A close look at Barkley L. Hendricks, who took the Tate show ‘Soul of a Nation’ by storm last year with his nude painted self-portraits
In October 1968, Bobby Seale, the co-founder of the Black Panther Party, made it plain in a court of law, when he faced conspiracy charges as part of the Chicago 8, stating: “We’re hip to the fact that Superman never saved no black people. You got that?”
Seale gave voice to a fact that was widely understood. So long as black folks are denied the opportunity to share their vision with the world, their lives and stories would be marginalised, misrepresented, or eradicated from the historical record.
Seale’s words were not lost on African American artist Barkley L. Hendricks (1945-2017), who donned a novelty Superman t-shirt, sunglasses, and nothing else for a self-portrait titled “Icon for My Man Superman (Superman Never Saved any Black People – Bobby Seale)” in 1969. The North Philadelphia native embodied the height of cool, a sensibility that dates back to 15th-century Nigerian Empire of Benin and has found its way across the African diaspora for six centuries.
Adopting the “cool pose,” with his arms folded across his chest against a simple grey backdrop framed in red, white, and blue, Hendricks tells it like it is. He is calm, fearless, and aloof, fully in control, poised, and dignified. Such is the strength of the painting that it was chosen as one of the primary images to promote Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power, the landmark traveling exhibition which originated at Tate – opening just a couple of months after Hendricks’ death on April 16 at the age of 72.
“If you’re gonna do it, you might as well be memorable” – Barkley L. Hendricks
“If you’re gonna do it, you might as well be memorable,” Hendricks told Thelma Golden, the Director and Chief Curator of the Studio Museum in Harlem, in the seminal 2008 monograph, Birth of the Cool (Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University), which has just been republished to include a memoriam to the artist and a selection of new images from his oeuvre.
The book, edited by Trevor Schoonmaker, Curator of Contemporary Art at the Nasher, brilliantly presents a masterful look at the figurative painting, a selection of which can be seen in the next iteration of Soul of a Nation, which opened earlier this month at the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville, Arkansas, as well as in the exhibition catalogue, available from the Tate, which features Hendricks’ painting “What’s Going On” (1974) on the cover.
But Hendricks’ genius goes far beyond the known. In his death, a wealth of previously unseen works have been revealed. Today, at Jack Shainman Gallery, New York, will present Barkley L. Hendricks, Them Changes, the first ever exhibition of newly discovered works on paper made contemporaneously with his famous portrait paintings.
These works take us inside Hendricks’ process, giving us a look at the way he crafted and mastered a visual language entirely his own. “While best known for his bold life-sized portraits, Hendricks is also an accomplished photographer, landscape painter, watercolourist, draftsman, assemblage artist, carpenter, and jazz musician,” Schoonmaker wrote in the introduction to Birth of the Cool, reminding us that the man behind the easel was just as fascinating as the subjects he painted.
Here Elisabeth Sann, Director of Jack Shainman Gallery, shares insights into Hendricks’ singular career that never fails to surprise and delight people from all walks of life.
HE FOCUSED ON THE WORLD HE KNEW
Growing up in North Philadelphia during the 1950s and 60s, Hendricks learned the rules of the streets and found personal balance with his love of music, basketball, and art. His love of soul and jazz music found its way into his work, with titles taken from songs like “Sweet Thang” by Rufus featuring Chaka Khan and “Lawdy Mama” by Buddy Moss.
He embraced the complexities of black culture and life, with an eye for detail and a taste for the flamboyant. He deftly captured and conveyed the spirit and personality of his subjects through their personal style, be it posture, clothing, grooming, or attitude. His lifesize portraits easily became icons on par with the greats who inspired him, from painters like Caravaggio and Jan van Eyck to musicians such as Miles Davis and Nina Simone.
“Barkley is a visual artist in every sense of the word and his constant goal was just to reproduce what he saw around him. So whether that was a nun or a guy on the street wearing cool clothing, that’s what he painted. He did notice the absence of black figures in the art historical canon but I think his thing was just representation,” Sann explains.
“The elevation and the icon status comes with presenting subject matter that has not been presented before, but that wasn’t Barkley’s intention. In history, they were always relegated to the margins, so I think he thought, ‘Why can’t black people be the main subject of a painting?’ Barkley was doing what nobody had really done before and that was giving black people a prominent space by themselves on canvas. If a portrait is taken of someone, the audience’s reaction is, ‘This must be someone worth taking a portrait of.’”
HE USED THE CAMERA AS A SKETCHPAD
While pursuing his MFA at Yale during the early 1970s, Hendricks studied photography with Walker Evans, and quickly mastered the medium, winning his first award in 1971. His love for photography continued throughout his life, and he rarely left home without his camera.
As a portrait painter, Hendricks did not draw preparatory sketches for his work; instead, he used a camera to record the people he chose to paint. “Photography was like his sketchpad,” Sann observes. “He didn’t really work from sketches so he was constantly documenting everything around him and because he painted what was around him, it was natural that he would use a camera in this way.”
