Barkley L. Hendricks: Birth of the Cool at the Studio Museum in Harlem
November 12, 2008 to March 15, 2009
144 West 125th Street
New York City, 212 864 4500
The painter Barkley L. Hendricks caught not only the mood, but also the dress of black Americans in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Indeed, the subhead of the Studio Museum’s exhibition, “Birth of the Cool,” gives the nod to the development of a style whose casual hipness and intimated militancy marked a generation of African Americans. Hendricks was at once an observer and a participant for this movement; as a chronicler of times that were both exuberant and tumultuous, he gave voice to the psychological glories and newfound pride of the black power movement. And as it has turned out, Hendricks, educated at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts in Philadelphia and at Yale’s School of Art, had the interest to develop painting skills and styles that connected him to the history of Western painting. A teacher of art at Connecticut College since 1972, Hendricks admires such figures as Rembrandt and Caravaggio, who have influenced his compositions in striking ways. In consequence, the artist’s considerable technical skill has been joined to a confident, up-front vision of contemporary art, in which black American men and women are painted as resilient survivors and strong personalities. Hendricks thus is as important as social chronicler as he is as image-maker; indeed, his work demonstrates that the two are inexorably woven together in his powerful artistic vision.
Blood (Donald Formey) (1975) is a good example of Hendricks’ method. In this portrait, a young man wears a loud two-piece plaid suit, whose decorative aspect is offset by a calm, assured expression on the subject’s face. Wearing glasses and a large denim cap, Formey holds a tambourine, perhaps to indicate to the viewer his activities as a musician. This image is painted a single dark orange ground in resonance with the colors of Formey’s jacket and pants. On the other hand, he wears a silver bracelet, accentuating his generally artistic aura. As a study of a blood, or young black man, the painting keeps alive the insouciance and psychic strength Formey is in possession of. The single-color background, used quite regularly in Hendricks’ portraits of the time, builds on Blood’s complex but resolved color scheme. An earlier painting from 1969, Lawdy Mama, concerns an attractive young black women in a dark dress. The perfect penumbra of her Afro suggests that here Hendricks is influenced by Renaissance art; the artist’s historically aware rendering is strengthened further by a gold background with a rounded top, much like many religious Italian paintings of the Renaissance. Like Formey, this women quietly but assuredly looks back at the viewer, who is appreciative of the assertion of her style.
Sometimes the portraits trade on outrageous cool—there is the 1972 portrait of Sir Charles (Willie Harris), a small-time drug dealer in New Haven. Painted wearing a long red overcoat, white turtleneck sweater, and tan-and-white shoes, Sir Charles looks both exalted and haunted; Hendricks renders him three times: side views on the left and right, and a back view in the center of the painting. In each case we can see the outline of the subject’s face; on the right figure, the man’s face is fully visible, with a bit of unease checking the tableau’s emphatic energy. Hendricks, in several self-portraits, a couple of them full-length frontal nudes, sometimes shows a bit of ironic distance in his art; as a youthful participant in his burgeoning culture, he managed to record and, at the same time, stay objective. Just as immediate experience set an example for Hendricks to document, so his technical training at school allowed him to invest his images with resonant effects that are in keeping with the past. His current work, smallish studies of Jamaica’s landscape on rounded canvases, strike me as beautiful if slightly academic. Even so, we remember Jamaica as contributing powerfully, in politics and in music, to the drive that helped make black culture what it is today.