Barkley L. Hendricks, a giant of American portraiture, died last week. He was 72. When I heard that he was gone, the first thing I thought of was his 1969 painting, “Lawdy Mama.” “Lawdy Mama” depicts a life-size woman, a black woman. The bottom of the canvas meets the middle of her thighs, so that only the upper three-fourths of her body is in frame. She faces the viewer as if looking into a camera or mirror. She is wearing a charcoal gray turtleneck dress with thin, horizontal black and sienna stripes. The expression on her face is not so much inscrutable as it is layered — her lips are pursed, though not tightly, her gaze measured and appraising. She is lightly holding her right elbow with her left arm, which is slightly bent, her posture both guarded and vulnerable.
Her full afro haloes her head, and she stands in front of a background of gold leaf, the top of the canvas curving into a lunette. In this setting, her comportment takes on a ceremonial, sacred grandeur. She looks iconic, in the literal, religious sense — an icon of a saint, tucked into its niche in a cathedral. She also looks iconic in the colloquial, modern sense, which is to say that she also looks cool as hell. Because of his decision not only to portray a black woman, but to venerate her, critics assumed that Hendricks must have been making some kind of provocative statement with his work. Some assumed that “Lawdy Mama” was a painting of Kathleen Cleaver or Angela Davis. Hendricks pointed out, with some irritation, that it was actually a portrait of his cousin.
Born in 1945 in Philadelphia, Barkley Leonnard Hendricks studied landscape painting at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, where he also discovered a love for photography. He joined the New Jersey National Guard in 1964, and a few years later, enrolled in the BFA program at Yale. These decisions were characteristically practical and strategic — with the Vietnam War approaching, Hendricks wanted to avoid being drafted and shipped overseas. And being in a National Guard unit in New Jersey, Hendricks figured, would lessen the possibility that he would be called out to quell a riot. He finished both his BFA and MFA in two years, then joined the faculty at Connecticut College in New London, teaching art there until 2010.
Hendricks worked in many forms — among his earliest works are geometric abstracts of basketball hoops, he painted landscapes throughout his career, and he was a prolific photographer. But his most well-known work is his series of full-size portraits of black people. The reception of “Lawdy Mama” illustrates a central tension in Hendricks’s work. He didn’t see anything inherently controversial or contentious about a black person painting black people. But because of what Hendricks memorably called “the fucked-up-ness of American culture” — a culture that loves blackness but not black people — everything he painted was political. “It was political in their minds,” Hendricks said last year. “My paintings were about people that were part of my life. If they were political, it’s because they were a reflection of the culture we were drowning in.”
One way that privilege operates is that it decides who has the permission to not mean anything in particular, and Hendricks, a black artist operating in the lily-white art world, did not have that permission. His judgment that he needed no special reason, no angle, no purpose in order to paint the black people from his North Philadelphia neighborhood was itself an indictment of a culture that did not see black people as worthy subjects. Instead of being seen as an artist painting the world around him, for instance, he was seen as setting out to “correct the balance” of the lily-white canon. Hendricks saw this as a trap, and he tried everything to escape it: From 1984 to 2002, he didn’t finish any paintings at all. But he couldn’t stay away.
There's an irony in the way the critical dialogue around Hendricks revolves so much about what is unseen and unsaid, because Hendricks was so fascinated in what was said by what was visible. His portraits are about the surface, which is not to say that they are superficial. Instead, they take the way a person chooses to present themself as a conscious decision worth taking seriously. His portraits are fastidious about the construction of image: the details of fashion, the geometry of pose and gesture, the alchemy of facial expression. The people in his paintings aren't captured candid and unaware. They know that they are being seen, and so Hendricks asks the question in his paintings: What does this person intend me to see, and what do I see?
In “Tuff Tony” (1978), Hendricks sees the glint of gold in Tony's earring, his watch, and his belt buckle, but also in the way clear light turns amber, diffused and tinted as it passes through Tony's transparent visor. Painted the same year, “Tequila” concerns itself with the self-possession in its eponymous woman's loud fashion, in her confident pose, in her still, sidelong stare, in the casual way her cigarette dangles from her fingers. 1975's “Sweet Thang” drapes herself over the couch in an insouciant slouch, her head propped up on splayed fingers, her face occluded by the pink bubble she's blowing with her gum. She looks distantly annoyed, the way people look when they're trying to ignore someone who is staring at them.
Hendricks's people burst off of the canvas, making eye contact with you, demanding your attention. They are vivid and lifelike, the illusion that they are three-dimensional heightened by the flat, monochrome backgrounds Hendricks often placed them against. Hendricks used his backgrounds like a photographer's studio. He had the uncanny ability to make people stand out by blending in, as in “Photo Bloke,” (2016) which places a man in a crisply tailored bright pink suit and against a pink background.
The ability to capture the way that people are self-aware and self-stylized makes an artist an insightful and skillful portraitist. The decision to paint people in a way that celebrates and even valorizes them makes a person an empathetic artist. But to do this when your subjects are black, and you are black, well, that's something else entirely. That's advocacy. That's radical. Hendricks was alternately amused and infuriated by this. His blackness and the blackness of his subjects shunted the discussion of his work down a track well-worn by black artists before and after him — his art becoming only a vein from which politics can be extracted. Critics could shortcut the process of critically engaging with his craft and form, skipping over it to opine what the art meant. They saw black and presumed to know what he and his work were about.
It wasn’t that Hendricks religiously abstained from commenting on the society he lived in. “Icon for My Man Superman (Superman Never Saved Any Black People — Bobby Seale)” (1969) is a self-portrait in which Hendricks appears naked from the waist down, arms folded across a t-shirt emblazoned with the superhero’s logo, wearing sunglasses, and framed in red, white, and blue. The title’s parenthetical was borrowed from Black Panther founder Bobby Seale. Subtle it isn’t. “Crosshairs Study” (2015) is a tetraptych: a hooded black face in the center canvas, flanked by paintings of two upraised palms. Crosshairs and a red dot are superimposed over the face. “I No Can Breathe,” reads the fourth canvas. Hendricks’s explicitly political works are so over the top — sometimes playfully, sometimes ponderously — that they feel like attempts to distinguish the rest of his work from advocacy.
Hendricks's interest in surfaces extended to the technique of painting itself, to the literal surface of his images. The son of a construction worker turned contractor, Hendricks spent his summers, while in art school, helping out his dad, and Hendricks inherited his father’s eye for the way things are made. When asked questions about the broader themes of his work, Hendricks would often divert to the material of painting — thickness of the paint and its interplay with the texture of the canvas, the mixing of pigments, the choice of scale, the wood of the frame. He got excited when he talked about how he painted jeans (he wanted the denim in his paintings to seem worked and weathered), or how to choose white paint that won't yellow over time (part of the reason he started using acrylics).
His facility with technique did not make his paintings cold and antiseptic, and his fascination with image didn't lead him to flatten his characters into caricature. His portraits are as warm as they are grandiose, thick with love for the people in them. He didn’t need a reason to love them. He just did.