“What are you wearing to the Barkley opening?”
That’s what many staffers at The Frick asked eachother before last week’s unveiling of “Barkley L. Hendricks: Portraits at The Frick.”
Curator Aimee Ng noted that no one talks about that usually, but Hendricks can have that effect on people. “People feel a modern connection to these styles. It’s partly because they have come back and partly because they are so celebrated in Barkley’s work. The fashion in his portraits are not secondary figures. They are as much about the individuals as the facial features are,” she said.
The life-size portraiture of Black subjects that drew from and challenged European art is on view at the museum’s temporary Madison Avenue space through Jan. 7. Inspired by the work of Rembrandt, Bronzino, Van Dyck and other prized artists, Hendricks, who died in 2017, forged into new territories as an American painter.
In the show’s catalogue, consulting curator Antwaun Sargent noted, “In the late ’60s, Hendricks set out to paint something the Black and white art worlds had not seen: ordinary people at scale.” Hendricks had studied at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts and later at Yale University, where he studied photography under Walker Evans. Years later, the artist would stop strangers who caught his eye on the street and ask for a photograph.
During an interview Monday, Ng spoke about how fashion was an undercurrent to his work. She said fashion was one of the most important things that caught his eye about subjects. In the late ’60s, Hendricks painted people in his life — cousins, friends and students among others — but throughout the ’70s, his subjects were often people who he encountered on the street. Wearing two or three cameras around his neck, he would stop strangers to ask to take their photos. Unlike the smartphone-happy photography of today, “that was quite a dramatic thing,” Ng said. “Sometimes he would carry a Polaroid camera too — to give a Polaroid to people whose photographs he’d taken (with one of his other cameras). It was almost a gesture of exchange.”
Referencing audio from Richard J. Powell that is featured in the exhibition, Hendricks’ had the ability to extend the “Black Is Beautiful” message of 1969 by simply celebrating the fashion and style of people at that time. Despite the fact that some of the work was made 50 years ago, many younger visitors to The Frick mistakenly think that Hendricks’ work is more contemporary, Ng said. In the catalogue, the contemporary artist Derrick Adams described seeing an image of a woman wearing mirrored glasses that resembled a portrait that he had done five years ago. Realizing it was by Hendricks in the ’70s, Adams said, “I’m not that new!”
Fellow artsits Hilton Als, Nick Cave, Awol Erizku, Rashid Johnson, Fahamu Pecou, Mickalene Thomas and Kehinde Wiley also wrote of Hendricks’ influence. And Ng received DMs after sightings of images of Hendrick’s paintings on the mood boards of a few fashion designers, whom she declined to name. “Influence and inspiration can be a very private thing for people,” she said.
“Fashion is so forward, obvious and strong in Barkley Hendricks’ work. People can connect to it in a lot of ways. So many of these styles [that are featured in his work] are back. They’re popular and what people want to be wearing,” Ng said.
The Frick Madison will explore that more by hosting “A Night of Fashion, Music and the Art of Barkley L. Hendricks,” a ticketed event, on Oct. 7.
“In his time, Barkley was so of the moment. But at the same time, no one was doing what he was doing and it wasn’t that popular,” Ng said. “It seems that the world has sort of caught up to him now. The art world is so interested in his union of Old Master European paintings with Black subjects and individual style. But a missing piece is how extraordinarily brave, wild and extreme it was for him to have been making these paintings then. They seem so natural now. They seem to have come out of this moment, but they precede this moment and may well have influenced this moment.”
Fashion was also a means to evolve his artistry. “The fashion is an extension of the person and at the same time an area for his creativity, innovation and experimentation,” Ng said.
However integral fashion was to Hendricks and to the sitter’s style and individuality, the artist adjusted something in every one of his paintings, Ng said. For example, in “Blood,” a portrait of a man wearing a red plaid suit set against a red background, Hendricks replaced the jeans that his subject had been wearing with plaid pants, and tweaked that plaid into more of a harlequin-type pattern. Even more contemporary looking is the 2016 “Photo Blade,” a photo-realist-like painting of a bespectacled man in a Millennial Pink suit, white shirt and white sneakers.
Hendricks once stopped a woman wearing a shirt imprinted with “Slave,” because he was interested in knowing why, Ng said. That exchange resulted in the 1973 oil and acrylic painting in “Bid ’Em In / Slave (Angie),” with the subject standing in a white tank top with the word partially covered by the figure’s crossed arms.
In addition to conversations, the Hendricks show stands to attract more people to The Frick.“ The exhibition has been a wonderful way to celebrate The Frick’s collection and its place in American culture as this temple of two centuries old European painting that has had a totally lively inspiring relationship with influential artists like Barkley,” Ng said. “This is a very important story for The Frick, which always engages with fashion. Fashion is in Renaissance portraiture and in [Diego] Velázquez’ portraiture.”
That exposure can be the gateway for visitors to think about and discuss Renaissance dress, including how pearls were worn as headgear in the sixteenth century, Ng said — “the big Vermeer pearls” are a modern trend, she added.