Comprising a scant 14 paintings, the exhibition Barkley L. Hendricks: Portraits at the Frick exerts a potent, two-part dynamic, drawing the viewer into the artist’s world while expanding outward, remaining with you when you look at the rest of the Frick’s familiar collection. While the exhibition’s premise is to explore Hendricks’s connection to the art history embodied in the museum’s regular collection, its effect is to change the way we view those same paintings.
Hendricks had a long and questing career exploring multiple genres and art forms, but his greatest significance and influence resides in the paintings on display here, dating mostly between 1969 and 1979. Flouting the then-dominant art world predilection for abstraction in painting, but in line with the tradition of his art school, the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, he turned to figuration. As in neither tradition, however, his subjects were contemporary Black individuals, rendered life-sized and full-length. His fashionably dressed people face the viewer as they stand against starkly monochrome backgrounds. The backdrop colors take their cue from the clothing or the character, either in contrast or in synchrony, and the faces blossom from them, the artist exquisitely attuned to the contours of each sitter’s features and nuances of emotion.
In the wall texts, the curators point out a host of allusions and resonances between Hendricks’s paintings and art historical precedents, such as the motif of the Three Graces from classical antiquity or the Van Eyck-like reflection of studio windows in sunglasses. The most striking connection remains a subtext, however: how Hendricks’s paintings inhabit and transcend the portrait genre. A product of the Renaissance, portraiture resulted from the intertwined development of naturalistic painting and individual expression of self. It was a genre available only to people of the highest class, depicting and enhancing the qualities of virtue and honor believed to be naturally present in them. The artists, endowed with the capacity to capture this quality, enjoyed reflected glory.
When the 17th-century Dutch self-made merchant class began to commission portraits from the likes of Rembrandt and Frans Hals, they put on this noble aura like a cloak while they transformed the norms of portraiture into a newly casual, vivid presentation of the self. Similarly, Hendricks taps portraiture’s potency and its implication of honor while celebrating his subjects’ Blackness. He accomplishes this through the subjects’ clothing, faces, and hair, but perhaps most of all, through their poses. While indeed some of these echo types like the Three Graces, fundamentally they are modern, frank, and expressive.
The curators arranged a vital comparison that demonstrates this point. “Miss T” (1969) hangs directly next to an alcove that contains portraits by Whistler. This enables a view, by a mere shift of the eyes, to the latter’s “Arrangement in Black and Gold: Comte Robert de Montesquiou-Fezensac” (1891–92), depicting a White man dressed in evening attire. He is pert, impatient, armed with a sharp walking stick and a white satin cloak slung through his arm, one softly gleaming shoe pointed aggressively toward the viewer. As much an arrangement in black and gold as the Whistler, “Miss T” stands in a black tunic over black bell bottom slacks, a golden metal belt hung at the low hip, in peak 1969 fashion. She is stark against the white background, her downward gaze protected by aviator-framed eyeglasses. Her lips, painted with extraordinary care for the play of light over their contours, are lightly tensed. Her weight is subtly stacked on her left leg, her arms behind her back. Comte de Montesquiou-Fezensac is caught in a moment as if in the lobby of a theater; Miss T is as if marshaling her powers before a blistering explosion of spoken word.
Hendricks’s men demolish the conventions of earlier portraits of Black men, in which the subjects are inserted into the standard rhetoric of portraiture. Most striking is “Misc. Tyrone” (1976), which features the overalls-and-cardigan-clad Tyrone, bald pate gleaming, looking intensely toward the viewer while gripping his crotch. The portrait is the result of an encounter between Hendricks and Tyrone on the streets of Philadelphia after Hendricks asked to photograph him. Tyrone agreed, but resisted meek stillness, instead “doing a whole theatrical posing thing,” according to Hendricks, owning the sidewalk and imposing his masculine presence. In looking at the painting, the viewer is sandwiched between the artist and the model, caught in the crossfire of the construction of manhood, all doused in the calamine pink of the backdrop.
After spending time with the Hendricks works, the poses and backdrops of portraits in the regular collection take on new meaning. Agnolo Bronzino’s “Lodovico Capponi” (1550–55), with its tumultuous green background and prodding codpiece, felt like the effects of retina burn after looking at “Misc. Tyrone.” Frans Hals’s “Portrait of an Elderly Man” (1627–30), corpulent, resplendent in black satin, finds a new counterpart in Hendrick’s “Omarr” (1981), enveloped in a white nylon puffy jacket, the back of his bald head so charismatic that he doesn’t even need to face the viewer. Deploying the power of figuration, Hendricks uses his study of art historical traditions as a tool with which to wedge them apart and make room for his community.
Barkley L. Hendricks: Portraits at the Frick continues at The Frick Collection (945 Madison Avenue, Upper East Side, Manhattan) through January 7. The exhibition was organized by Aimee Ng, curator at the Frick, and Consulting Curator Antwaun Sargent.