It has been a month since the remarkable presence of Barkley Hendricks left us in saddened despair– two days after his 72nd birthday.
This phenomenal artist, otherwise known as a renegade revolutionary, established a distinguished mastery in his painting style, emerging as the king of painting solitary black figures. A Philadelphia native, he earned a painting certificate at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts (PAFA) and went on to study at Yale University.
Miss T towers over the viewer, her downcast eyes contemplative, dressed stylishly in black, mysteriously absent hands clasped behind her back. Gold accented accessories (chained belt at her waist and oversized aviator sunglasses) offer a glimpse into her individuality of this time period.
I was first introduced to Hendricks in the career services office. On a silver filing cabinet, a small magnet stuck out like a sore thumb. The rectangle featured a brown skinned man with a low cut afro and dark sunglasses shading his eyes. He wore a blue Superman logo t-shirt, hands crossed over his chest in a daring challenge posture. Now at this time, Henry Ossawa Tanner, Laura Wheeler Waring, and Njideka Akunyili Crosby were the only PAFA alumni that I knew of. That magnet piqued my curiosity, my quenching thirst to find out more about Hendricks and his distinctive painting style.
Often nearly life sized scale, Hendricks’ paintings are windows into the soul of black lives, an uncovered microscopic discovery that turned ordinary individuals into glorious works of art. The way he handles the paint is the manner in which a sculptor molds clay. In believably captured faces down to the infrastructure of kinky hair, Hendricks paints with profound tenacity, sharing a deep care for his subjects. From the skin tone, to the bone structure, to the pose, each figure has a unique personality revealed through Hendricks.
In addition to painting, Hendricks was also a wonderful photography, whose works told similar stories about the wonders of black experiences.
This beguiling portrait of James Brantley, another former PAFA student and a colleague of Hendricks, is painted with a stunningly fierce tenderness. Hendricks was around age twenty three at the time, showing an advanced realist stage. The carefully crafted attention to rendering how brown skin reflects in a well lit space and how shadow moves across the facial plane is a commendable breadth of patient skill.
The world lost a great artistic pioneer that can never be duplicated.
May Barkley Hendricks forever rest in peace and power. He leaves behind an incredibly inspiring legacy that should ultimately pave the way for new, burgeoning artists desiring a space in the tight, compacted art scene, a tough art space to insert their own interpretations of the black body.