Last week, word filtered through the art world that the 72-year-old artist Barkley L. Hendricks had died. Hendricks was best known for his post-modern and realist paintings of highly stylized, cool black subjects. He singlehandedly changed the possibilities of representation by depicting the people he knew and saw: black mothers and fathers, sons and daughters, uncles, aunties, and cousins. Today, you can see his influence in everyone from Rashid Johnson and Kehinde Wiley to Mickalene Thomas and Jordan Casteel. And his work can be viewed in the most august museums, such as the Whitney, the Studio Museum in Harlem, the Tate Modern, and the recently opened National Museum of African American History and Culture.
I don't remember the first Hendricks picture I ever saw, because I have seen the people he painted everyday of my life. For example, my grandfather, who belongs to Hendricks's generation, has a perfectly picked afro that recalls the painter's 1969 self-portrait, Icon for My Man Superman (Superman never saved any black people — Bobby Seale).
However, I do remember that feeling of validation I had when I first really engaged with his work. Nothing I've seen on canvas or in a museum has blended pop and abstraction with a stylized black vernacular the way that he did. It is this unique quality that he had that continues to escapes many of the contemporary black artists who have won praise from the white art world.
Go visit a museum today and look at a painting of a black subject. Rarely is the work simply about them and their soul. Instead, symbolism and idealism consume much of the representation of black bodies that we see. It's hard to view these figures' desires when racism, whiteness, America, and "the struggle" make them everything but themselves.
This phenomenon speaks to the ways mere representation has been misconstrued as liberation. Unfortunately, "diversity" in the museum can sometimes fail to truly free the black image. You see this in the arena of art that is in desperate search of an "inclusivity" that is wholly informed by white liberalism. There, the black body has been reduced to a series of problems in need of being fixed. This kind of visibility can be a trap, because it ignores the significant difference between depicting real everyday people and their convenient symbolic facsimiles.
Hendricks confronted these tired notions of the black body. There are no victims or celebrities depicted among his cast of ordinary icons, who root the black image in real life. Instead, there is, for instance, the photorealsitic North Philly Niggah (William Corbett), a fiercely chic brother from the hood who shows his sensibility by wearing a fresh and long pink trench with fur accents. When looking at paintings like this, it becomes clear that Hendricks was a modern master who painted us.
Born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania in 1945, Hendricks grew up in North Philly and received both his BFA and MFA from Yale University, where he studied classic works by artists like Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn and Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio. In the 1960s, on a trip to London's National Gallery, he was deeply moved by Anthony Van Dyck's 1621 Portrait of Agostino Pallavicini. But it also made him wonder why the black people he saw and knew in his own life weren't in the museum.
So he took his camera, which he referred to as his "sketchbook," and started snapping pictures of his family, friends, students from New Haven, Connecticut, where he taught studio painting. He would then invite his subjects into his studio or use the photographs to make portraits.
This was at a time when the Black Power movement inspired the poet and playwright Amiri Baraka to found the Black Arts Movement, which called for the creation of positive black nationalist images. BAM was a corrective measure to white racism and a homage to black history that Hendricks resisted. Brilliantly Endowed (Self Portrait) is one example of how Hendricks used his canvas to defy respectability politics, garnering both praise and criticism. In the 1972 acrylic nude, Hendricks stands against a black monochrome backdrop, toothpick in mouth, hand on his thigh, wearing a hat, socks, and sneakers, with his dick exposed. Despite the calls for uplifting images of the black community to combat racism, Hendricks recognized it was time for the black body to signify something else. With paintings like Brilliantly Endowed, Hendricks confronted the respectability politics of the era by empowering subjects to just be themselves.
As a young queer black man, desperately looking for representations of people who had made peace with both of those identities by radically existing in the world, one painting of Hendricks that really stuck out to me was George Jules Taylor. Hendricks painted the gay black male student in 1972. In the portrait, Taylor wears a baby blue skull cap, a grey turtleneck under a denim jacket that matches his jeans. Over his shoulders is a cape. He's got his hands on hips, while his shoeless feet dance off into the foreground. Taylor appears to be floating above it all—blackness and gayness—against a blueish grey background that compliments his ebony body. His eyes, behind a pair of groovy frames, look directly at the viewer, subverting the consuming and fetishistic gaze. It's a slick, sublime portrait of intersectional individualism that blurs the lines of realism to show exactly who Taylor is by capturing him in a moment of transcendence. The first time I saw it, I swear to God I wanted to be that picture.
For nearly five decades, against abstract monochrome pop-like backgrounds, Hendricks developed an oeuvre that in the 1970s was termed, "cool realism." His paintings—Lawdy Mama (1969), Sir Charles, Alias Willie Harris (1972), and What's Going On (1974), among others—of our people spoke to the reality of the black experience, bucking against its commodification.
By 1984, his portraits had fallen out of style like painting in general. For nearly two decades, he did not produce oil portraits at all. Instead, he taught and developed bodies of work that included photographs, drawings, and small plein air studies. I wonder though, what would he have made of the Reagan years? Or the 1990s, when crack, hip-hop, and the hyper-commodification of black cool consumed black communities?
Curator Trevor Schoonmaker encouraged him in the early 2000s to start painting again by commissioning a new work for the New Museum. And in 2008, Schoonmaker organized the artist's first comprehensive traveling retrospective, Barkley L. Hendricks: Birth of the Cool, that featured nearly 60 large scale portraits.
Last March, he presented what turned out to be his last solo exhibition, Barkley L. Hendricks at Jack Shainman Gallery. It displayed a remarkable return to large scale portraiture that was reminiscent of his early works and provided glimpses into what he thought of Black Lives Matter and the police violence happening against black children, women, and men. In Crosshairs Study, several small diamond shaped canvases show a black subject wearing a grey hoodie with a sniper laser trained on his forehead. Underneath the scene, Hendricks painted: "I No Can Breathe."
Before the opening of Barkley L. Hendricks, I spoke with the artist for a story for VICE's art and culture site, Creators. I didn't quote Hendricks directly in the story because as soon as the interview started, we were fighting. Because the work in the show was his most political yet, I thought he would finally want to talk about the social context in which he painted. "What inspired this show?" I asked the man. "It's a continuum of what I've been doing for 40 years," he said, sounding annoyed. "It's not just what inspired this show. I paint because I like painting." I nervously chuckled to myself and tried again: "Can you describe the situation the paintings are responding to?" He responded by asking me if I was familiar with police brutality. I told him I was and he said, "Alright well, it should be obvious."
For the next ten minutes the interview continued like this with Hendricks growing increasingly agitated. As I was admitting defeat and thanking him for his time, Hendricks said, almost in a hushed tone, "You focused too much on the politics and not the art." It was a lesson that has forever changed the way I look at art.
Hendricks art is currently on view at the Studio Museum in Harlem in the exhibition, "Regarding the Figure." And this summer, several of his canvases will be on display at the Tate Modern in a major survey of black art titled, "Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power."