Barkley L. Hendricks’s Portraits at The Frick Intimately Depict Black Metropolitan Life

Barkley L. Hendricks’s painting Blood (Donald Formey) (1975) is an aptly titled work: The piece portrays a man standing against a bright red backdrop that anoints the figure with a sanguine glow. This canvas is now on view at The Frick Collection’s new exhibition “Barkley L. Hendricks: Portraits at the Frick.” Open through January 7, 2024, the show features 14 of the artist’s portrait paintings from the 1960s through the 1980s.

Measuring 72 by 50.5 inches, Blood (Donald Formey) (1975) is a detailed depiction of Donald Formey, one of Hendricks’s former art students at Connecticut College. Many aspects of this painting feel like carefully captured gestures, like Formey’s head, tilted to the side. He dons a pair of aviator glasses that seem to reflect rays of sunlight. A tambourine dangles from the subject’s right hand, his fingers curling softly around the edges of the instrument. And arguably, the most defining detail of the painting is Formey’s outfit: a yellow-and-red plaid jacket accompanied by matching pants.

“In the [reference] photograph for Blood, the subject is only wearing the jacket,” co-curator Antwaun Sargent said in an interview with Artsy. “He’s not wearing those pants. But [Hendricks] makes it into a two-piece or twinset. Those choices are important because he’s also using his styling and editing right on the canvas as a way to deepen our understanding of these people.”

While organizing the exhibition, curators Aimee Ng and Sargent made note of such formal choices, placing Hendricks’s oeuvre in a broader context that highlighted the artist’s historical, musical, photographic, and sartorial influences. Born in Philadelphia in 1945, Hendricks worked in a variety of media over the course of his lifetime, though he primarily focused on painting and photography. He obtained a degree from the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts in 1967 and later received both a bachelor’s degree and an MFA from Yale University.

Between the 1960s and ’80s, the artist created several portraits of the people in his life, and the result was a series of intimate portrayals of Black people living in metropolitan areas. Though Hendricks completed the paintings on view at The Frick decades ago, they still feel relevant, and the accompanying catalogue features contributions by contemporary Black artists such as Derrick Adams, Mickalene Thomas, and Kehinde Wiley that speak to Hendricks’s influence on Black figure painting today.

“This exhibition is about the past and present, with Hendricks holding the center of that conversation,” Sargent said. “He is the link between the past and present within this exhibition. He studied the Old Masters, and so when you are in the galleries, you’ll see some of those conversations with The Frick’s own collection of Old Master paintings, but we also needed to recreate conversations with contemporary artists.”

Another piece on view, Lawdy Mama (1969), also seems to bridge a gap between different time periods. The canvas shows Hendricks’s cousin sporting a huge Afro, a hairstyle that was closely associated with Black power movements in the 1970s. But other aspects of this portrait seem to take us to a different era: The subject stands against a backdrop of meticulously applied gold leafing, which clearly nods to “Byzantine icons and gold-ground Italian Renaissance painting,” as Ng wrote in a catalogue essay. While rendering his portraits, Hendricks drew from a plethora of historical influences including the works of Diego Velázquez and Édouard Manet, which Hendricks had seen during his visits to Europe. The Frick exhibition places the artist’s oeuvre in dialogue with its influences by positioning several Old Master paintings from the museum’s collection, like those of James McNeil Whistler, in close proximity to works like Lawdy Mama.

Lawdy Mama was actually not his first attempt,” Ng said. “He had several trial paintings where he was trying to master this craft of applying gold leaf. I think what sets Hendricks apart from many artists of his time is that other painters were experimenting with materials, but [Hendricks] was doing a historical investigation into what artists were using in previous centuries. And he was trying to bring them into his own vision. [He wanted to] imagine this idea of a brilliantly painted oil painted figure with varnish look so natural [that it] could be a Renaissance picture.”

APB’s (Afro-Parisian Brothers) (1978) also exemplifies Hendricks’s engagement with history through his deft use of color, composition, and paint application. The 72-by-60-inch painting shows two men set against a solid periwinkle background. The figures are rendered in oil paint, which gives their skin a sumptuous, shiny glimmer, as if they had just applied cocoa butter after taking a steamy shower. One subject wears a knitted sweater vest and stiff denim jeans; the other is in a three-piece suit. Hendricks painstakingly captures these details, down to the last fiber in that sweater, which is testament to his virtuosic painting skills.

“The art of painting is not only about putting paint down,” Hendricks said in an interview with the Brooklyn Rail in 2016. “I like to use the texture of the canvas as a vehicle to get the illusion that I’m interested in. People have always connected me with a political situation. I’m more about illusion. When you look at one of my paintings, you’ll see that there are glasses, or a shirt that looks like wool. I want that to be something that resonates with you first, rather than you trying to be connected with the unfortunate situation people of color face.”

“Barkley L. Hendricks: Portraits at the Frick” is a complex study of personhood—all of the artist’s portrayals are tender renderings of people who came into his life, including students, relatives, and lovers. These depictions include tiny details—like thin-framed glasses or intricately patterned hats—that give his subjects a sense of personality. Looking closely at these portraits reveals details about their subjects’ facial expressions and emotions, giving us a peek into their interior worlds.

“We didn’t want Barkley to just be presented as a recipient of legacy,” Ng said. “Hendricks engages with legacy and history, but he’s creating something totally new himself.”

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