Lyman Allyn Art Museum

Connecticut College

New London, CT



The following essay was was included in the exhibition catalogue for a one-person exhibition, The Barkley L. Hendricks Experience on view at the Lyman AIIyn Art Museum through June 17, 2001. The 48-page color catalog, also titled The Barkley L. Hendricks Experience, features essays by well-known Art History scholars Richard J. Powell, the John Spencer Bassett Professor of Art History at Duke University, and Floyd R. Thomas, Jr., Ph.D., Curator of Art at the National Afro-American Museum and Cultural Center.


To Be Real

by Richard J. Powell


When one reflects on how realism is expressed in American painting and sculpture from the late nineteen sixties through the early nineteen eighties, two streams of artistic verisimilitude come immediately to mind. One stream of American realism is an art preoccupied with the human figure, either clothed or nude, that engages the subject in a decidedly cool, distant, and non-emotional manner. I'm thinking about artists such as sculptor Duane Hanson or painter Philip Pearlstein, whose mundane shoppers or introspective nude models, respectively, provide a figural counterpart to that era's enthusiasm for artistic minimalism.

The other stream of American realism during that period examines a range of subjects ­ humanity, the natural world, and industrial civilization ­ through the visual arts, but always in agonizing details and usually bereft of any semblance of a social or political context. Painters Chuck Close and Richard Estes are the creators of countless works in this mode of American realism that claims perceptual objectivity in their interrogations of human anatomy and a manufactured world.

If one were to push this survey to contemporary times and postmodernist stratagems, then American realism of the last two decades of the twentieth century would appear to be an agenda-less, unapologetic act, documenting life (usually through photography, film, and/or video) with all of its warts, indolence, and voyeuristic aspects. The list of artists who fit this description is long and, as one might suspect, open to all sorts of debates on the intrinsic artistry or social value of such work.

Despite the fact that Barkley L. Hendricks is also an important American realist and spans the entire chronological frame discussed above, he does not easily fit into any of the above categories. The reasons are varied. For starters, Hendricks has made a career out of painting peoples of African descent and, for the obvious reason of a long and tortured history of racism in America, black bodies ­ and art that represents black bodies ­ have not always been valued on the same level as their Caucasian counterparts. The rather simple yet fundamental shift in much of his orientation to portraiture ­ away from a light figure against a dark field, and towards a dark figure against a light field ­ confounds the standard European/American portrait prototype and problematizes his work on both the conscious and subconscious levels for most art historians and critics.

But it is more than the race of Hendricks's subjects that have kept them outside of and/or apart from standard discussions of American realism in modern and contemporary art. Hendricks's subjects are cool, too, but in an entirely different way than, say, Pearlstein's emotionally disengaged subjects. Hendricks's women and men are self-possessed, self-conscious, and self-fashioned, and therefore exude a cool demeanor that is both sensorially distinct from the world-at-large and, yet, ever so conscious of and sensitive to being the object of countless spectators. Because they seem to always convey the sense of being seen, Hendricks's subjects subtly and cooly acknowledge their objecthood and, in doing so, take charge of the occasion to such an extent that our emotional distance from them is lessened.

Hendricks employs critical, scrutinizing details in his realism as well, but rather than dwelling on physical specificities or imperfections, he examines postures, gestures, and sartorial self-expression. Although Hendricks occasionally zooms in on heads and shoulders in his portraits, he tends to favor the entire body, paying particular attention to the torso. When that torso is nude, or clothed in chromatically brilliant, stylishly dramatic, or dandified apparel, the results are immediate recognition, visual shock, and psychological/cultural overload on the part of the viewer.

Like Chuck Close, Hendricks carefully orchestrates the surroundings and backgrounds for his figures. However, unlike Close, Hendricks willfully manipulates figure/ground relationships (usually through the juxtaposition within a given painting of matte versus glazed areas) in an effort to influence the reading of his primary art subject. Although not an explicit or heavy-handed device, this juxtaposition of painted surfaces surreptitiously creates a visual contestation which, in turn, subliminally fuels social and/or political readings onto these paintings. If one adds to this mix the elements of racial blackness, pictorial discourses on gender and sexuality, and the meta-narratives of fashion and self-realization through style, then Hendricks's interest in a subjective realism stands miles apart from the chilly observations of other realist painters of the sixties and seventies.

Curiously Hendricks's historic "take" on his subjects has always had a psychological edge and a cultural bite and, consequently, his work prefigures the contemporary fascination with the documentary in art. Yet there has never been any question that what Hendricks creates is art. One of the few African American figurative artists of the late sixties through today to consistently show his work in major exhibition venues (and to have that work acquired by major art institutions), Hendricks continues to this day to intrigue numerous art audiences: the au-courant possé as well as the artistic mainstream. The broad appeal of his brand of realism for a postmodernist mindset no doubt has to do with its celebration of the black vernacular, as seen in street fashions, urban athleticism, ghetto flaneurs and other forms of an expressive, popular black culture. Hendricks's artistic privileging of a culturally complex black body ­ something that is so key to many younger African American artists today ­ sets him apart from most of the African American artists of his generation, and positions him as a pivotal artistic role model alongside the pioneering black conceptualists David Hammons and Adrian Piper. The difference, of course, is that Hendricks undertakes his proto-postmodernist incursions into black subjectivity via a painterly realism, albeit a realism that defies easy categorization.

In the heat, throbbing rhythms, and din of a late nineteen seventies discotheque on Manhattan's West Side, the seductive picture of a stylish, self-possessed, nuanced black humanity is perhaps best encapsulated in the pulsating cries and riffs of the soul singer Cheryl Lynn when she rhetorically asked

Whatcha Thank
Whatcha Feel
Whatcha Know
To Be Real?

One clear answer is the art ­ and the painted subjects ­ of Barkley L. Hendricks: audacious, deep, and enduring. These are the attributes that have individuated Hendricks's artistic point-of-view from its beginnings in the late nineteen sixties to today, and that make his realism something to acknowledge, differentiate and behold.


About the author

Richard J. Powell is the John Spencer Bassett Professor of Art and Art History at Duke University. He is the author of numerous books, exhibition catalogs, and journal articles on African American art, including Homecoming: The Art and Life of William H. Johnson (1991), Black Art and Culture in the 20th Century (1997), and To Conserve A Legacy: American Art From Historically Black Colleges and Universities (1999).

Please see our illustrated article The Barkley L. Hendricks Experience (3/17/01)

Read more about the Lyman Allyn Art Museum in Resource Library Magazine

This page was originally published in Resource Library Magazine. Please see Resource Library's Overview section for more information. rev. 5/28/11

Search Resource Library for thousands of articles and essays on American art.

Copyright 2011 Traditional Fine Arts Organization, Inc., an Arizona nonprofit corporation. All rights reserved.