Barkley L. Hendricks: Portraits at the Frick is curated by Aimee Ng and Consulting Curator Antwaun Sargent.
Listen to the curators' tour of the exhibition.
Speakers: Aimee Ng and Antwaun Sargent
Aimee Ng: Welcome to the Curators’ Tour of Barkley L. Hendricks: Portraits at the Frick. I’m Aimee Ng
Antwaun Sargent: and I’m Antwaun Sargent
Aimee Ng: and we will take you on a short audio tour of the exhibition. Feel free to press pause at any time, and, as you’re listening, please try to remain aware of the works of art and other visitors around you.
Antwaun Sargent: Barkley L. Hendricks was a pioneering American artist who transformed portraiture with his innovative paintings, depicting predominantly Black sitters with a painting style and materials inspired by historic European art.
Aimee Ng: The Frick Collection was one of his favorite museums, to which he returned again and again to visit paintings by Rembrandt, Van Dyck, Bronzino, and many others. All three floors of Frick Madison are the context for this special exhibition; though Hendricks’s paintings are installed only here, on the fourth floor. This exhibition focuses on fourteen of the artist’s finest early portraits, produced from the late 1960s to the early 1980s.
Antwaun Sargent: As you came out of the elevator or stairwell here on the fourth floor, you would have encountered immediately in front of the elevators one of Hendricks’s most famous works, Lawdy Mama, a painting with a gold background of a woman in an afro hairstyle. Let’s begin in front of that painting, if you can find your way there.
In 1966, when Barkley Hendricks was a student at the Philadelphia Academy of Fine Arts, he won a scholarship for travel in Europe. He spent three months visiting museums in London, Paris, Madrid, Amsterdam, Florence, and elsewhere. He was enthralled by the paintings he saw. He also noticed that there were very few Black figures represented in historic European art, and of these, how few were humanizing, personalized portraits.
When he returned to the United States, he started work on a series of portraits that brought together the styles, materials, and themes of Old Master painting—that is, historic European painting from about 1400 to 1800—with the people in his life and world, including his family, friends, and strangers who caught his eye. It’s important to note that though he was inspired by historic art, he was not simply imitating others: “It had to be done Barkley Hendricks style,” he said. “No copies.”
Aimee Ng: Lawdy Mama, for example, is a portrait of his relative, Kathy Williams, and it is inspired by Byzantine and early Italian Renaissance religious paintings with gold backgrounds. In the historic gold-ground paintings, which are sacred paintings in the Christian faith, the gold signifies the divine. You can see examples of these historic paintings on the third floor of this museum. Hendricks challenged himself to learn the centuries-old and very difficult technique of applying gold leaf. The sitter’s afro echoes the form of a halo, and the rounded top, which he crafted himself, evokes the geometry that was so important to Renaissance painters. The painting’s title, Lawdy Mama, was inspired by lyrics by Nina Simone, and the words recall the traditional “Lord” and “mother” of the Christian faith. Hendricks’s painting both engages with history and is utterly new and modern. This painting may feel so contemporary to some of us today—and yet it was made over fifty years ago.
Antwaun Sargent: This is one of Hendricks’s most famous and celebrated works, and it may be hard to imagine that when he began producing this group of paintings in the late 1960s, he and his art were not particularly popular. His great popularity and commercial success would come only decades later. To give a sense of the historical context in which he was painting, this was in the wake of the Civil Rights Movement, a highly pressurized time for Black artists in America. Additionally, the Black Arts Movement sought to overcome the legacies of historic European art and highlight the struggle and strength of Black communities. For a Black artist to embrace historic European art at this time, Hendricks was working against the grain to some degree. But he was always independent and followed no trends.
Looking back on his early career, he said later that there was no shortage of visual material that dealt with what he called “the misery of my peeps.” Not denying the struggle of Black communities by any stretch of the imagination, Hendricks chose, instead, to highlight the beauty, grandeur, and style of Black people, that did not get addressed in culture the way he felt it could be.
Aimee Ng: These qualities—beauty, grandeur, style—are at the heart of historic European portraits; they are a given in the two marble busts by the eighteenth-century French sculptor Houdon, on either side of Hendricks’s Lawdy Mama. It’s also these qualities that are celebrated in the paintings in the small gallery to the right of Lawdy Mama, if you head toward Hendricks’s portrait of a man wearing red plaid against a red background.
