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With a New Book and Major Exhibitions on the Horizon, Barkley L. Hendricks’s Photography Comes into Focus

With a New Book and Major Exhibitions on the Horizon, Barkley L. Hendricks’s Photography Comes into Focus


With a New Book and Major Exhibitions on the Horizon, Barkley L. Hendricks’s Photography Comes into Focus

Barkley L. Hendricks, a painter of tender and arresting portraits, was on an ascendant trajectory when he died in 2017, with a 2008 survey show spanning his five-decade career having cast him as a formidable figure and a star turn on the horizon in the epochal group exhibition “Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power,” which opened just three months after his passing. And that ascendance has not diminished a bit since, as lesser-known aspects of his practice have expanded the perception of Hendricks as an artist with an eye for more than just paint.

“Barkley never limited himself to strictly one thing,” said Jack Shainman, the New York–based gallerist who has represented Hendricks since 2005. “He followed his own voice, and he did what he wanted to do.”

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One of these lesser-known aspects of Hendricks’s art is his photography, selections of which feature in Barkley L. Hendricks: Photography (Skira), the latest in a new line of books devoted to different facets of the artist’s life and work. (Others preceding it have taken the subtitles Works on Paper, Landscape Paintings, and Basketball, and a fifth and final volume, a survey of the entirety of Hendricks’s career to be edited by curator and art historian Zoé Whitley, is planned for the end of next year.)
The new photo book has been published in the midst of other new moves made in the service of nurturing Hendricks’s legacy. Next February, the Rose Art Museum at Brandeis University in Boston will open a photography-focused Hendricks show under the title “‘My Mechanical Sketchbook’ – Barkley L. Hendricks and Photography.” That same month, Jack Shainman gallery will present a show of the artist’s works related to basketball. And most tantalizingly, as Shainman mentioned in an interview, the Brooklyn Museum is in the early stages of planning a career retrospective for sometime in the years to come.
“The depth and range of Barkley’s practice is extraordinary,” Shainman said of the bigger picture being drawn by all the new developments. “He really was a master.”
Elisabeth Sann, a director at Jack Shainman gallery, added, “When you say the name Barkley Hendricks, everyone thinks of portrait painting. But his focus really was the whole of his practice, and it’s something we didn’t really know to the extent that we know now. What was happening in his mind is finally being shown to the world.”

Barkley L. Hendricks, Untitled, 1986.
©Estate of Barkley L. Hendricks/Courtesy of the artist’s estate and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York

Anna Arabindan-Kesson, an art historian at Princeton University who wrote the main essay for Barkley L. Hendricks: Photography, said that Hendricks’s different ways of working aided and abetted one another. “He was always using photography to remember things that he could then go back to later, but he was still thinking about a photograph as a kind of standalone,” she said of pictures that could range from playful and posed to quiet and introspective. “That’s what makes his work so powerful and varied and deep. Even when the photographs may have been studies, you can also see how distinct they are and how they can stand alone as works of art—not just a kind of preparatory sketch. He was able to create a relationship between photography and painting, but, while doing that, he was also very much creating separate pieces of work.”
Arabindan-Kesson became close friends with Hendricks after including one of his works in “Embodied: Black Identities in America Art from the Yale University Art Gallery,” an exhibition she worked on in 2010. Over the years, she got to see him work in multiple ways. “Barkley was a performer: art-making was his identity, and it was a very carefully choreographed, organized, and composed process,” she said. “The way he saw the world, and his work in relation to what was taking place around him, was through a lens of choreographed composition. He also just had a lot of style. Even the way he would interact with someone he wanted to photograph—getting them to pose or talking to them on the street—had a kind of performative flair.”

Barkley L. Hendricks, Untitled, 1977.
©Estate of Barkley L. Hendricks/Courtesy of the artist’s estate and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York

She sees some of that flair mixed with a distinctive kind of adulation in an untitled photograph of four women in matching white clothes from 1977. “He obviously asked them to stand in a particular way, but he was really attentive to how they put themselves together,” Arabindan-Kesson said. “That’s something that always comes back to me with some of his photographs: he was composing them and asking people to stand in certain ways, but all because he wanted to highlight how his subjects have created themselves. It evokes their friendship but also their individuality.”
She also sees a sort of kinship between the same photograph and Hendricks’s approach to painting. “I’m fascinated by how he’s flattening out the background—it’s sort of blurry and we’re focusing on the figures, but he created this flatness that you see a lot in his paintings too,” Arabindan-Kesson said. “The figures really emerge and come out of the frame toward you.”

Barkley L. Hendricks, Bathtub Shopping Cart, 1989.
©Estate of Barkley L. Hendricks/Courtesy of the artist’s estate and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York

Some of Hendricks’s photos were far from staged—such as Bathtub Shopping Cart, from 1989. “The composition is amazing, in terms of how he’s he’s managed to create space for all of the different things that are going on,” Arabindan-Kesson said. “But it’s so surrealistic, and it [shows] something else about Barkley: his ability to see beauty in very gritty and urban and often not particularly beautiful scenes—to see the way a picture can emerge from strange juxtapositions of color and angles. It highlights how he’s thinking about the way a composition can come together to create something that startles you or catches your attention.”

Barkley L. Hendricks, Untitled, 1988.
©Estate of Barkley L. Hendricks/Courtesy of the artist’s estate and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York

A similar sort of otherworldliness attends a striking picture of a Kentucky Fried Chicken sign within a tropical landscape likely in Jamaica, Arabindan-Kesson said. “It seems so mundane, but by taking that photograph, he’s helping us see the mundane in a clearer way and confronting us with questions about what is it that we’re looking at and what is it that we’re noticing—or not noticing.”
It’s only recently that the full extent of Hendricks’s work with photography has become known. “I was lucky to have worked and gone through the photography with Barkley, but we hadn’t realized the depth of it,” said Shainman. “In the same way as Warhol, he would take photographs every day—as a kind of obsessive documentary thing.”
Shainman hopes the new focus on the photos—as well as the other interrelated parts of Hendricks’s practice surveyed in the other books—will show the artist in a fuller light. “We have shown some photographs in the past and had success, and they’ve been a part of the museum shows,” he said. “But what’s exciting about the total project of all the books is that they represent each part of his practice and look at them in depth.”

Barkley L. Hendricks, Fort Charles Crocodile, 1998, from Barkley L. Hendricks: Landscape Paintings.
©Estate of Barkley L. Hendricks/Courtesy of the artist’s estate and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York

Hendricks himself would have loved to know that people are now appreciating more than just his portrait paintings, his longtime dealer noted. Recalling a telling tale from years ago, Shainman said, “I sold one of the major portraits to a collector and his wife, who Barkley ended up meeting at the art fair. The first thing Barkley said to them was, ‘Oh, that’s great, but did he show you my best work—which are my landscapes?’ The wife wasn’t so sure if they should get the painting. She said, ‘Honey, maybe we should get a landscape instead.’”

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