling complexity of such portraits, establishes the notion that beauty, although culturally specific, possesses universality.

1. Thelma Golden quoted in: Genevieve Hyacinthe, “Love is the Message: Barkley Hendricks’s MFSB Portrait Aesthetics,” Open Cultural Studies, 2017, p. 607

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