“My paintings were about people that were part of my life. If they were political, it’s because they were a reflection of the culture we were drowning in.”

– Barkley L. Hendricks


Barkley L. Hendricks, Crosshairs Study, 2015.

“ Have you ever been thrown against a wall and frisked? It’s not something I’ve experienced every day, but I’ve been thrown against a wall and frisked.”

Barkley L. Hendricks’ socially charged work covered a life- span period and faced drastically diverse cultural climates, from the Black Power movement of the 1960s' through the election of the United States’ first black president in 2008.

Barkley L. Hendricks was an African-American painter known for his photo-based portraits of black men and women. Conveying a sensitivity towards the unique persona of each sitter, his works are both matter-of-fact and culturally pointed. His stylised portraits—realist African American figures set against abstract backgrounds—starred friends and neighbours from his life, posed for timelessness. His broader project was to document the black image as a phenomenon, as it manifested in fashion, billboards, magazines, and movies.

“Let me correct the assumption that my early work was explicitly political. I was only political because, in the 1960s, America was fucked up and didn’t see what some artists or what black artists were doing. It was political in their minds.”

Barkley L. Hendricks, Lawdy Mama (1969). Oil and gold leaf on canvas. (Courtesy of the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery.)

While touring Europe as an undergraduate art student in the mid-1960s, Hendricks fell in love with the portrait style of artists like van Dyck and Velázquez. His immersion in the Western canon, however, left him troubled. In his visits to the museums and churches of Britain, Italy, Spain and the Netherlands, he saw virtually no black subjects. His own race was, in effect, a void in Western art.

As the Black Power movement unfolded around him, he set about correcting the balance, in life-size portraits of friends, relatives and strangers encountered on the street that communicated a new assertiveness and pride among Black Americans.

He would then depict the Black figure exuding style, confidence and attitude, catching their unique personalities, sometimes taking direct inspiration from the artists he had the chance to see in his European tour and adapting their creations to his world.

‘When I was in London, I went to the National Gallery, and there was a painting there by van Dyck. And there was a cardinal with his beautiful bed robe on… subsequently, years later, I did a painting that’s now at the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C. where there were three views of a man with a long red coat: Sir Charles, Alias Willie Harris.’

 While the tripartite view of Harris suggests affinities with van Dyck’s Charles I in Three Positions, Hendricks’s portrait riffs on the provocative personality of Charles, who was a drug dealer for Yale Universities students.

Barkley L. Hendricks Sir Charles, Alias Willie Harris 1972

YOCKS”, 1975© Estate of Barkley L. Hendricks.

“My paintings were about people that were part of my life. If they were political, it’s because they were a reflection of the culture we were drowning in.”

Hendricks often used himself as a subject. In “Icon for My Man Superman” (1969), he appeared, arms crossed, wearing a Superman jersey and sunglasses, naked from the waist down. The painting’s subtitle, “Superman Never Saved Any Black People”, echoed a remark by Bobby Seale, a founder of the Black Panther Party.

Barkley L. Hendricks, Icon for my Man Superman (Superman Never Saved Any Black People-Bobby Seale), 1969

Barkley L. Hendricks, Slick (Self-Portrait) (1977). Oil, acrylic, and magna on linen canvas. (Courtesy of the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery.)

Often out of fashion and artistic voice of the Black community, he has never bowed to the mainstream tendencies, remaining a somewhat neglected figure who received his due only in the latter part of his career, during the 2000s’. He borrowed endlessly from the commercialization of black culture—a Pop Art way of turning the white gaze back in on itself. The artists who have followed in his footsteps are sometimes described as “post-black.”

In one of his last interviews he felt like making it very clear:

“ That’s what irritates me about this culture—it always wants to play some dumbass game. I didn’t care what was being done by other artists or what was happening around me. I was dealing with what I wanted to do. Period.”

Along with Philip Pearlstein and David Hockney, Hendricks stands out as a pillar of postmodern portraiture. But he was never a well-known artist unlike his white counterparts. While he is widely cited as a major influence among contemporary black artists today, Hendricks’s work is under-represented in American museum collections. That owes in part to his black subject matter, but also to interests that kept him away from painting for almost 20 years.  

Article by

Fabio Amati

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