A DECADE AGO TODAY, “Barkley Hendricks: Birth of the Cool” opened at the Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University (Feb. 7-July 13, 2008). The traveling survey brought renewed attention to Barkley Hendricks (1945-2017), the artist and photographer whose powerful portraits dating from the 1960s and 70s masterfully capture the individuality, attitude and style of his subjects, nearly all of them African American. The exhibition featured 57 paintings from 1964 to 2007 and a catalog was published to document it.
In the intervening years, Hendricks’s post-modern, realist images have become a barometer against which portraiture by a new generation of artists is compared and contrasted. Fascination with his work remains unabated and asking prices for the now rare, out-of-print catalog start at $350. In the wake of his death last April, a second printing of the fully illustrated volume has been published by Duke University Press.
The new hardcover catalog retails for less than $40. The content is the same as the original paperback with contributions from Trevor Schoonmaker, who organized the exhibition, Thelma Golden, Franklin Sirmans, and Richard Powell. The only update is a two-page spread that concludes the volume. The brief un-bylined tribute states that the Nasher Museum is proud to have worked with Hendricks on the exhibition and summarizes the late artist’s career.
Similar to the first, the re-issued volume is an an invaluable resource documenting Hendricks’s many works and also conveying a sense of the artist himself. Hendricks and Schoonmaker, chief curator at the Nasher Museum, became very close after collaborating on “Birth of the Cool.” The curator opens the catalog with an anecdote about how he cold-called Hendricks in 2000 to ask him about participating in a group show at a Chelsea gallery. They bonded over a shared affinity for Nigerian Afrobeat musician Fela Kuti, and Hendricks invited Schoonmaker to visit his house in Connecticut. He showed up and said the experience was transporting.
“Floor to ceiling, wall to wall, the house is covered with a barely imaginable assortment of objects. Hendricks’s own paintings, portraits, landscapes, still lifes, watercolors, photographs, assemblage sculptures, and pencil and black-light drawings live, in true democratic fashion, side by side, with mass-produced odds and ends that overlap, touch, balance, and teeter,” Schoonmaker writes.
“No surface is left uncovered. The entire house is Hendricks’s sprawling studio, a living installation, with objects of inspiration piled high at every turn. These items serve multiple functions. They are fashion accessories for portraits, ready-made still lifes for paintings, materials for assemblage works, visceral stimulation, and material reminders of our cultural history. It is a sensory overload, a visual feast, and a passageway into the mind of the artist.”
“The entire house is Hendricks’s sprawling studio, a living installation, with objects of inspiration piled high at every turn. …It is a sensory overload, a visual feast, and a passageway into the mind of the artist.”
— Trevor Schoonmaker
BARKLEY L. HENDRICKS, “What’s Going On,” 1974 (oil, acrylic, and magna on cotton canvas, 65 3/4 x 83 3/4 inches). | Megan & Hunter Gray. © Estate of Barkley L. Hendricks. Courtesy of the artist’s estate and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York
Schoonmaker’s essay goes on to present an in-depth portrait of Hendricks, exploring his early years as a student at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts (PAFA) and Yale University, where he earned his MFA, and tracing the arc of his practice.
A conversation with the artist conducted by Golden, the director and chief curator of the Studio Museum in Harlem, reveals him to be prickly at times. She says, “I wanted to ask you how you feel about the idea of a retrospective. …I’m just wondering what that feeels like for you at this moment to look back at your production as an artist.” Hendricks responds: “Well, it’s not really a retrospective in the classic sense of the word. A retrospective includes a whole body of one’s creative activities, and this is just focusing on paintings.”
Shortly thereafter, Golden makes reference to the Black Male exhibition she curated at the Whitney Museum (1994-95), the major group show that featured works by Hendricks. His paintings eschew stereotypes and offer a “complex way of being,” she observes. “You captured in those portraits your subjects’ sense of themselves and the way in which they look at the world, which is what made those paintings so critical to the exhibition. You really were able to capture not only the profound sense of looking at someone but also the someone else looking out into the world, and I found that very compelling.”
He graciously says, “Thank you for seeing that aspect of them. It’s not what everyone sees given where we are on the planet, as far as land of the free, home of the brave.”
Insights from Hendricks make the catalog a real treasure. In a section called “Palette Scrapings,” the artist offers first-person musings about everything from his family and childhood summers spent in rural Meadville, Va., to his musical inspirations and fondness for Jamaica, and the origins of the exhibition title, women who’ve inspired his work, and the backstory on a few paintings.
