By DAVID AMBROSE October 27, 2023
“Hey, lordy mama
What you gonna do now?
Get your nerves together baby
And set the record straight”
Blues for Mama
Nina Simone/Abbey Lincoln
While at fourteen paintings it seems hardly enough work to cause a seismic shift to “set the record straight,” one senses that even Giovanni Bellini’s, St. Francis in the Desert (ca.1475 -1480) would have been rousted from his shelter retreat at hearing all the racket caused by the boisterous revival meeting one floor above him at the Frick/Madison; St. Francis now appearing to stare up at the ceiling rather than to the heavens. The cause of the tremors happens to be the artist Barkley Hendricks (1945-2017), whose reputation this focused exhibition of paintings attempts to revive.
Barkley L. Hendricks: Portraits at the Frick has been curated and meticulously installed by Aimee Ng, Curator at the Frick, and Consulting Curator Antwaun Sargent to allow the “cool realism” of Hendrick’s early portraits (1969 – 1983) to mingle at the perimeters of the Frick collection. Hendricks’s work while photographic, is not quite photorealism, but more photo enhanced. He used the camera as his “mechanical sketchbook” to capture his subjects while at the same time freeing them from them from the gravity of their earthly surroundings. The show’s title offers up a mirror in which the two attempt to be seen as one; Hendricks’s Seventies time capsule of Black culture, style and activism alongside a collection that is very much beloved for being a living, breathing time capsule bequeathed to the city of New York by the collector Henry Clay Frick – albeit currently housed offsite in the former Whitney Museum building while the Frick mansion undergoes renovation.
The exhibition proves to be a homecoming of sorts. Not for the artist himself, Hendricks died in 2017, but for his spirit and commitment to the tradition of the art of portraiture. The Frick was purported to be his favorite museum. It is also, pound for pound, a holder of some of the finest portrait paintings in America. So, it seems only appropriate that Hendricks would be the first Black artist to have a one-person exhibition at the Frick. Hendricks was at the forefront of a realist movement that has charted a path through the wilderness of Euro-centric Western Art for a generation of Black artists who have followed him. Some of these artists, such as Kehinde Wiley, have taken a direct path, while other artists such as Kara Walker, with her black silhouettes on white ground, have taken a slightly more indirect one.
Barkley Hendricks was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania in 1945. He embarked on his artistic journey while enrolled from 1963 – 1967 at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Art, the oldest art academy and museum in the United States. The PAFA was the very place one would go if one wished to study figurative art and more specifically, the art of portraiture. In 1966, a travel grant allowed him the opportunity to visit European museums for three months. One of those museums was the Uffizi in Florence which led to a memorable encounter with Giovan Battista Moroni’s Portrait of Count Pietro Secco-Suardo from 1563; a striking full-length portrait of the Count dressed head to toe in black. His silhouette outline cuts an imposing figure offering Hendricks a pathway not just to the formal concerns of illusory form, but the collaborative nature of portraiture; one where artist and subject each bear a responsibility to the other.
The show opens with the earliest (and brightest) object in the exhibition, Lawdy Mama (1969). The title was adapted from the Nina Simone song “Blues for Mama” released two years prior. The half-length portrait is of a young Black woman with a perfectly circular afro painted on a wood archtop frame in oil on a gold leaf background. Hendricks intention was to link the portrait to Byzantine icons of the Madonna in both name and execution. Her afro doubles as a halo harkening back to the punchwork haloes common to the early Renaissance paintings on wood panel, but her hairstyle also rejects the European antecedents for beauty. A point further illustrated by the two ghostly white marble portrait busts of a man and woman in elaborate wigs by Jean Antoine Houdon that flank her. The archtop frame and gold leaf ground were both executed by Hendricks himself and put his commitment to craftsmanship and tradition on full display. At the same time, Hendricks intimates a more personal connection with the sitter (his cousin, Kathy Williams) with her relaxed, casual pose. The result is a timeless portrait of a woman who appears to judge us as much as we judge her. Her softly modulated flesh tones act as a foil to the gilding and geometry – circle, square and rectangle - found in the painting’s container. A golden section served up in a golden niche.
Two adjoining galleries present the remaining thirteen works. One room dedicated to his elusive, limited palette, white-on-white portraits of Black sitters in white clothing. Seen either singly, in multiple views of the same subject or in small groups, the figures are blanketed in white with little ground to spare or space to share with the viewer. Hendricks uses white as a compositional device, but also as a signifier and social component. “Whiteness” becomes the cloak by which he both reveals and conceals. The more one studies his “whites” the “dirtier” they get. Not through actual soiling, but through his masterful modulation of oil paint; one in conflict with the icy acrylic backgrounds. A fact made even more stark by the absence of shadows within the painting’s space suggesting an absence of an earthly body. The only shadows cast on the surface are the ones supplied by the viewer from outside the pictorial field.
One of the most dramatic white-on-white paintings is the diamond-shaped canvas entitled, Omaar (1981). In it, the half-length Black figure stands with back turned, facing away from us in a white puffer coat with a pleated ribbed chevron spine. The stiff formality of the pose allows the figure’s spine to drop like a central plum line which is counterbalanced by a flurry of dark, subtle details; one glove on, one glove off, a dangling vertical hinge on the left and a reflected gold pinky ring on the right. A pair of sunglasses rests atop his shaved head like the claw of an arcade game, as the temple tips of a second pair of glasses appear to drip down from his ears.
Many of Hendrick’s subjects appear bigger than the pictorial space they occupy. The result of being slightly cropped at the canvas perimeters. The effect is to see these subjects as if looking through a keyhole or a portal. In Steve (1976), the subject stands proudly in a confident and self-assured contrapposto pose. He wears a white trench coat, bellbottom slacks and sunglasses. Head tilted to the side; his eyes obscured by the reflection of Hendricks’s arched windows in the sunglasses. His afro is cropped by the upper edge of the frame. The subject’s hands are clasped, hidden behind his back arching his chest forward. Dark-heeled shoes anchor him to the bottom edge of the canvas. It is the precision and minute detail that allows us to believe we know Hendricks’s subjects, but we really don’t. It is the first time we have “actually” seen them. Pulled from our judging eyes in some form of suspended animation; encased in a divine light and frozen in time like a saint in a stained-glass window or carved on a marble grave marker.
A second gallery presents a group of portraits in fields of solid unified color. In Blood (Donald Formey) (1975) the saturated red ground engulfs you before you locate the subject, Formey camouflaged in plaid, hiding in plain sight. You study the surface not so much to locate him, but to piece him back together. Oddly, the only ground plane in the entire exhibition is the one Hendricks’s wife Susan stands upon in Ma Petite Kumquat (1983); a not-so-subtle acknowledgement of the weight, substance, and balance that she carried into his life which I am sure made much of this work possible. A beautiful and loving reference to a shared space and one open now to all of us, be it on the fourth floor of the Frick Madison or anywhere in the United States. And Barkley L. Hendricks provided a wonderful first step into that space. Out of our shadows and into the light. On view September 21, 2023 through January 7, 2024. WM
David Ambrose is an artist and critic living and working in Bound Brook, New Jersey. He has exhibited both nationally and internationally. He is the currently the subject of a mid-career retrospective entitled, “Repairing Beauty”, at the New Jersey State Museum in Trenton, New Jersey. He has taught at Parsons, The New School for Design, Pratt Institute and the Fashion Institute for Technology.view all articles from this author