Barkley L. Hendricks, a towering artist best known for his celebratory, uncompromising oil portraits of Black people from urban places, passed away early this morning. His death was sudden but due to natural causes. He was 72 years old.
Born in Philadelphia in 1945, Hendricks received a certificate from the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts and a BFA and MFA from Yale University. He studied photography before delving into painting — in a recent Tate video, he called his camera “my mechanical sketchbook” — and over the course of his decades-long career worked in fashion as well. The last is what often drew him to his subjects, whose clothes are typically as evocative as their expressions and poses. Hendricks began painting portraits of everyday people — friends, acquaintances, and individuals he met on the street — in the 1960s and ’70s, earning acclaim for a style that was both nuanced and unbothered. Many of his subjects face the viewer head on, and Hendricks was an expert in rendering the fullness of their human complexity.
Hendricks spent a large part of his life in cities in the northeastern US, and many of his subjects were people of color residing in those areas. The artist repeatedly said that he did not see the decision to paint full-size, scrupulous portraits of Black people as political — even in the face of a show at Jack Shainman Gallery last year that included an image of a young Black man with his hands up, posed against the backdrop of a Confederate flag and in the crosshairs of a gun. “Well, I paint and make art because I like doing it; that’s always the motivating factor,” he told Hyperallergic on the occasion of that exhibition. “The subject matter I’m involved with, though, has always been seen as suspect, given the screwed-up culture we live in. I’m not sure how you are with other artists, but generally, how many white artists get asked about how their whiteness plays into their work? I didn’t [start to] paint or take photographs because I was Black.”
Regardless of his protestations, the art world welcomed Hendricks’s work as a political statement; Black curators and younger Black artists especially saw it as foundational. Thelma Golden included Hendricks in the landmark Black Male exhibition that she curated at the Whitney Museum in 1994, and the text for his first retrospective, organized by Trevor Schoonmaker at the Nasher Museum of Art in 2008, notes that “Hendricks’s artistic privileging of a culturally complex black body has paved the way for today’s younger generation of artists.”
“Over the past 17 years Barkley and I have worked closely together on numerous exhibitions, talks and projects, but it is his deep friendship that I will miss the most,” Schoonmaker said in a statement shared with Hyperallergic. “To be blunt, he changed the course of my life. With so many artists and writers now responding to his paintings and photography, Barkley stands out as an artist well ahead of his time. Though his work has defied easy categorization and his rugged individualism kept him outside of the spotlight for too many years, his unrelenting dedication to his pioneering vision has deeply inspired younger generations. … Today Barkley’s extensive body of work is as vital and vibrant as ever, and the full impact of his art and teaching is only beginning to unfold.”
In addition to making his own work, Hendricks served as a professor of studio art at Connecticut College from 1972 to 2010.
“We have had the great honor of working with Barkley since 2005,” said Hendricks’s dealer, Jack Shainman, in a statement. “He was a situational painter, documenting the world around him in vivid and highly detailed paintings that capture the distinctive personalities of his subjects. He was a true artist’s artist, always dedicated to his singular vision; he was a figurative painter when it was trendy and especially when it wasn’t.
“Barkley’s groundbreaking oeuvre represents everyday people, shining a light on subjects who weren’t typically depicted in life-sized oil paintings. His work paved the way for a new generation of figurative painters, and his absence in the art world will surely be felt. The gallery will continue to represent Barkley’s outstanding legacy through ongoing advocacy of his tremendous body of work.”
Hendricks, who is survived by his wife, Susan, of 34 years, reflected on his legacy in the Tate video shot last year: “I’ve been painting for 40 years. … I get all kinds of different thoughts about what my painting’s about, and many of them don’t relate to the areas of inspiration. There should be a degree of mystery — what can I tell you? You know enough. I want it to be what I call memorable. I don’t want it to go poof.”