I wasn’t a part of any “school.” The association I had with artists in Philadelphia didn’t inspire me in any direction other than my own. I spent my time looking to the Old Masters.—Barkley L. Hendricks, 2017
Using styles, modes, and materials inspired by Old Master European art, Barkley L. Hendricks (1945–2017) revolutionized American portraiture with his depictions of contemporary figures. The Frick was one of his favorite museums, and he visited again and again to study paintings by Rembrandt, Van Dyck, Bronzino, and many others.
In 1966, during his first trip to Europe, he noted how limited the representation of Black figures was in the art he saw and how rarely the images of the few depicted were humanizing or personalized. He returned to the United States with “a head full of inspirations.” While he admired and emulated Old Master paintings, his own inventions were singular: “It had to be done Barkley Hendricks style—no copies.” From the late 1960s to 1983, when he took a nearly twenty-year hiatus from portraiture, he engaged the lessons of the Old Masters in his portrayals of predominantly Black friends, family members, and strangers to create a series of portraits that were utterly new and which have inspired generations of artists after him. The fourteen paintings in this exhibition are among the finest works of his early career.
Born in Philadelphia, Hendricks attended the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts and Yale University before joining the faculty of Connecticut College, where he taught from 1972 until 2010. In the late 1960s, one of the aims of the Black Arts Movement was to expose and overcome the legacies of European art and to highlight the strength and struggle of Black communities, so Hendricks’s embrace of historical European art ran somewhat against the grain within the broader cultural moment. His wide appeal and commercial success would come only decades later. Looking back to his early portraits, he later explained: “How many black people... were part of any kind of visual information that didn't deal with what I call the misery of my peeps?”
Noting the prevalence of imagery that “deals with the hardship, slavery, and all the rest of it”—and not “denying any of this by any stretch of the imagination”—he sought to address instead the “beauty, grandeur, style” of Black people that had been rarely acknowledged in Western art. This exhibition brings together remote fields of art history—early modern Europe and America of the late 1960s to early 1980s—and a range of perspectives that may be at odds. The union of disparate worlds, the bridging of difference, is inherent in Hendricks’s paintings.
Borrowing and emulation have long been crucial components of artistic practice, as can be seen in the historical works in the Frick’s collection—Thomas Gainsborough imitating Anthony van Dyck, Edouard Manet looking back at Titian and Diego Velázquez, and many other examples. However, similarities between paintings by Hendricks and the Old Masters are not always the result of derivation. Throughout the history of Western painting, artists have solved artistic problems independently, centuries and worlds apart, connected not by influence but by common pursuits.
Hendricks was interested in many fields, especially African and Indigenous art and jazz music. Through his figurative paintings he also explored color, form, abstraction, and materiality. He worked in various media—painting, collage, and sculpture—and was an avid photographer who snapped innumerable photographs of people, places, and objects that caught his eye, using his camera as a “mechanical sketchbook.” His painted portraits, his most influential contribution to the history of art, are just one facet of his extraordinary range and creative output. Hendricks's art explores legacy and what one does with it. His singular vision has inspired some of the most prominent artists of today, a number of whom reflect on Hendricks's legacy in the catalogue accompanying this exhibition.
Barkley L. Hendricks: Portraits at the Frick is curated by Aimee Ng and Consulting Curator Antwaun Sargent.
Barkley L. Hendricks (American, 1945–2017), Slick, 1977. Magna, acrylic, and oil on canvas, 67 × 48 1/2 in. (170.2 × 123.2 cm). Chrysler Museum of Art, Norfolk; Gift of the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters, New York. © Barkley L. Hendricks. Courtesy of the Estate of Barkley L. Hendricks and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York.