Represent! Growing up during the Civil Rights era, Barkley Hendricks did represent, except he shied away from overt political overtones in his portraiture. ‘The Birth of Cool’, a Miles Davis album, found its namesake as an exhibition in homage to Hendricks. Combining figurative art with representation of the African- American community from the 1950s to 1970s, Hendricks was prolific in landscapes and photography.
Born in Philadelphia, Hendricks got the Crescent Scholarship to pursue art at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts (PAFA), where various influences included Louis Sloan, Walter Stumpfig, Ben Kamahara, Will Barnett and Hobson Pittman. After his three years at PAFA, in 1967, Hendricks wanted to avoid being drafted for the Vietnam War., “After I finished the course of study at the academy, I was prime fodder for the Vietnam War, and I had to come up with a strategy that would keep me from getting shipped over there. So I joined the New Jersey National Guard. They, at the time, as you know, the National Guard was national.” Hendricks worked at the Philadelphia Recreation Department as an arts and crafts specialist, painting geometric basketball compositions during the winter.
The desire to avoid the war caused Hendricks to steer clear from studying at the art institutes in California and Maryland, and resulting in him earning his MFA painting chops at Yale from 1970 to 1972. According to Hendricks, “what I did was I kept my New Jersey unit, and I commuted back and forth between New Haven and New Jersey. That way I didn’t have to change my Guard unit—and the risk of me being called up was lessened by staying in New Jersey even though there was some stuff going on in Newark because Newark had rioted. So, it was a maneuver to keep me from being caught up in the military here.” Hendricks’ childhood fascination with photography continued at PAFA and Yale, and he called his camera his “mechanical sketchbook”.
Hendricks focused on portraiture early on in his career, veering away from photorealistic art and other African American artists involved with the Black Power movement. Rooted in jazz culture and fashion, Hendricks’ figurative art represented portraiture of urban America and the African American community. “There was a pride in keeping up with all things cool in North Philly,” the 62-year-old artist wrote in an essay. “Musical taste, dress, and dialogue were all a reflection of the prevailing school of thought. Coolness and hipness went hand in hand; to be unhip was to be uncool.” One of Hendricks’ first portraits, ‘Lawdy Mama’, features a woman in an Afro, with a gold-leaf background reminiscent of Byzantine iconography. For Hendricks, the portraitures are him “just trying to do the best painting of the individuals who have piqued my curiosity and made me want to paint them.” Another famous portrait, ‘Sweet Thang’, was inspired by a tearful model, “and all of a sudden she blew this big pink bubble, and it changed the mood constantly.” ‘Steve’, a 1977 portrait of a black man in a white trench coat, drew rave reviews from New York Times’ art critic Hilton Kramer. “As an added note of audacity, he paints into the reflections of the mirrored sunglasses the figure is wearing two little cityscapes and what may be a miniature self-portrait of the artist himself at work.”
Hendricks’ did self-portraits often, famously responding to Kramer’s review of him being a ‘brilliantly endowed’ artist with a self-portrait titled, Brilliantly Endowed. Although Hendricks stayed away from political discourse, his self-portrait Icon for My Man Superman, was a comment on the founder of the Black Panther Party, Bobby Seale’s remark that ‘Superman never saved any black people.’
The landscapes of Jamaica became his focus in the 1980s, along with photographing the island. Hendricks’ imagery of the Caribbean included paintings of quarries, or ‘marl holes’, focusing on an “[M. C.] Escher-esque perspective.” Along with portraiture and landscapes, Hendricks was fascinated with photography, capturing jazz greats such as Miles Davis, Charles Mingus, and Canonball Adderley. His love for music was exhibited in his artistry with drums, saxophone, and trumpet.
During recent years, Hendricks’ paintings represented his views on American politics. ‘Crosshairs Study’ and ‘In the Crosshairs of the States’ depicting hooded black men in crosshairs with hands raised, are a representation of police brutality and racial profiling. ‘Manhattan Memo’ echoes the legendary dialogue,“Fuck You You Fucking Fuck”, from Spike Lee’s film ‘25th Hour.’
Curator of the Hendrick’s traveling exhibition ‘The Birth of Cool’, Trevor Schoonmaker said, “His bold portrayal of his subject’s attitude and style elevates the common person to celebrity status. Cool, empowering, and sometimes confrontational, Hendricks’ artistic privileging of a culturally complex black body has paved the way for today’s younger generation of artists.”
As Oscar Wilde said about portraiture, “It is not he who is revealed by the painter; it is rather the painter who, on the coloured canvas, reveals himself”. Hendricks’ art reveal a hip individualistic artist with a pioneering vision, who was a champion of African American representation, capturing the Soul of a Nation.