As you walk through this small gallery of British portraits by Thomas Gainsborough and Joshua Reynolds, consider the possibilities of portraiture that Hendricks was appreciating in historic European art and applying to the people in his life and world. It may be easy to see this as a simple swap today—Black figures for white figures—but Hendricks’s paintings are witty, subversive, powerful acts of courage, presented as beautiful images of men and women in paint.
Our tour continues in the large gallery of colorful paintings by Hendricks. The red painting of the young man in plaid, by the way, is called Blood. The sitter was a student at Connecticut College, where Hendricks taught for nearly forty years. In 1975, Hendricks spotted Donald Formey wearing that plaid jacket—and was so struck by his style that he asked him to sit for a painting. You can hear Donald Formey talk about posing for Hendricks after this tour, by entering the number on the painting’s label into the Bloomberg Connects app.
Antwaun Sargent: The main exhibition gallery presents an array of colors, poses, and formats in Hendricks’s portraiture. See if you can find the solemn-looking figure of a woman wearing black set against a white background. She has glasses and an afro. This is Miss T. The model—Robin Taylor—was a former girlfriend of the artist. Like Lawdy Mama, Hendricks painted this portrait soon after his return from Europe, and he described Miss T as a “direct by product” of an encounter he had in Italy.
Aimee Ng: There, at the Uffizi gallery in Florence, he saw a portrait by the Italian Renaissance artist, Giovanni Battista Moroni. The four-hundred-year-old painting of a man dressed all in black introduced to him a new way of creating the illusion of a body in a painting. Taking his cue from Moroni, Hendricks created Miss T’s figure as a silhouette, yet with a sense of volume, enhanced by the curve of her belt. A portrait by Moroni in the Frick’s collection is on view on the third floor.
Antwaun Sargent: Over the next decade, through the 1970s, Hendricks developed his portraiture practice in various ways. Some of his subjects were strangers off the street, whose style caught his eye. For example, perhaps you can find the portrait, set against a pink background, of a man in denim overalls. This is called Misc. Tyrone, a portrait of a man called Tyrone Smith whom Hendricks noticed walking on the street one day. Hendricks always carried with him at least one camera, which he referred to as his “mechanical sketchbook,” capturing people and objects that drew his attention and inspired him. Hendricks asked Tyrone Smith if he’d pose for a few photographs—which turned into an impromptu photo shoot around which a crowd gathered and gave a round of applause. Later in his studio, he would paint using these photographs as a reference. Hendricks captures the subjects’ singular identity and style that caught his eye, and transforms them into a painting that, in turn, stops viewers in their tracks.
Aimee Ng: The bright yellow painting of a dancer holding a dramatic pose is called Woody. It was one of Hendricks’s first so-called “limited palette” paintings, in which he painted the figure (except for the skin) and background in the same color. They are differentiated by material—the figure is painted in oils and varnished, the background in matte acrylic paint. Only when you see the painting in person does the difference become clear: the varnished figure shimmers and reflects light, while the background recedes, matte and flat.
Hendricks’s mastery of painting materials is something that can be fully appreciated only when you see his paintings in the flesh. In the dark gray portrait of two women, called Sisters (Susan and Toni), he seems to have used a tiny brush to portray the details of the women’s jewelry. Can you see, in the earring of the woman in blue, the reflection of the woman in green? Note also his selective use of varnish: even the belt loop of the woman on the left is picked out in varnish, to stand out against the matte background.
Antwaun Sargent: Look closely at the paintings, and Hendricks’s meticulous details and varied painting techniques become more apparent. His depiction of a pair of jeans in the painting of two men, for example, APB’s (Afro-Parisian Brothers) incorporates the heavy weave of the canvas into the illusion of denim. All of Hendricks’s paintings reward close looking; new discoveries reveal themselves over time.
Take a look at the triple portrait of a man in a long coat and hat. This is Bahsir, shown from three different views.
Aimee Ng: The triple portrait was inspired by the motif of the Three Graces from ancient Greek mythology, which artists throughout European art history used in paintings and sculptures. Hendricks played with the motif in a few paintings of subjects for whom, he said, “one pose was not enough.” There is another triple portrait of a woman in white, if you look all the way across the large gallery into a small room, between the pink Misc. Tyrone and red Blood. Let’s head over there.
