Painter: Barkley Leonard Hendricks
Trained as a classical painter at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts and at Yale University, Barkley L. Hendricks rose to prominence in the ’60s and ’70s, a time when the urban cultural scene was flourishing. His cool, unpretentious portraits of lonesome figures lounging in urban settings embody an era when art, sex and the grit of urban street life intertwined. His first career retrospective opened in 2008 at the Nasher Museum of Art in Durham, N.C. Major works from this show, titled “Birth of the Cool,” appeared at The Studio Museum in Harlem November 2008. The retrospective will travel to Santa Barbara, Calif., Houston and Philadelphia.The themes of identity, fashion and style have preoccupied Mr. Hendricks throughout his career. Funky and hip are terms often used to describe a painting style that mixes pop art, photorealism and black nationalism. He mostly paints full-figure portraits of people, often of color. He pays particular attention to a subject’s attitude and style. “How people dress is how they want to be seen by the world,’” said Mr. Hendricks, who works in oil, acrylic, watercolor and other media.
Critics and curators have come to regard Mr. Hendricks’s portraits as some of the most distinctive in recent art. “He has always done his own thing and avoided easy categorization,” said Trevor Schoonmaker, curator of contemporary art at the Nasher and organizer of the exhibition. “His groundbreaking work is as fresh today as it was 30 or 40 years ago, and a generation of young artists is deeply indebted to him.” Among them is Kehinde Wiley, a newcomer from Los Angeles whose slick portraits of the black entertainment aristocracy adopt much from Mr. Hendricks’s bold photographic portrayals. Rashid Johnson paid homage, posing after one of Mr. Hendricks’s self-portraits.
Mr. Hendricks, who was born in Philadelphia in 1945, studied with Walker Evans, one of his teachers at Yale. Mr. Evans inspired his interest in photography, which remains an important part of his art practice. “I like to paint live models if I can get them to sit for me,” he said, “but oftentimes I work from photographs.”Sometimes he knows the subjects, but other times he meets them by chance. “One time I met this guy on the street in Philadelphia dressed completely in white holding a black briefcase — a white suit, hat, shoes. I was so attracted to his sense of style I asked if I could photograph him. This was around 1970. I kept the photograph for two or three years, then made a painting using white acrylic, oil and magna paint for a total monochromatic effect. I called it Dr. Cool.”
Since 1972, Mr. Hendricks has taught art at Connecticut College in New London where he lives with his wife, Susan. He divides his time between the classroom, his studio and Jamaica, where he goes every winter to paint the landscape.