National Gallery of Art, William C. Whitnen Foundation
Barkley L. Hendricks’s “Sir Charles, Alias Willie Harris” (1972) plays on the Three Graces.
I saw this jaw-dropping show and couldn't help but notice the influence of Bamako portraiture (scroll down to bottom).
Art Review | Barkley L. Hendricks By KEN JOHNSONPublished: December 4, 2008
Barkley L. Hendricks did not birth the cool — that was Miles Davis — but his suave portraits from the 1960s, ’70s and early ’80s give him the right to use “Birth of the Cool” as the title of his five-decade retrospective at the Studio Museum in Harlem.
Mixing realism, abstraction and Pop, Mr. Hendricks’s life-size paintings of beautiful black people in extravagantly fashionable outfits against flat, single-color backgrounds captured a period sensibility with uncanny acuity. They also made him famous: he was included in numerous museum exhibitions and featured in a Dewar’s Scotch magazine advertisement.
Today, with figurative art resurgent and portrait painters like Kehinde Wiley, Elizabeth Peyton and Chuck Close enjoying great popularity, Mr. Hendricks’s work is back in style. The exhibition was organized by Trevor Schoonmaker, curator of contemporary art at the Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University, where it appeared earlier this year.
Mr. Hendricks’s spirit is epitomized in a self-portrait called “Slick” from 1977, in which the bearded artist appears shirtless in a snowy-white, double-breasted suit against a matte, slightly off-white background. He wears a colorful African skullcap and a fine gold necklace with a little votive leg hanging from it, has a toothpick jutting from one side of his mouth and gazes back at us through gold-rimmed glasses with a calm, appraising mien. He is perfectly composed in all senses of the word.
Many complexities unfold from what might seem at first to be a fairly straightforward picture. The clothes bring to mind cinematic, disco-era associations: “Shaft,” “Saturday Night Fever.” The skullcap evokes the period’s surge of Afro-centric pride and the influence of African art on European Modernism.
Image: Chrysler Museum of Art, Norfolk, Va.
Mr. Hendricks stands perfectly cool and composed in his 1977 self-portrait, “Slick.”
There is the formal tension between the dimensional figure and the flat, white rectangle. Mr. Hendricks, who was born in 1945, came of age when formalist abstraction ruled, and artists like Barnett Newman, Ad Reinhardt and Robert Ryman were revered. The flat, monochrome rectangles that surround many of his figures wed the modern to the traditional. Perhaps Wayne Thiebaud’s deadpan paintings of people against blank backgrounds were an inspiration. Alex Katz’s way with figuration and abstraction was surely an influence too. And it’s not too much of a stretch to think of Kazimir Malevich’s seminal pure abstraction of 1918, “White on White.”
The first painting in this exhibition that shows clearly where Mr. Hendricks was headed is a head-and-shoulders portrait of a young African-American soldier, whose olive-green helmet and shirt harmonize with the bright-green background. It was 1968, and Mr. Hendricks was serving in the National Guard a year after graduating from the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts and two years before he would head for Yale, where he would earn his Master of Fine Arts in 1972.
Besides its finely tuned formal qualities, the painting of the soldier is historically arresting. You can’t help but think about Vietnam and the disproportionate number of African-Americans who fought and died there. It makes no explicit statement about the war; nor does it overtly comment on the racial strife at that time. But because the young soldier has his eyes meditatively closed in the shadow of his helmet’s brim, and because the painting allows the viewer mental space to reflect on its implications, it has a haunting resonance.
That Mr. Hendricks was keenly aware of how paintings play in the socio-political arena is shown most conspicuously in a full-frontal self-portrait from 1977 in which he is wearing only sports socks and sneakers, some jewelry, glasses and a white leather applejack hat. The title is “Brilliantly Endowed,” a double-entendre that plays on a favorable review of Mr. Hendricks’s work by Hilton Kramer, then an art critic for The New York Times, who wrote that Mr. Hendricks was a “brilliantly endowed” painter. With understated economy, the painting mocks American fantasies about the black male body.
But the clothed body would be Mr. Hendricks’s signature subject. His interest as a portraitist was not in private selves but in public personae. See, for example, “Sir Charles, Alias Willie Harris” (1972), whose subject, in a play on the Three Graces, appears in triplicate — facing right, left and into the background — wearing a scarlet trench coat, black suit, white turtleneck and two-tone wingtips.
Mr. Hendricks toys ambiguously with stock associations. Hollywood stereotypes of disreputable characters often played by black actors — pimp, drug dealer, gangster — come to mind. On the other hand, Sir Charles could be a magazine fashion model or a real-life dandy. So there is a provocative connection between the individual person and Pop culture — much enhanced by the unspoken background of racial craziness in America.
Some people seem more real. In “Sweet Thang (Lynn Jenkins)” the subject reclines on a couch blowing bubble gum. A young woman named Tequila in a 1978 painting has a look all her own: in loose, bright-red below-the-knee shorts, canvas basketball sneakers, striped athletic socks, a wide-collared sailor shirt, denim jacket and a long-billed cap, she poses with one fist on her hip, a cigarette in her other hand and an amused, slightly skeptical expression.
Mr. Hendricks, who has taught at Connecticut College since 1972, stopped making his large figurative paintings in the early ’80s and for the next two decades devoted himself to outdoor landscape painting during vacations in Jamaica. A half-dozen of those small works on oval and lunette canvases are included, but they are not nearly as captivating as his portraits. (Excluded from this all-painting exhibition is Mr. Hendricks’s considerable work in photography.)
Recently he has returned to life-size portraiture, and the exhibition includes an example from 2002. An image of the African pop star Fela Kuti performing in an orange track suit with a gold halo over his head against a golden, tapestrylike field, it has a wide, wooden frame and a collection of high-heel shoes on the floor in front of it representing the singer’s 27 wives, or “queens.” You can imagine a series of hagiographic tributes to other artists following from this, but for now Mr. Hendricks’s most memorable achievement remains his early pictures of coolness personified.
“Barkley L. Hendricks: Birth of the Cool” is at the Studio Museum in Harlem, 144 West 125 Street, (212) 864-4500, studiomuseum.org, through March 15.