Antwaun Sargent: The three views of a woman in a white dress against a white background is called October’s Gone…Goodnight. It is the earliest of the suite of white-on-white limited palette paintings, many of which have been brought together in this room. It is through the white-on-white paintings that the subtleties of skin color become more apparent. An art critic once accused Hendricks of using, quote, “the same all-purpose brown” for his figures. Hendricks later reflected: “Damn, even Stevie Wonder and Ray Charles can see a difference in the variety of skin handling I was involved with! The attempt on my part is always to address the beauty and variety of complexion colors that we call Black.” In the portrait of four women in this room, Lagos Ladies, the range in the colors of their skin is as distinct as the colors of their stylish shoes.
You can learn more about the individual paintings by reading the labels on the wall. In this room is a student of Hendricks, who started writing anonymous letters to him; a group of cooks, whom Hendricks met while attending a festival in Nigeria; a man called Omarr, who turns his back while wearing a puffy coat and two pairs of sunglasses on his head; a man called Steve, who, with his white trench coat and toothpick hanging from his lip seems to exude a sense of cool: whether he is going to church or to a club is unclear, but wherever he is going, he is going in style.
Aimee Ng: You also see the artist himself. There are in fact two self-portraits by the artist in this small room of white-on-white paintings. One is a painting called Slick, of Hendricks in a patterned cap and white suit, a necklace of a leg hanging in the V-of his coat. Regarding historic European artists who made many self-portraits, Hendricks said, “I was not fascinated with myself as much as Rembrandt or depressed to the extent of Van Gogh.” For Hendricks, who made a number of self-portraits, he understood it as a point of convenience: “since you’re always around.” Apparently, the title, Slick, came from his sister saying to him: “You think you’re so slick, just wait, one day a woman is going to straighten you out.” And one did: we’ll talk about a portrait of his wife Susan later.
The other self-portrait is hidden in the painting of Steve, wearing the trench coat: take a look at the reflection in his sunglasses. The reflection shows the windows of Hendricks’s State Street studio in New London, and to the far right of the glasses is a little face: that is Hendricks himself, wearing gold sunglasses. Like many artists before him, including Jan van Eyck and Velazquez, Hendricks inserted a portrait of himself in his painting of others. (Examples of painting by Van Eyck and Velazquez in the Frick’s collection can be found on the second and third floors).
Let’s return to the large gallery. If you stand in the center of the room, facing the yellow painting, Woody, and turn all the way around, you’ll be looking into a small gallery hung with portraits in the Frick’s collection by the American artist James MacNeill Whistler. Working in Europe about a hundred years before Hendricks, Whistler too, in his own way, experimented with color, form, and flesh color, and you can see it in the paintings and in his titles: arrangement in black and brown, harmony in pink and gray, symphony in flesh color and pink. There is no suggestion here that Hendricks derived his experiments from Whistler, just to say that artists sometimes pursue similar artistic problems in their own ways and in their own times, centuries and worlds apart.
Antwaun Sargent: Back in the large gallery, hanging to the right of the Whistler room is a portrait of a woman with fluffy brown hair with her eyes closed. This is Susan Hendricks, the artist’s wife. This is the latest painting in the exhibition. It was completed in 1983, shortly after they were married. Here he experiments with the metal-leafing that we saw earlier in Lawdy Mama, but more complexly, a mix of materials; there is also a great variety of accessories and materials—including a little orange fruit in her hand that gives the painting its title—each item has its own story. You can hear Susan talk about the experience of having her portrait painted by her husband, after this tour, by inputting the number on the label into the app.
This was the last portrait Hendricks produced in his first period of portraiture; after this, he took a hiatus of about twenty years before making another portrait, exploring other types of painting and art-making instead, including landscapes and basketball paintings and works on paper. Throughout his career, he was bold, experimental, meticulous, and always centered on what he believed in, no matter what was happening in the art world around him. Hendricks was interested in artistic legacy, and he in turn left a significant legacy for the generations that came after him, which can be seen in museums and galleries all over the world today. Some of the artists who have been inspired by Hendricks are featured in the catalogue accompanying this exhibition.
This brings us to the end of the Curators’ tour, but there is much more for you to hear and see in the exhibition. As you explore the show, look out for additional audio commentary given by some of the sitters of the paintings and from others who knew the artist and spoke to him about his art and legacy.
Aimee Ng: We hope you encounter new things in this exhibition about the portraits of Barkley L. Hendricks, historic European art, and the bridges between them.
On behalf of all of us at the Frick, and from me and Antwaun, thank you. We hope you enjoy your visit.