“Birth of the Cool” is the name of a 1957 Miles Davis compilation album. When Schoonmaker suggested the same title for the exhibition, Hendricks, a self-described “dyed-in-the-wool jazz fan,” was on board, recognizing it’s multiple meaning. “On several occasions, I’ve had my people portraits referred to as ‘cool realism’ or ‘cool representationlism.’ I certainly can live with being associated with anything having to cozy up to being called cool,” he writes.
He goes on to share that when he was developing his photography skills he often sought out his favorite musicians as subjects. On one occasion, he used his connections to get backstage at a jazz festival where Davis was performing and was able to take some portraits of the trumpeter. “I gave him one of my catalogues and told him I painted as well as he played, and he painted as well as I played the trumpet,” Hendricks writes. “Miles smiled. How cool was that?!”
“I gave him one of my catalogues and told him I painted as well as he played, and he painted as well as I played the trumpet. Miles smiled. How cool was that?!” — Barkley L. Hendricks
BARKLEY L. HENDRICKS, “Lawdy Mama,” 1969 (oil and gold leaf on canvas). | The Studio Museum in Harlem; gift of Stuart Liebman, in memory of Joseph B. Liebman 1983.25; © Barkley L. Hendricks. Courtesy of the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York
His iconic portrait “Lawdy Mama” is executed on a gold-leaf ground. Hendricks says it was his first-ever attempt to use the technique on a large-scale painting. “My love of Greek and Roman icons had a great deal to do with the materials and composition of this work,” Hendricks writes. The powerful image depicts his second cousin twice removed, not Angela Davis or Kathleen Cleaver, as many have apparently assumed. The title was inspired by Nina Simone lyrics.
An artist chronology authored by Hendricks follows “Palette Scrapings.” The year-by-year timeline is illustrated with family photos and images of some of his paintings. It’s is a rollicking journey through his life, career, and exhibition milestones with candid and humorous comments from the artist along the way. He begins with his birth date (April 16, 1945) and place (Philadelphia), and also lists the same information for his parents and siblings, noting that his twin sister died at birth.
- 1963-67: At PAFA, Hendricks is the first African American to be awarded two consecutive travel grants. (He goes to Europe and North Africa.)
1968-74: Joined New Jersey National Guard, completing obligation after six years.
1970-72: Studied photography with Walker Evans at Yale University.
1975: First solo exhibition in the South at the Greenville County Museum of Art in South Carolina. There was an issue with some of the works he wanted to present. “I was told I would not be able to show any nudes. I later discovered they had white nudes in their collection. My black nudes where just too ‘black,’ so I’ve been told.”
1976: Featured in an advertisement for Dewar’s Scotch Whiskey that is a profile. Among other details, it notes Hendricks is 31 and his Most Memorable Book is “I Wonder as I Wander” by Langston Hughes.
1977: Traveled to FESTAC ’77 (Second World Black and African Festival of Arts and Culture) in Lagos, Nigeria.
1978: Solo exhibition at Arch Street Gallery in Philadelphia yields fringe benefits. “Gallery director, John Phillips, a former student of mine at Connecticut College, later became an assistant to George Wein, founder of the Newport Jazz Festivals. This allowed me backstage access to photograph many jazz greats.”
1980: First solo exhibition at the Studio Museum in Harlem.
1982-1984: Solo exhibitions at Spectrum Gallery on 57th Street, New York, N.Y. “The now-defunct gallery was run by a friend from Philadelphia. This was a sports gallery where my basketball paintings were on view in the Big Apple for the first time. Other exhibition spaces and galleries had a very closed mind about showing any work that was not a black figure.”
“The now-defunct gallery was run by a friend from Philadelphia. This was a sports gallery where my basketball paintings were on view in the Big Apple for the first time (1982-84). Other exhibition spaces and galleries had a very closed mind about showing any work that was not a black figure.” — Barkley L. Hendricks
This painting was offered for sale at Sotheby’s in March 2017. Lot 212: BARKLEY L. HENDRICKS, “DIPPY’S DELIGHT,” 1969 (oil and acrylic on canvas). | Estimate $50,000-$70,000. Sold for $68,750 (including fees).
April 2, 1983: After meeting at local Aldo’s Jazz Club (1979), Hendricks and Susan Weig are married at their home in New London, Conn. Two ministers officiate (a man and a woman) and 13 guests attend.
