Barkley L. Hendricks (1945–2017) developed his signature style at a time of significant social and cultural change, especially with regard to Black artists, and amid a perceived binary between abstraction and representation in American painting. He produced portraits from the late 1960s through the early 1980s, deriving his painted figures from photographs of people he encountered on the street or hired models. Following a hiatus during which he made landscapes, basketball paintings, works on paper, and photographs, he resumed his portraiture practice from 2002 until his death in 2017. This exhibition brings together some of the most innovative and striking examples from his first period of portrait painting, including a set of “limited-palette” canvases—featuring Black figures dressed in white against white backgrounds—a self-portrait, and boldly colorful works that spotlight their subjects’ spectacular styles and poses.
Following trips as a student to European museums in the 1960s, he returned to the United States “with a head full of inspirations.” He visited institutions such as the Frick throughout his career, and his reshaping of the conventions of portraiture grew in large part out of his study of Old Master painting, along with varied interests such as African and Indigenous art, fashion, and jazz music. Hendricks predominantly painted Black subjects who are dignified and self-possessed, treating them with reverence and celebrating the Black identities that were so glaringly underrepresented in the canons of historic European art and of modern American art. At the same time, he was deeply committed to exploring abstraction and the eloquence of color and form in figurative painting.
A number of his elegant and often humorous portraits make direct reference to historical precedents. One of the earliest works in the show, Lawdy Mama (1969), combines a portrait of the painter’s cousin, wearing an Afro hairstyle, with the centuries-old technique of gold leafing in Christian paintings—exemplified by a group of early Italian Renaissance panels in the Frick’s collection. Stylish and contemporary, Lawdy Mama offers a meditation on archetypes of the feminine form and the enduring impact of European art and Christian culture in modern societies. In the limited-palette painting Steve (1976), meticulously painted reflections of arched windows in the subject’s sunglasses evoke Northern Renaissance artists like Jan van Eyck, whose paintings were so striking to Hendricks during his European travels and whose Virgin and Child with St. Barbara, St. Elizabeth, and Jan Vos is among the most popular works in Frick Madison’s Northern European galleries. Each portrait in the exhibition highlights a distinct dimension of Hendricks’s practice, which, in taking inspiration from history, transformed figurative painting for future generations.
Barkley L. Hendricks (American, 1945–2017), Self-Portrait with Black Hat, 1980–2013. Digital C-print, 27 3/4 x 18 3/4 in. (70.5 x 47.6 cm). © Barkley L. Hendricks. Courtesy of the Estate of Barkley L. Hendricks and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York