HENDRICKS WAS BORN IN PHILADELPHIA, PENNSYLVANIA AND LIVED AND WORKED IN NEW LONDON, CONNECTICUT.
During the 50s and 60s he found personal balance with his love of music, basketball, and art, that the artist kept channelling in his paintings up until his death in 2017.
Barkley was a visual artist in every sense of the word and his constant goal was just to reproduce what he saw around him. So whether that was a nun or a guy on the street wearing cool clothing, that’s what he painted. He deftly captured and conveyed the spirit and personality of his subjects through their personal style, posture, clothing or attitude. His lifesize portraits easily became icons on par with the greats who inspired him, like Caravaggio and Jan van Eyck.
Hendricks embraced the complexities of black culture and life, with an eye for detail and a taste for the flamboyant.
In history, black people were always relegated to the margins, so he thought, “Why can’t black people be the main subject of a painting?”.
Barkley was doing what nobody had really done before and that was giving black people a prominent space by themselves on canvas. If a portrait is taken of someone, the audience’s reaction is “This must be someone worth taking a portrait of…”
In 1971, Hendricks exhibited his first work in a major museum show: Contemporary Black Artists in America at the Whitney Museum, New York. In his life-sized self-portrait, “Brown Sugar Vine” (1970), Hendricks appears nude, wearing sunglasses and a stocking cap, artfully confronting and subverting American stereotypes about black male sexuality.
Instead of looking to the galleries, the museums, the auction houses, and art fairs, Hendricks drew from the world in which he lived in order to maintain the integrity of his vision and his process.
As a portrait painter, he did not draw preparatory sketches for his work: he used a camera to record the people he chose to paint.
In his death, a wealth of previously unseen works have been revealed. At the Jack Shainman Gallery, New York, is on view Barkley L. Hendricks, Them Changes, the first ever exhibition of the works on paper made contemporaneously with his famous portrait paintings.
These newly discovered works on paper fall into distinct categories – each of which is cohesive and dynamic enough to stand alone as a body of work.
Some incorporate x-rays, an apt metaphor for the inner mechanics of Hendricks’s mind and process – an insight into his tendencies and unique concerns.
If the connections between the multimedia works on paper and the portraits for which we best recognize Hendricks are not apparently obvious, it is because their similarity lies in character and areas of concern, rather than strictly in aesthetics. The sureness of Hendricks’s line, the specificity of his effort, this minute attention he paid his subjects – human, vegetable, or mineral – these are the defining themes that make his work unmistakable.
Trevor Schoonmaker wrote in his essay for The Birth of the Cool: “While best known for his bold life-sized portraits, Hendricks is also an accomplished photographer, landscape painter, watercolorist, draftsman, assemblage artist, carpenter, and jazz musician”. Schoonmaker had identified the essential aspect of Hendricks’s relentlessly questing mind: “a desire to continually learn, experiment, and take risks”.