Barkley L. Hendricks (American, 1945–2017)
Miss T, 1969
Oil and acrylic on canvas
66 1/8 x 48 1/8 in. (168 x 122.2 cm)
Philadelphia Museum of Art, Philadelphia; Purchased with the Philadelphia Foundation Fund, 1970
© Barkley L. Hendricks. Courtesy of the Estate of Barkley L. Hendricks and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York.
On his first trip to Europe in 1966, Hendricks was struck by a portrait in the Uffizi gallery, in Florence, by the Italian Renaissance artist Giovanni Battista Moroni: “The figure in a black, skin-tight outfit made me see the illusion of form and simplicity in a different light.” Miss T was a “direct by-product” of this encounter with the four-hundred-year-old painting. Hendricks’s subject, Robin Taylor, was his then-girlfriend: “Several paintings come with good color besides what’s on their canvases. Robin (Miss T) scared the shit out of my mother when she told her, ‘If she couldn't have me, no one would.’” (Another portrait by Moroni, his Portrait of a Woman, recently entered the Frick’s collection.)
Speaker: Richard J. Powell on Miss T
I’m Richard J. Powell, I’m the John Spencer Bassett Professor of Art and Art History at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina.
Barkley was ahead of his time. Barkley was very attuned to not just bodies but their accoutrements. And fashion is a part of the bigger picture for Barkley L. Hendricks and his work. Fashion is something that’s quite obvious and visible on the streets of America during this time period. When you see these paintings, you really understand a moment in some ways that other artists simply don’t address.
Miss T is 1969 personified. She is very much of that moment. I’m also a child of the 60s so I remember the clothes from that era that were tight around the hips and waist, but then the legs would just flare out. And also these accents like the chains on the hips. This is an element of fashion that is unnecessary, and that is the art of fashion in the late 60s early 1970s. It’s an era of excess, plastic, fake fur, just all sorts of things that speak to elaboration beyond elaboration but make a statement.
What I like about Miss T is the way it balances or volleys between figural representationalism and abstraction. I love how Barkley employs a kind of a hyperrealistic approach to painting, where we see her features so carefully delineated, where we see the details of her clothing so finely created and fashioned. But then, you take the painting as a whole and you are engaging with a shape that is set against a white field. And that shape against the white field has a kind of a charge, has a kind of an excitement. And I can’t help but feel that Barkley, despite being a realist painter, also understands the power of painting. And therefore chroma, and pattern, and design, and all of those elements that go into fundamental painting he’s using even within the context of something that’s figural and representational.
Something else I like about it, I’ll just say, is that this is a moment of heightened consciousness on the parts of African Americans. I believe the rallying cries of “Black is Beautiful” were being shouted and voiced all throughout the late 1960s. I can’t help but look at Miss T and think that what Barkley has done is he has visualized “Black is Beautiful” without having a label, without having a big sign that says “Black is Beautiful” or “Black power,” even. When I look at Robin Taylor’s body and in particular her head, I’m thinking about the afro hair fashion of that time, not just being a celebration of natural hair but once it is combed out, once it is pushed out into the world from someone’s head, it gives the feeling of something very proactive, of something very assertive, of almost a fist [laughs]. It’s a body in the shape of a fist, and Barkley has captured that.
I first met Barkley here in New York City. He had a show, I believe it was on Madison Avenue actually, and I went to the gallery. You know, it wasn’t until later when I got to know him that I realized he was a dandy. And that he was really into shoes, and particular styles of clothing, and it was just fun to see him come up with interesting—as we say in the vernacular—“getups.” [laughs] But they were never out of taste; they were cool. So, with Barkley’s fashions on his own body one can really see that he is a child of Philadelphia, a child of kind of urban style and elegance, that was him.