“Lawdy Mama” (1969)
I learned of the existence of Barkley L. Hendricks just a few days ago, when a friend of mine posted “Lawdy Mama,” without attribution, on her Facebook page. Intrigued, I wrote a comment asking if it was ... Angela Davis painted in the manner of a 12th-century saint? I soon learned how wrong I was!
A recent Hendricks exhibition Duke University bore the title “Birth of the Cool,” and if any American painter can withstand such brazen comparison to Miles Davis, it’s probably Hendricks. (You can buy Trevor Schoonmaker’s catalog for the show here.)
I adore how forthright and interesting all of his subjects are. I don’t know who these people were, of course, but they certainly seem lifted right out of his native Philadelphia, costumery, attitude, and pride intact. From an artistic perspective, you can see traces of Frida Kahlo in the way the backgrounds and clothes complement the subjects (and the way that most of them are facing the viewer). There’s a whiff of Jasper Johns in the red-white-blue frame of “Icon for My Man Superman,” and maybe a little bit of Peter Grant in the use of color. But Hendricks’ clearest connection is as the inspiration to a current art world superstar, the incredible Kehinde Wiley. As the Village Voice once wrote in an assessment of Wiley, “And then there’s Barkley Hendricks—in fact, Wiley’s paintings are a kind of juiced-up redux of Hendricks, with similar centralized figures and an emphasis on pattern.”
Few artists would embody the 1970s slogan “Black is Beautiful” as thoroughly as Hendricks. Of course, not all of his subjects are African-American, but most of them are, and especially earlier in his career. If you Google his name you’ll find plenty of later works depicting people of other races.
“Icon for My Man Superman” (1969)
“Sir Charles, Alias Willie Harris” (1972)
“Dr. Kool” (1973)
“Bahsir (Robert Gowens)” (1975)
“Blood (Donald Formey)” (1975)
“Sweet Thang (Lynn Jenkins)” (1975-76)
“Misc. Tyrone (Tyrone Smith)” (1976)
“APB’s (Afro-Parisian Brothers)” (1978)
“Icon for Fifi” (1982)
“Fela: Amen, Amen, Amen, Amen…....” (2002)
Here’s a brief video about his show “Birth of the Cool,” which appeared at the Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University in 2008:
Thanks to Susie Nakley!