Barkley L. Hendricks (American, 1945–2017)
Oil and acrylic on canvas
66 × 84 in. (167.6 × 213.4 cm)
Baz Family Collection
© Barkley L. Hendricks. Courtesy of the Estate of Barkley L. Hendricks and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York.
This is one of the earliest of the paintings Hendricks described as having a “limited palette”—works in which the figure (except for the skin) and background are presented nearly monochromatically. The varnished oil paint used for the figure contrasts with the matte acrylic of the background to create a distinction in materials and surface visible only when the paintings are viewed firsthand. Striking one of the most dramatic poses of any of Hendricks’s figures, the subject was recently identified by Richard J. Powell as Woodruff (Woody) Wilson, a dancer of Jamaican descent who participated in the American Dance Festival that took place at Connecticut College, where Hendricks had begun teaching the previous year.
Speaker: Antwaun Sargent on Woody
He was always, in all of his paintings, always bucking dominant notions and dominant perspectives within the Black community and those who were outside the Black community. And, Woody is a perfect example of that.
He was a stylist on the canvas. In the photographs that Barkley took, and he took many of them, you see him sort of doing these different poses, some dynamic, some a portrait of Woody’s face, some of him caught in these solemn moments. He makes the entire leotard that Woody is wearing yellow, which is not the case in the photograph. He removes the background. The background in the photographs are this sort of wooded area and, in the final painting it’s yellow on yellow, and it sort of not only makes it a more dynamic and warm painting, but it also gets at some of the other art historical questions that Barkley was negotiating in his practice, in that period: this movement towards minimalism, abstraction, color field painting and Pop, then obviously this conversation between portraiture and the history of portraiture.
This image is able to do all those things, but then it also is able to think about this particular Black male figure beyond some of the ways in which Black men then and now and throughout history in a lot of ways has been stereotyped. You have this Black male figure rendered as a ballet dancer, and those contrasts between what was sort of happening in mass media, I’m sure Barkley was sort of paying attention to that, and what he knew a Black interiority to be. That’s also one of the powers of this painting: because it has a deep sense of interiority, and balance, and so he’s balancing on one leg and also spreading his limbs and so there’s a great freedom but balance. All of these really interesting layers from the art historical perspective but also in terms of the sort of socio-political perspective in terms of what representation of Black men did Barkley want to put out in the world.
I first met Barkley Hendricks, it had to be at Jack Shainman Gallery. He always had his camera. He was almost always with Susan, his wife, I never spoke to him because I was always sort of in awe and just didn’t. I was like, one day I’ll interview him. And that came when he had what would become his final exhibition at Jack Shainman Gallery. That was sort of a radically different body of work than we had known, and he was, after taking what became a 20-year hiatus, he was back interested in creating portraits, and we were all really excited because in some ways the moment had caught up to Barkley. It felt perfect in the sense that the art world had finally caught up to his experimentations in portraiture.
I just remember being on a call with him and I started to ask some questions and I was struck by how unsubtle those paintings were. They had really touched on some real racial chords in American society, and then what was happening there in sort of a post-Donald Trump election period and the rise of Fox news, and this question around the confederacy and the monuments. We’re having all these conversations as a nation, and Barkley’s just painting that into the work. So, you had a Black male with a Fox news sweatshirt on grabbing his crotch in a humorous Barkley Hendricks sort of way. But you couldn’t divorce some of the more political overtones, and I asked him about that, and he was not having it. And looking back he was still someone that did not want to be defined, and the more you pushed–and I did as a journalist at the time–he was like “what about the flatness of the background, and what about the way that I’m using abstraction and minimalism, what about…” you know, he was a lot more interested in the un-obvious aspects of those works and frankly became a little annoyed with me in my sort of trying to pin him down, which in hindsight, is about an artist not willing to be defined by anyone but himself. I mean, it was the last time I spoke to him, and it left a real impression because I had I so admired what he had done in the dark, like no one cared you know in a lot of ways, and, he just kept going. I was so moved by the fact that he didn’t let that stop him and that he was vindicated in the way that the art world had moved into the consideration of Black portraiture.
The connection for me really was growing up in Chicago, and I would see these very figures that he rendered in paint, and gave stature and gave power and gave back their humanity and desire and choices around style and choices around how they move through the world, and there was this special kind of freedom that came with people that were otherwise written off by more dominant mainstream institutions and societal structures. I remember growing up around people like that and knowing that they had achieved a sense of freedom and a sense of living life on their own terms, though imperfect it may be. That for me is the thing that really drew me and draws me into a Barkley Hendricks portrait.