At the Rose Art Museum, the rarely seen photographs of painter Barkley L. Hendricks are on display
For most of his career, Barkley L. Hendricks was famous for his striking paintings of people of color, inspired by the royal portraits of European court painters.
Nobody knew much about his photographs.
But the truth is that Hendricks – the virtuoso painter known for his daring life-size portraits of himself and others – do take photos. And they share a lot in common with his paintings, including expert composition, a deep interest in fashion, a masterful eye for color, and an unerring ability to capture mood while making devious social commentary. While some of his photographs served primarily as studies for paintings, others were intended as stand-alone works of art to be admired in their own right.
Now, in “‘My Mechanical Sketchbook’ – Barkley L. Hendricks & Photography,” which opens Feb. 10 at the Rose Art Museum, we finally get to see that other side of Hendricks’ work, including Polaroids, photographs and never-before-seen works on paper, all discovered in the artist’s studio in New London, Connecticut after his death in 2017.
“They offer a deeper insight into not only her art, but also her vision, her life, and her ways of seeing and being in the world,” says Gannit Ankori, Rose’s director and chief curator who has co-curated the exhibition with Elyan J. Hill, Guest Curator of African Art and the African Diaspora.
“In photographs, Hendricks gives us the chance to see the world as he sees it, without the same level of manipulation as portraits,” says Hill. “The photographs become another invitation to his intimate and inner life than the paintings.”
It was after the Rose acquired one of Hendricks’ 2021 self-portraits, featuring the artist wearing a tall black hat, sunglasses and a big lipstick kiss planted just below his collarbone, that the museum began thinking about doing a larger exhibit on Hendricks. , a highly regarded African-American artist who inspired subsequent generations of African-American portrait painters, including Amy Sherald and Kehinde Wiley.
“He really didn’t use the categories and hierarchies that Western art employs, thinking that a Polaroid or a photograph is less than a painting that is less than a drawing,” Ankori explains. “He did all of these things together. And so, this full picture of his creative genius is really something that we have the opportunity to show.
What is on display are approximately 65 works that juxtapose the many facets of Hendricks’ creative output, with particular emphasis on photography which he has referred to as a “mechanical sketchbook”, a quick way to capture those unique visual moments that might otherwise become lost in the fray of everyday life. The exhibit is divided into seven groups, including self-portraits, portraits of others, photographs focusing on fashion, technology, and finally, photographs of Hendricks documenting his life experiences as a black man living in a racist society.
It was after a trip to Europe in 1966 that Hendricks found himself deeply inspired by the portraits of Old Masters like Velázquez, van Dyck, van Eyck, Rembrandt and Caravaggio. But del Prado, the Louvre and the Vatican Museums lacked paintings centered on black life. From that moment, Hendricks understood that his mission was to bring all the greatness of a Velázquez painting to the people he knew and saw around him. He began a series of portraits, both photographed and painted, featuring black people.
In this exhibition we see a “triple” black and white self-portrait of Hendricks in which he stands photographed in front of two of his life-size painted self-portraits. One painting, “Slick” features Hendricks wearing a smart white suit in front of a white background. The other features him naked in front of a matte black background and is titled “Brilliantly Endowed”. Both paintings, painted in 1977, are Hendricks at his best, working in multiple layers.
“It’s humorous because the term was taken from Hilton Kramer’s review of him that as a painter he was brilliantly endowed,” Ankori explains. “But it also had an overtone of hyper-sexualizing black men, which is no laughing matter. So I think he’s claiming his own body and the right of a black body to be desired, to be beautiful, to be naked, to be portrayed as a full human being.
“Slick” was painted in response to a playful remark from Hendricks’ sister. “You think you’re smart,” she told him. “Wait. One day a woman will straighten you out! The painting of Hendricks wearing an African kufi hat in a fashionable white linen suit on a white background could serve as a metaphor for a black artist making his way in style in an artistic environment , economic and political white on white.The two portraits, says Hill, embody “the cool,” a West African and African American aesthetic that emphasizes maintaining balance and calm.
“Hendricks’ triple self-portrait uses technology and fashion to push back on some of the ways the white art world sees black artists,” says Hill. “So often the work of black artists is labeled political simply because they choose to focus on their communities or on themselves and their creative process.”
In another photograph taken in 1967, Hendricks shows himself with a camera reflected in a shiny hubcap. It is a clever reinterpretation of Jan van Eyck’s “Portrait of Arnolfini” from 1434 and Parmigianino’s “Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror” made about a century later.
In a section devoted to Hendricks’ photographs of others, we see images of two, three, and four subjects taken in the 1970s, 80s, and 90s. In an untitled photograph from 1995, we see three black teenagers dressed in t- white muscle shirts wearing gold chains and lots of attitude.
“These are boys who absolutely embody an identity through clothing and fashion,” Ankori says.
In a series of photographs around fashion, we see a Polaroid of women’s shoes that Hendricks collected because he felt each pair embodied the essence of the woman who wore them. Almost hidden under the shoes is a sign that we can barely make out. It reads “Slave Quarters,” adding more meaning to fashion, identity, and the historical reality of being black in America.
An avid jazz enthusiast, Hendricks has also worked around the themes of the boombox and television, of which we see several abstract drawings that explore the frame of the television screen. In one drawing, the television screen is transformed into a yin-yang symbol, which could indicate how technology has taken on a religious significance. In all, we see a portrait of an inquisitive, playful, and direct artist, from his early days of painting through all his experimentation over the decades and during his career as a studio art teacher at Connecticut College, to ‘when he died.
“The camera was a way to amplify his ability to see and capture images,” says Ankori. “He rejected the label that he was a political artist. He said, “I only paint my experiences. And I think painting his experiences as a black man in America, growing up in the 1950s and 1960s through 2017, if you show your world, of course there are political implications.
“‘My Mechanical Sketchbook’ – Barkley L. Hendricks & Photography” is on display at the Rose Art Museum from February 10 to July 24.