How Barkley L. Hendricks Electrifies Portraiture at the Frick

Miss T and Ma Petite Kumquat flanking a gallery of Frick Collection works by James McNeill Whistler

Miss T and Ma Petite Kumquat flanking a gallery of Frick Collection works by James McNeill Whistler  By Natasha H. Arora September 27, 2023
photo: George Koelle
Miss T and Ma Petite Kumquat flanking a gallery of Frick Collection works by James McNeill Whistler
The Late Artist's Pioneering Works Depict Black Subjects in the Tradition of European Old Masters

His Pioneering Works Depict Black subjects in the Tradition of European Old Masters

courtesy of the Estate of Barkley L. Hendricks and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York

Barkley L. Hendricks, Miss T, 1969

“This moment of move and transition is a chance to rethink the Frick’s identity, and Barkley is the kind of artist who Frick himself would’ve wanted.”

Aimee Ng

Barkley L. Hendricks: Portraits at the Frick, the Frick Collection’s overdue first solo exhibition of a Black artist and features fourteen large-scale portraits by Barkley L. Hendricks (1945-2017) meticulously selected by the Frick’s Curator Aimee Ng, and Consulting Curator Antwaun Sargent. Hendricks is known for his pioneering contemporary portraiture that depicted Black subjects in the traditions of the European Old Masters. Thus, the Frick Collection, with its iconic portraits by Rembrandt, Vermeer and Velázquez, is the perfect setting.

Art & Object sat down with Ng this month at The SisterYard cafe, in Frick Madison (the Frick Collection’s temporary home in the Breuer building), to ask what inspired the triumphant exhibition.

“It began with the question of, ‘Who can illuminate the spirit of the Frick through modern perspectives?’ she says. "This moment of move and transition is a chance to rethink the Frick’s identity, and Barkley is the kind of artist who Frick himself would’ve wanted.” She credits two forces for bringing Hendricks to Frick Madison: the cosmos, and Antwaun Sargent.

“Barkley was very concerned with painters of the past, the Old Masters, the Renaissance,” Sargent insists over the phone, on his way from New York City to Los Angeles to open another exhibition. “I thought if you really want to make a contemporary connection between the Frick and artists today, it has to be Barkley Hendricks.” Hendricks even painted Miss T in response to the works of Giovanni Battista Moroni, whose figures also hang in the Frick Madison.

Indeed, there is an effortless comparison to be made between Hendricks and Rembrandt, Van Dyck and Whistler. Hendricks’ portraits are contemporary vessels of classical techniques; deconstructed to the levels of brushstroke and paint-mixing, Hendricks rendered Old Master methods for twentieth-century subjects. The iridescent gold stage in Lawdy Mama was a culmination of two years spent finessing the art of leafing, resulting in the icon of a Black woman (modeled by Hendricks’ cousin) that is equivalent to venerable Byzantine mosaics.

Yet Hendricks’ portraiture also differs from that of his predecessors; Ng cites his technological fascination and flexibility—“his handiness”—as innovation and believes Hendricks saw his paintings as both portraits and abstractions.

For Sargent, Hendricks’ subjects are what distinguish the artist from the Old Masters; Hendricks photographed and painted his wife, students, friends, gay and interracial couples, and people he encountered on the street. He immortalized individuals who existed outside the dominant culture. But Sargent makes an important distinction. “Hendricks didn’t give people back their humanity, he just recorded it,” says Sargent. “He upset the power dynamic of Old Master paintings.”

Barkley L. Hendricks, Blood (Donald Formey), 1975
courtesy of the Estate of Barkley L. Hendricks and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York

Barkley L. Hendricks, Blood (Donald Formey), 1975
 

Barkley L. Hendricks, Lagos Ladies (Gbemi, Bisi, Niki, Christy), 1978
courtesy of the Estate of Barkley L. Hendricks and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York

Barkley L. Hendricks, Lagos Ladies (Gbemi, Bisi, Niki, Christy), 1978

Barkley L. Hendricks, Slick, 1977
courtesy of the Estate of Barkley L. Hendricks and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York

Barkley L. Hendricks, Slick, 1977

Barkley L. Hendricks, Misc. Tyrone (Tyrone Smith), 1976
courtesy of the Estate of Barkley L. Hendricks and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York

Barkley L. Hendricks, Misc. Tyrone (Tyrone Smith), 1976

Barkley L. Hendricks, Woody, 1973
courtesy of the Estate of Barkley L. Hendricks and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York

Barkley L. Hendricks, Woody, 1973

This made the act of selecting works for the exhibition among Hendricks’ opus a painful but entertaining curatorial task. “We wanted to focus on the era in which he was most engaged in the process of portraiture, day in and day out in the studio,” explained Sargent, as we lamented the absence of Hendricks’ photography and landscape from the collection of 1970s and early 1980s colossi on view.

Barkley L. Hendricks: Portraits at the Frick presents an homage to the astonishing works that the artist called his “limited palette” series. Divided into two sections, one devoted to each of the eight vividly colored paintings and another encompassing six “white-on-white” works, the show demonstrates Hendricks’ range and “different formal and social considerations.”

Hendrick’s monochromatism is no doubt a byproduct of his era; his vision is imbued with elements of the dominant art movements of the day like minimalism, color field painting and Pop art—“Thelma Golden did Black Malein this building,” Sargent reminds us referring to the groundbreaking 1994 exhibition, Black Male: Representations of Masculinity in Contemporary American Art, an exhibition curated by Thelma Golden, now the Director and Chief Curator at the Studio Museum in Harlem.

Ng points to Woody as a perfect sample work that embodies Hendricks’ appeal to viewers: a shiny yellow costume emerges from a matte yellow background, punctuated by glimpses of brown skin, of a body notably in motion. Hendricks’ pieces radically avoid violence, eyeing instead humor, self-indulgence, and deliberate flairs for fashion. While Hendricks was criticized for glorifying European art and ignoring the Black Rights Movement, Sargent characterizes his chosen subjects as more than political gestures.

“Our lives cannot be reduced to causes—that’s why they’re painted at the [life-size] scale they’re painted,” he says. “Barkley allows that person to take center stage and define themselves on their own terms. In a portrait like Misc. Tyrone, a man was just walking down the street looking as fly as he wanted to be.”

photo: George Koelle

Gallery view of Barkley L. Hendricks at the Frick

Hendricks’ own personality permeates the otherwise monastic grey rooms of Frick Madison, gleaming off Lawdy Mama, ricocheting against Blood (Donald Formey), leaning on Lagos Ladies before settling into his eyes in Slick.

The collection’s sole self-portrait, Slick features Hendricks in a white suit and kufi cap, an emblem of his identity as an African American. The work is a culmination of Hendricks’ upbringing in Philadelphia, his career in the New Jersey National Guard, his education at Yale University, and his travels through Europe, and it presents audiences with the figure who connects the past to the present.

“Without Barkley’s contributions to the canon, I don’t know where we’d be,” Sargent confirms. The exhibition’s accompanying catalogue, written by Ng and Sargent, is a testament to this statement, enhanced by the testimonies of Derrick Adams, Nick Cave, Hilton Als, and Kehinde Wiley, with a forward by Golden.

Hendricks reminds Ng of the importance of slow regard. “I hope that’s something that comes across in the show. I hope people value and spend time looking.” Sargent agrees—visitors should leave with “a consideration for their history, and how they may fit inside it.” Examination becomes a delight in this glamorous exhibition by a portraitist who electrifies his medium.

Barkley L. Hendricks: Portraits at the Frick is on view at Frick Madison through January 7, 2024.

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