1984-2002: No portraits are produced during Reagan presidency and in wake of brother’s 1999 murder. Hendricks turns to his landscape works, finding a measure of mental relief painting outdoors in Jamaica. “As I prepared the timeline for this catalog, I noticed something about my figurative painting output during the “Ronaissance” (the age of Ronald Reagan). As we have learned about this period of our nation’s recent history, it in no way resembles the age of enlightenment we call the Renaissance. It was two steps forward and four steps backward in many aspects of us coming together as a national and thoughtful country on the planet.”
2000: “The Magic City,” a group exhibition at Brent Sikkema Gallery, New York, N.Y., is first collaboration with curator Trevor Schoonmaker.
2003: “Black President: The Art and Legacy of Fela Anikulapo-Kuti” opens at New Museum, New York, N.Y. Curated by Schoonmaker, it features “Fela” Amen, Amen, Amen, Amen” (2002) the first figure painting Hendricks completed since his 18-year hiatus making portraits.
2006: Hendricks participates in Whitney Biennial. “This is my third group exhibition at the Whitney and the first time I have shown photographs. I was gratified that my provocative Ku Klux Klan images were selected for inclusion in this show.”
This work was offered for sale at Sotheby’s in May 2017. Lot 189: BARKLEY HENDRICKS, “Innocence & Friend,” 1977 (oil and aluminum leaf on canvas, in two parts). | Estimate $100,000-$150,000. Sold for $396,500 (including fees)
Hearing directly from Hendricks about his life and work brings the chronology life. The catalog’s greatest reward is the opportunity to spend time studying Hendricks’s powerful “people paintings,” including works from his “limited palette” series, many images of women, various self portraits, and large-scale double, triple and multiple portraits.
Of course, there is no substitute for experiencing the paintings in person. Powell, the Duke University art historian, testifies to the benefits of viewing the works repeatedly and considering them anew. In his essay he writes: “Every intermittent sighting of Barkley L. Hendricks’s work over the past few decades has been a revelation. Paintings previously seen (and about which I claimed some critical expertise) were invariably a surprise and an art historical conundrum to behold again and again.” CT
ON VIEW: An exhibition of rarely seen drawings by Barkley L. Hendricks from 1974 to 1989 opens Feb. 25 at Jack Shainman Gallery, which represents the artist’s estate. Hendricks is featured in Prospect.4: The Lotus in Spite of the Swamp. Trevor Schoonmaker is serving as artistic director of the triennial, where a solo exhibition of Hendricks’s work is on view at the New Orleans Museum of Art through Feb. 25. His paintings also appears in “Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power,” which recently made its U.S. debut at the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art (Feb. 3-April 23, 2018). His photographic self portrait from 1980 is featured in the exhibition “Portraits of Who We Are,” which explores how artists portray themselves, at the David Driskell Center at the University of Maryland, College Park, through May 18. In addition, the Massachusetts College of Art and Design is presenting “Legacy of the Cool: A Tribute to Barkley L. Hendricks,” a celebration of the artist’s legacy through figurative works by a new generation of 24 artists working in a variety of mediums.
TOP IMAGE: BARKLEY L. HENDRICKS (1945-2017), “Bahsir (Robert Gowens),” 1975 (oil and acrylic on canvas). | Collection of the Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University. Museum purchase with additional funds provided by Jack Neely. © Barkley L. Hendricks, Photo by Peter Paul Geoffrion
The catalog for “Barkley L. Hendricks: Birth of the Cool” is an amazing documentation of the exhibition and the artist’s practice. It features essay contributions from Trevor Schoonmaker, who organized the exhibition at the Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University; Art historian Richard Powell of Duke University; and Franklin Sirmans, now director of Perez Art Museum Miami; and an interview with Thelma Golden, director and chief curator of the Studio Museum in Harlem. The volume also contains informative acknowledgements by Hendricks and a chronology that includes personal and pithy comments from the artist about his milestones and experiences over the years. “Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power” was published to coincide with the exhibition, now on view at Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, before it travels to the Brooklyn Museum.
BARKLEY L. HENDRICKS, “Icon for My Man Superman (Superman Never Saved any Black People – Bobby Seale),” 1969 | Collection of Liz and Eric Lefkofsky, © Estate of Barkley L. Hendricks. Courtesy of Jack Shainman Gallery, New York. Superman S-Shield © & ™ DC Comics. Used with permission
BARKLEY L. HENDRICKS (1945-2017), “Take All the Time You Need (Adrienne Hawkins),” 1975 (Oil on linen canvas). | Gift of Kelsey and David Lamond. 2014.6.1. Courtesy of the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York, New York, Photo by Peter Paul Geoffrion
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