Is there a more backhanded compliment for an artist than “artist’s artist?” This term denotes an artist whose work is of such quality that it was really only celebrated by other artists during their time. It’s a way to grant status to a generally “unknown” artist so that dealers can command slightly higher figures, without really celebrating the work itself. I’ve been thinking about that phrase a lot since learning of the death of the less-than-renowned painter Barkley L. Hendricks.
Just a few weeks before Hendricks died, I discovered his portrait Steve, which compelled and even confronted me. It’s brimming with black pride. I saw it as an argument against the unending tide of cultural whitewashing.
The art world had always kept Hendricks at arm’s length-- his exclusion from this year’s “political” Whitney Biennial would have gone unnoticed, were Steve not installed on the floor right above, as if to prove that Hendricks’s larger-than-life paintings would not fall to fickle curatorial tastes.
A few weeks later, when performing what had become a routine image search to take in huge swaths of Hendricks’s oeuvre all at once, I learned of his death-- and had to change this essay into a eulogy. I must note that there is a strange beauty to looking up an artist with Google’s image search: the space-time continuum is literally rendered flat in front of you as an artist’s work is presented according to Google’s search algorithm. Of course, the algorithm isn’t robust enough to organize an artist’s work chronologically or thematically, so what we get is a two-dimensional wall comprised of row after row of Hendricks’s works, with a few recurring motifs:
We see a lot of Lawdy Mama, perhaps Hendricks’s most popular work, with its young black female and her gigantic, billowing afro that, when viewed against the canvas’s arch top and gold leaf background, resembles something along the lines of halo or crown or some other adornment befitting a Bynzantine icon or Catholic saint.
We see numerous examples of Hendricks’s trifold technique, in which his subject is either facing the viewer or turned away from the viewer. The subject is flanked on either side by a copy of her or himself, rotated 90 degrees. The clothes, be they white dresses or cardinal-red trench coats, often look like sculptures, nearly independent of the bodies they attire.
Lastly, we see a whole lot of fashion: the sartorial choices of subcultures or mainstream-adjacent cultures that you wouldn’t likely see in a Sears Roebucks catalog (and yet it is through this multi-paneled grid that an alternative Sears catalog comes into focus.) Hendricks found a way to celebrate the sum of humanity by painting its most marginalized citizens, be they black, Latino, queer, or other. Their clothing serves as cultural sediments, as time capsules whose meaning is dependent on the viewer.
Hendricks used photography as well as painting and drawing to capture the likeness of family members, friends, and acquaintances who possessed a certain sense of style that caught his attention. In fact, Hendricks got his start in art through his lifelong love for photography, studying with such famous photographers as Walker Evans at Yale. As he himself remarked in an interview with Hyperallergic following his exhibition at the Jack Shaiman Gallery, “Back then, I spent more time with photographers in basement labs than I ever did with painters. The education I got from them was important.” It was later, as a student at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, he became fascinated with the characteristics of paint, experimenting with layered white paints to obtain a yellow quality and teaching himself out to apply gold leaf, something none of his peers was doing.
With unprecedented prowess and fastidiousness, Henricks was painting black figures. No matter the artist’s intentions, the political significance of this choice speaks for itself. Take Lawdy Mama (1969): there is little emotion in the young woman’s face, which almost encourages the viewer to ascribe feelings of resentment or anger to her. As the artist himself recounted, critics and writers alike speculated that she was Kathleen Cleaver, the wife of Black Panther Party member Eldridge Cleaver, when, in fact, she was Henricks’s cousin. Apparently this painting had nothing to do with the Black Panther movement.
To learn this was a wake-up call. When I first pitched this piece to Tribes, our fearless leader Steve Cannon expressed to me his desire that Hendricks not be portrayed simply as a black artist. He didn’t want to reduce a body of work to the body (and specifically skin tone) of its creator. With some hubris, I replied that to refer to Hendricks in any other manner would be to ignore his willful decision to paint (what I believed to be) primarily black American subjects. And yet, as Hendricks himself observed, his work has always been speculated about thoroughly, far beyond the intent of its creator. I soon realized that in my approach to writing about Hendricks, I too was painting him as this great champion of black pride, when in reality, he just painted what he saw.
Over the years, we often hear white people respond to allegations of racism with the response that they don’t see race, which is simply impossible on both a phenomenological and psychological level. But, conversely, what does it mean when an artist like Hendricks feels pigeonholed by his decision to paint what comes naturally? This is further complicated when one considers that Henricks was politically active. Reading the artist’s own words, one begins to reflect on the role of the critic, and how often we make blind assumptions on the basis of personal experience.
It felt only natural that Henricks’s last show of new work at the Jack Shaiman Gallery in New York City last year would be something of a return to the subject matter that got him so much attention in the first place. But his newer subjects aren’t so passive. They reflect the general racial unrest that has risen this decade following an ongoing series of wrongful police shootings, and the white media’s portrayal of blacks and other minorities. The most satisfying example of this is perhaps Roscoe (2016) in which a muscular, bald, black man is clutching his member, which protrudes from his jeans, while wearing a shirt emblazoned with the words “Fuck Fox News.” It’s hard not to smirk each time I pull the image up on my laptop.
Hendricks encapsulated hundreds of years of white men shooting black men in Crosshairs Study (2015) and In The Crosshairs of the State (2016). The former shows a young black man whose eyes are obfuscated by the shadow of his hoodie. A red dot from a sniper rifle’s laser is projected over his third eye. The latter transposes the same young man against a Confederate flag, connecting over two centuries of murder.
And yet, Hendricks was adamant that as an artist, he had the right to paint, draw, photograph, or design whatever struck his fancy. To use his words, “I can understand the reasons why artists might be motivated to correct art history, or make a political statement, but I also think about stupid shit that happens. I paint people, black and white, who I like and who want to pose for me.”
One of my favorite Hendricks paintings is Hasty Tasty (1977), which features two young men: one with red hair and the other with Latino features. They have their arms around each other, and are grinning contentedly at the viewer. The redhead’s shirt bears the painting’s title. His sky blue eyes match the painting’s monochromatic backdrop, whereas his companion’s eyes are masked by bulbous, fabulous sunglasses that could have only come from the seventies. A red handkerchief in his back pocket sticks out coyly from his left hip. And despite the two being locked in a moment, the way their feet are positioned suggests that they are actually in mid-stride, walking outdoors and sharing their love with the world.
What this painting embodies is the effervescent joy and sense of defiance that permeates all of Hendricks’s subjects. Because ultimately, to Hendricks, it has nothing to do with the color of their skin or how society views them. It’s all about who they are in that moment the artist chooses to capture; one that sees hope shimmering in their eyes, or else a moment of anger, or disinterest. Whatever feelings it expresses, each painting celebrates an aspect of humanity, and thereby celebrates the sum of humanity.