Barkley L. Hendricks, an artist best known for his life-size oil paintings of Black people, passed away on April 18, 2017. He photographed and created realist and post-modern portraits of people that continued until his sudden death. He was 72 years old, and died of natural causes.
Born in Philadelphia in 1945, Hendricks received a certificate from the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts (PAFA) and a BFA and MFA from Yale University. He worked in fashion, and studied photography before delving into painting, calling his camera “my mechanical sketchbook.” While Hendricks excelled in the various mediums he embraced, it was his ability to document the lives of people of color who lived in urban areas in the 1960s and ’70s that made him an artist of note. He captured the essence of friends, family, and everyday people, and projected their unique style. Having come of age in the Civil Rights era and the Black is Beautiful movement, Hendricks created cool, empowering, and sometimes confrontational images that explore the complexity of Black identity.
Hendricks repeatedly said that he did not see the decision to paint full-size, scrupulous portraits of Black people as political, even in the face of a show at Jack Shainman Gallery last year that included an image of a young Black man with his hands up, posed against the backdrop of a Confederate flag and in the crosshairs of a gun.
“Well, I paint and make art because I like doing it; that’s always the motivating factor,” he told Hyperallergic. “The subject matter I’m involved with, though, has always been seen as suspect, given the screwed-up culture we live in, I’m not sure how you are with other artists, but generally, how many White artists get asked about how their Whiteness plays into their work? I didn’t [start to] paint or take photographs because I was Black.”
Regardless of his protestations, the art world welcomed Hendricks’s work as a political statement. In 2008, he had his first career retrospective exhibition at the Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University, “Barkley L. Hendricks: Birth of the Cool” – a dazzling array of 57 paintings that presented a singular vision of American street life and dress. The text for this exhibition, organized by Trevor Schoonmaker, notes that “Hendricks’s artistic privileging of a culturally complex Black body has paved the way for today’s younger generation of artists.” That show traveled to PAFA in 2009.
“He was a true artist’s artist, always dedicated to his singular vision,” Hendricks’ New York dealer, Jack Shainman, said in a statement. “He was a figurative painter when it was trendy, and especially when it wasn’t.”
He was the recipient of many awards and fellowships, including the deCordova Sculpture Park and Museum’s Rappaport Prize in 2016, the President’s Award from the Amistad Center for Art and Culture in 2010, and a Joan Mitchell Foundation Award in 2008. Hendricks’ work is in the collections of the Whitney Museum of American
Art; the National Portrait Gallery; the National Gallery of Art; the Tate Modern in London; Studio Museum in Harlem; PAFA; the Nasher Museum of Art in Durham, N.C. and the Philadelphia Museum of Art (PMA), among many other institutions.
Hendricks never wavered far from his Philly roots, and kept in contact with many of his regional friends and family members. Upon his death, PMA reflected on his legacy by mounting one of his most noted portraits near
another work of art he relished.
“Barkley L. Hendricks painted Miss T in 1969, almost a century after Eduard Charlemont painted The Moorish Chief, which hangs to the right,” said PMA in a recent statement. “Hendricks perceived his realist approach, which he began in the 1960s, as part of a longer tradition of portraiture and figure painting that dates to the 1500s…Soon after panting *Miss T*, Hendricks moved to New London, Connecticut, where he lived, worked, and taught for more than 40 years.”
Hendricks returned to Philadelphia to showcase his rarely seen works in the centerpiece of the Art Sanctuary’s 2015 Celebration of Black Arts. He was also the recipient of the inaugural “Celebration of Black Arts Award for Excellence in Visual Literacy.”
“He is artistic Royalty,” stated the Arts Sanctuary, “He taught many of us that we are beautiful just the way we are. He SAW and captured our community…He graciously came to our gallery and cheerfully greeted guests. He graciously accepted our award and remained an Art Sanctuary friend…He was so very cool, in so many ways.”
Hendricks served as a professor of studio art at Connecticut College from 1972 to 2010. Hendricks reflected on his legacy in the Tate Modern Art Gallery video which was shot last year: “I’ve been painting for 40 years…I get all kinds of different thoughts about what my painting’s about. There should be a degree of mystery…I want it to be what I call memorable. I don’t want it to go poof.”