“Barkley was doing what nobody had really done before and that was giving black people a prominent space by themselves on canvas. If a portrait is taken of someone, the audience’s reaction is, ‘This must be someone worth taking a portrait of’” – Elisabeth Sann
HE MADE HISTORY WITHOUT TRYING
In 1971, Hendricks exhibited his first work in a major museum show: Contemporary Black Artists in America at the Whitney Museum, New York. In his life-sized self-portrait, “Brown Sugar Vine” (1970), Hendricks appears nude, wearing sunglasses and a stocking cap, artfully confronting and subverting American stereotypes about black male sexuality by claiming ownership of it.
“It’s important because it wasn’t really done before, but it wasn’t something Barkley was considering,” Sann reveals “He was painting what was around him.”
As an outsider in the art world at this time, Hendricks was not connected with the scene or the storm brewing around the show. As The New York Times reported of the show, 15 of the 75 scheduled artists withdrew from the exhibition, “in sympathy with a boycott called by the Black Emergency Cultural Coalition, a group of black artists that initiated the show nearly two years ago.”
Schoonmaker writes in the book, “Hendricks was accustomed to going against the grain; it was more his style to do his own thing, independent of any group or movement.”
HE MAINTAINED A PRIVATE WORLD OF CREATION
In 1976, Hendricks was featured in “Dewar’s Profiles,” a print advertising campaign for the “White Label” line of the noted Scotch whisky. The ad features a portrait of Hendricks in his studio surrounded by his work, along with a brief bio that includes a quote from the artist, stating, “My work provides me with total freedom. In turn it demands total honesty. So long as one can remain honest with himself and his work, he’ll have the freedom for the exploration and satisfaction of his foremost feelings and desires.”
Those words ring true more than four decades after the ad ran, with the discovery of the new works on paper in Them Changes. Sann and Jack Shainman travelled to New London, where Hendricks had lived, to visit his widow Susan, who had discovered flat files filled with mixed media works on paper and watercolours.
“They are kind of portraits of objects that were around his house,” Sann explains. “They are so unexpected because people mostly only consider his portrait paintings, but he was a musician, a photographer, a landscape painter, and an expert draftsman. He had notebooks and notebooks and notebooks of these drawings. He is known for his portrait paintings but he had such a wider practice beyond that. This body of work really gives such a deeper context to his larger practice.”
HE TREATED ALL HIS SUBJECTS WITH TREMENDOUS RESPECT
“Barkley was constantly looking and painting and photographing whatever caught his eye, whether it was somebody’s shoes or the way they walked or their hair,” Sann reveals. “He treated all his subjects the same way. We have a few watercolours that someone called still lifes or watercolours of fruit or flowers in varying states of decay, and they have just as much personality as the portraits. He gives the same amount of attention to detail to each unique thing that he is representing.”
Imagine an x-ray of the pelvis, half a watermelon eaten down to the rind, an empty Coors beer can be folded in half, a few bananas blackening yet still holding their shape, and abstracted likenesses of jazz legends like Miles Davis, Charlie Parker, Louis Armstrong, and Charles Mingus.
The newly-discovered works on paper are wildly diverse yet beautifully intertwined by concept and style. “Barkley invented this new visual language. There are a lot of astral visual motifs, sexual motifs, and the sense of humour that he treats everything with that is very present in his portrait paintings as well. They really seem like the fabric that holds all these at first glance disparate media that he worked in together,” Sann observes.
“They wouldn’t be something you would expect from Barkley but spending time with them, they couldn’t be anyone else’s. They seem almost like slices of his brain in some way, these mental exercises, and the amount of attention he paid to each and the amount of deliberateness of each stroke is really similar to the rest of his work.”
HE STAYED TRUE TO HIS VISION
Hendricks was a true independent, never following anything but his own internal demand to create. In his interview with Thelma Golden, he explained, “Since I’m not in the hot bed of activities in the city, I’m not quite sure what’s going on other than what I see or read in the papers.”
He noted that he was inspired by the works of painters such as Caravaggio and Rembrandt, and then added, “I don’t see too many contemporary painters I get inspiration from.” Instead of looking to the galleries, the museums, the auction houses, and art fairs, Hendricks drew from the world in which he lived in order to maintain the integrity of his vision and his process.
“Barkley had no interest in the market whatsoever,” Sann laughs. “He wanted to paint what he wanted to paint. In fact, a lot of the works on paper we have in the exhibition have never been seen before but he was making them contemporarily with his most prolific years in the 1970s along with his most iconic portrait paintings.”
HE WORKED TO FULFILL HIS INNER DEMAND
It was in the creation of these works on paper that Hendricks maintained a running dialogue with himself. While the subject matter and style differ from that which he exhibited and sold, the confidence of his hand and the detail of his eye are present throughout his work.
“What’s amazing about these works on paper is that Barkley never showed them to anyone,” Sann reveals. “He was working, making about six paintings a year in the 70s, which at the time was a lot for him and that’s all anyone got to see – but in the meantime he was making tons of these works on paper that all have the same amount of attention as each of the portraits and that’s because he was fulfilling his own demand to create.”
Barkley L. Hendricks: Them Changes will be on view at Jack Shainman Gallery, New York, through March 24, 2018. Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power will be on view at the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, Bentonville, Arkansas, through April 23, 2018