Barkley L. Hendricks was known to wear his camera around his neck like an extension of himself. Most people associate the artist with his paintings that gracefully embody the Black experience in America. But in an upcoming exhibition titled Myself When I Am Real, opening at Jack Shainman Gallery on April 13, his photographs will take center stage.
His widow, Susan Hendricks, knew about the painter’s vast inventory of slides, negatives, and prints, but in formally editing and scanning the images since late 2018, she uncovered a vast cache of never-before-seen photos by the artist.
“People have seen a lot of his paintings; they’re fantastic,” she told Hyperallergic. “You could look at them many times over. But this is an opportunity to really have a fresh eye into what Barkley was looking at and why he was so intrigued with some of the images.”
Hendricks, who died on April 18, 2017, described his camera as a mechanical sketchbook. “He always said he was a photographer before he was a painter, ” Susan Hendricks recalled. His next-door neighbor in Philadelphia gave him his first camera, a little Kodak Brownie, when he was 10. For 62 years, he took photographs that inspired his portrait paintings, putting Black Americans living in urban areas at the forefront of his work in the 1960s and 1970s, when many of the subjects in mainstream artworks were White. His innovative works led him to win the 2016 Rappaport Prize, the President’s Award from the Amistad Center for Art and Culture in 2010, and the Joan Mitchell Foundation Award in 2008. He also taught studio art at Connecticut College for 38 years.
Hendricks’s art is creative and unorthodox, honoring himself and addressing social issues in the United States. One of his most recognizable paintings is “Victory at 23” (1981), a portrait of a Black woman wearing an all-white suit that has a watermelon pinned to it, standing in front of a white background and holding a black balloon as she blows a bubble in the air with her chewing gum. In “Misc. Tyrone (Tyrone Smith)” (1976), a man against a bright pink backdrop wears jean overalls over a white blouse and a black jacket with his legs making a V-shape as he holds a white tote bag. “Icon For My Man Superman (Superman Never Saved Any Black People-Bobby Seale)” (1969) depicts a Black man wearing a blue Superman shirt and sunglasses in front of a gray background with white, blue, and red outlines around him. Hendricks’s work embodies the charisma of his compelling and intriguing subjects.
Although the audience sees the subject’s personality in his paintings, Elisabeth Sann, a director at Jack Shainman Gallery who has worked closely with Hendricks, argues that his photographs show more of his character.
“I love his little jokes that he had, visual jokes, the puns, and I think that the paintings hinted at it in the details here and there,” she said. “But I think you really get a better sense of that in the photos.”
Hendricks took powerful photographs of historic moments on the television in his local Connecticut dive bar to convey the beginning of people’s access to 24-hour TV, capturing, in Susan Hendricks’s words, “the zeitgeist of that moment of American culture.” These include an image of Denzel Washington playing Malcolm X in the eponymous 1992 film and the moment when Brook Lee became the first woman from Hawaii to be crowned Miss USA after taking a stand against Donald Trump, who had criticized previous winners. “Untitled” (1992) is a close-up image of the screen while “Untitled” (1997) is a wider shot of his neighborhood bar that gives the audience a more detailed look into the atmosphere and decor, with a view of a deer’s head hanging on the wall. Susan argues that the images mark the start of the public over-consumption of television.
His photographs sparked conversations, whether about media and TV or high heels. In a 1993 Art Talk interview at the Griffis Art Center, Hendricks said he noticed that when he added high heels to his unique and avant-garde photographs, it created dialogue. “Tales of Hoffman Woman #2” (1984) is one such image, featuring a Black woman wearing a white dress with one bright orange heel still on and the other resting sideways in front of her feet. Next to her is a wooden piece of furniture resembling a pew chair. The image evokes Hendricks’s childhood, when he used to watch women kick off their heels at church when they sat down and then put them back on when they left. He understood the shoes to be an important fashion statement for women in the community, especially his mother, and decided to use them in his art to connect his work to his family. These references to intimate moments emphasize that “art and life are inseparable.”
“Clothing and fashion are a part of our daily lives,” Hendricks said in his 1993 interview. “I like to use that element [shoes] to convey a particular state of mind, and let’s face it, a number of human beings define themselves by their fashions.”
All of his photographs capture moments of everyday life thoughtfully and beautifully. “Untitled” (1967) is a print of three Black women sitting in a semi-circle talking amongst themselves, with one figure in the center holding a camera. Looking at the print, the viewer gleans the subjects’ essence, style, and personalities; as in “Sister Lucas” (1972), a round photograph of a Black woman smiling, the piece encapsulates Black joy. “Untitled” (2004), featuring a woman in a white hat painting horses in the middle of a forest with a dog sitting at her feet, projects a sense of calm and biophilia. Another highlight of the exhibition, “Untitled” (1992), is a black-and-white print of a car with a Martin Luther King, Jr. photo stuck to the inside of a side window, centering the significance of Dr. King in an everyday moment.
“If he could have taken the camera with him to the hospital where he went before he left us, he would’ve had it with him,” Susan told Hyperallergic. Hendricks loved capturing the world around him, and in turn, the audience saw a world that admired him. As he put it in 1993: “I like what I do, and I can do it for a long time.”