Hendricks often took as his subjects members of his own community, including family, friends, and individuals who caught his attention on the street; Hendricks based the present portrait on two men he met while in Boston, explaining: “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.” (The artist cited in Kristine Stiles and Peter Selz, Theories and Documents of Contemporary Art: a Sourcebook of Artists' Writings, Berkeley, 2012, p. 263). While the two figures here are clearly posed for the present portrait, they do not appear at all contrived, and instead project an effortless, cool indifference. With their decadent leather jackets, stylized platform shoes, twin toothpicks and the undeniably lush white fur collar on the right figure, these men are indeed Yocks – modern day dandies as seen through Hendricks’ eyes. Within the rich intensity of the figures' garb, minute brushstrokes differentiate the various fabrics and items of clothing that the two men wear; with impressive dexterity and technical prowess, Hendricks effortlessly reveals the textured furred lapels and shimmering folds on his subjects’ outfits. Hendricks’ careful handling of brush and paint effortlessly distinguishes between various fabric materials – luxuriant rich fur, weathered leather, and intricate embroidery – and attends to subtle nuances in the fabrics’ folds and wrinkles. His photorealist style, derived from his tightly rendered brushstrokes, imbues the composition as a whole with a velvety smoothness. Against the sparse backdrop of white, the entirety of the viewer’s focus descends upon the two figures presented here: Hendricks lends no additional context to situate them in time or space, instead forcing the viewer to attend carefully to what is there and complicating a simple, linear art historical narrative. Yocks reinvigorates the Victorian legacy of dandyism with a relevant, contemporary spirit, thus expanding and reimagining the possibilities of black male expression within this context. Remarking on Hendricks’s artistic ingenuity, art critic Janet Koplos notes: “…Hendricks tweaks his format and pushes his colors, so the portraits all have punch. One responds to color, to pose, to costume, to facial expression. The works seem intensely considered.” (Janet Koplos, “Flashback,” Art in America, February 24, 2009)
Born in Philadelphia in 1945, Hendricks attended the prestigious Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. It was during his years at PAFA that Hendricks first visited the legendary European art centers that would prove to have a lasting effect on his idiosyncratic brand of portraiture, observing first hand such technical feats as Hans Holbein the Younger’s meticulous attention to fabric and details in the folds of a sitter’s clothing and Gustav Klimt’s exquisite renderings of three-dimensional figures against a luminous, flat ground. Hendricks’ engagement with these art historical icons extends beyond the similarities in rendering of paint; in the present work, Hendricks absorbs and transforms the techniques of the Old Masters, making evident his own mastery of paint and color by simulating distinct textures, shadows, and depth with remarkable skill. While Hendricks admired and learned from his art historical antecedents, he emphatically challenged the narrow preexisting parameters of canonical portraiture that his forebearers set forth, introducing into this lineage with uncompromising confidence and mesmerizing coolness the black figure. As summarized by art historian Trevor Schoonmaker, curator of the artist’s celebrated travelling retrospective exhibition organized by the Nasher Museum between 2008-2010: “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…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.” (Trevor Schoonmaker, “Birth of the Cool,” in Exh. Cat., Durham, Duke University, Nasher Museum of Art (and travelling), Barkley L. Hendricks: Birth of the Cool, 2008, p. 36)
Hendricks’ artistic privileging of a culturally complex black figure in the 1970s is today celebrated as radically groundbreaking and visionary. And yet, despite the socio-political implications of his revolutionary body of portraiture, Hendricks rejected a narrowly prescribed understanding of his work as solely a reflection of his racial identity, stating: “Anything a black person does in terms of the figure is put into a 'political' category…I paint because I like to paint.” (The artist cited 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 textural depth and tonal complexity of Yocks, establishes the notion that beauty, although culturally specific, possesses a universality that transcends race.
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