Barkley L. Hendricks talks about types of paint like they're old lovers. "Oil painting kind of seduced me after leaving high school," he says. "Then I became aware of acrylic—and then, during the course of that involvement, other paints came on the scene, like magna and synthetics, so I gravitated to them."
They'll all be making appearances at Barkley L. Hendricks: Birth of the Cool, a 35-year retrospective of the artist's paintings that opens Thursday, Feb. 7, at the Nasher Museum of Art in Durham. The show will run until July 13, traveling afterward to The Studio Museum in Harlem, the Santa Monica Museum of Art, the Contemporary Arts Museum in Houston and Hendricks' alma mater, the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts.
Birth of the Cool has already been named one of Vogue magazine's top 25 cultural events of 2008 under the appropriate heading "Super Fly." The retrospective is Hendricks' first traveling exhibition, and was put together by the Nasher's curator of contemporary art, Trevor Schoonmaker. Schoonmaker and Hendricks go way back: "Trevor is a super guy. Every time I've worked with him it's been a joy. He is one of the hip, hip, hip guys on the planet—and you can quote me on that."
The love goes both ways. "Barkley Hendricks has always been ahead of his time," Schoonmaker says. "His groundbreaking work is as fresh today as it was 30 to 40 years ago, and a generation of young artists is deeply indebted to him."
The focus of Birth of the Cool is on the work Hendricks is probably best known for: lifesize, hyper-realistic portraits of everyday African Americans. Influenced by the Pop art movement of the 1950s and '60s, Hendricks' portraits explode these ordinary people into larger-than-life celebrity icons, capturing both the vulnerability and the confident self-possession of his subjects in a format highly reminiscent of fashion magazines and movie posters.
Although some of his subjects chose to sit for the artist, many of the other paintings have been reconstructed from photographs. It's no wonder Hendricks calls his camera his "mechanical sketchbook."
Perhaps the most striking of these huge works is "Misc. Tyrone (Tyrone Smith)" from 1976, in which a bald, moustached man in overalls is depicted strutting his stuff, clearly loving every minute. "I met him on the streets of Philly," Hendricks remembers. "I just liked the way he looked, so I asked him, 'Can I take a few shots of you?' He went into a whole theatrical posing thing. We're out in the middle of a major downtown area, and he was posing, and it looked like a photo shoot. All of a sudden we had a little crowd, and he was going through his moves .... After we were finished, I shook his hand, he went his way, and I went mine."
In other paintings, the same close attention to detail captures the intense vulnerability and anger in the faces of his subjects, infusing the works with understated politics that are impossible to miss, or to misunderstand. "I really don't tell them what facial dynamics to assume," he says. "But I like to think I'm hip enough to pick up on certain areas of change. For instance, in the painting I did of Sweet Thang ["Sweet Thang (Lynn Jenkins)" from 1975-76], as she was sitting on the couch, we were talking, and she was telling me a very intense story, and all of a sudden she blew a bubble. It changed the mood completely. When I saw that, I said, 'Whoa, I like that.'"
It may not be surprising that Hendricks' work is often described as existing at the intersection of realism and postmodernism, but it's a characterization he's not so sure he's satisfied with. "I think I'm part of the here and now, whatever time that might be described as. I suppose for art historical frames of reference, that's as good a category as any. ... I have a problem with art historians using three-dollar words to describe two-dollar issues."
Regardless of how you choose to describe it, it's clear that for Hendricks, creative art is something first and foremost to be enjoyed. Sometimes very somber, sometimes erotically charged, his portraits are most often infused with a self-conscious and self-reflexive sense of humor, as is the case with "Brown Sugar Vine," a self-portrait that depicts Hendricks wearing nothing but a stocking cap. "I was coming back from running, and I passed a mirror after I had come in the door, about to hop in the shower. I looked at myself and I laughed ... I just kind of cracked up. I said, 'Wow, that's a painting right there.'"
Other paintings have similarly comedic origin. "A review in The New York Times from a critic, Hilton Kramer, and he said 'Barkley Hendricks is a brilliantly endowed painter.' And the woman I was with at the time asks, 'How does Hilton know you're brilliantly endowed?'" The result was another nude self-portrait, called—what else?—"Brilliantly Endowed." Still another self-portrait, "Slick," this one with Hendricks in a bright white suit, originates in a threatening prophecy from his sister: "You think you're slick. One of these days a woman is going to get a hold of you and straighten you out."
Hendricks is not at all ashamed to let it all hang out. "After all, it's just a painting. You can be very truthful—or you can take the Shakespearean approach that you're on a stage and take a persona. From that point on, you can be whoever you want to be."
One of my favorite pieces in the show looks at first glance like a classic work of Pop art. Depicting Hendricks in dark sunglasses and a tight Superman T-shirt against a bright blue sky, the 1969 portrait is called "Icon for My Man Superman (Superman never saved any black people—Bobby Seale)", suggesting the intriguing ways in which popular culture can be reclaimed and repurposed toward political and creative self-expression, even in a time of racism and division. It's a stunning, evocative work, and I must have looked at it for more than five minutes before I finally glanced down and realized that in the painting, Hendricks isn't wearing any pants.
Barkley L. Hendricks: Birth of the Cool opens Thursday, Feb. 7, at the Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University with a reception from 7-10 p.m. Visit nasher.duke.edu for more info.