Barkley L. Hendricks, "Birth of the Cool"

A visionary artist receives the recognition he deserves.

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Fela: Amen, Amen, Amen

Fela: Amen, Amen, Amen Photograph: Courtesy Studio Museum In Harlem

Time Out Ratings :

<strong>Rating: </strong>5/5

I’m not sure if Barack Obama’s election had anything to do with it, but upon entering “Birth of the Cool,” the Studio Museum’s survey of eminent African-American painter Barkley L. Hendricks, I found myself marveling incredulously at the art world’s myopic view of its own recent history, and thinking, not for the first time, that here was a long-overdue show. It’s almost embarrassing that this survey of Hendricks’s work is the first big retrospective for a figurative painter who has clearly influenced—and who in many cases outshines—so many of his peers. Political questions aside, Hendricks needs to be recognized as a pioneer, and “Birth of the Cool” is an important initial step in that direction.

Let’s begin at the beginning, with his first self-portrait, made after a trip to Europe when he was college-age. Hendricks, who was born in 1945 and grew up in Philadelphia, had observed that the halls of the museums he’d visited were lined almost exclusively with the faces of white men (and occasionally women). He returned determined to paint a world he did not see reflected there, which is to say his own community, and to bestow on that community the same art-historical importance. In effect, he was imagining something that did not yet exist, resolving to create it from scratch—which is, after all, the impulse that underlies the making of all art. But in Hendricks’s case, the challenge must have been especially daunting, because that one thing he could not see was a part of his own self.

So in 1966, with a modestly sized student self-portrait, Hendricks initiated his decades-long career, in which he interweaves themes of personal and cultural identity with the recapitulation of postmodernism. It helps that he has a striking ability with paint.

The bulk of the work in “Birth of the Cool” was made smack in the middle of the Black Power movement of the 1960s and ’70s. While the paintings remain resonant today, they were nothing short of revolutionary at the time. At local movie theaters, blaxploitation films were all the rage, and while they did break boundaries, they were also a polarizing phenomenom. Hendricks’s canvases frequently reference this incendiary category, marrying images of fashionably dressed young black men and women to portrait genres culled from art history. Many of the paintings feature a single person saturated in colors pulled from Byzantine art. The picked-out Afro sported by the central figure in Lawdy Mama (1969) gracefully parallels the curve of the arch at the top of the composition, whose background Hendricks has gilded in the manner of religious panels. The much more recent and radical Fela: Amen, Amen, Amen (2002) operates in a similarly allusive vein, with nods to Mexican folk art and psychedelia. Shown holding his crotch and bearing a golden halo, the legendary Afrobeat pioneer is enveloped in an almost marbleized, shimmering gold background; 27 pairs of high heels sit on the floor in front of him, one for each of the backup singers and dancers he married in a symbolic communal ceremony.

Hendricks’s sense of humor leavens otherwise serious subjects and pervades many of his self-portraits. Icon for My Man Superman (Superman never saved any black people—Bobby Seale) (1969) speaks for itself: The artist sports a Superman jersey, while proudly nude from the waist down. The tiny subject in My Black Nun (1964) poses coyly under a floor-length habit; one protruding hip bears the weight of 20 dangling crosses—a belt that looks a bit more like a belly chain than rosary beads. The accompanying wall label bears testimony yet again to Hendricks’s visionary spirit and follow-through: Walking past a Catholic school every day, he noticed that there were no black nuns there, so he decided to create one after his own fashion.

On its own, Hendricks’s color sensibility is breathtaking and underscores his love of classical painting; his limited-color series—perhaps ironically most appealing in a number of white-on-white works—is only one tactic among many for cleaving content to painting with the most visceral punch. In his quasi-abstract Dippy’s Delight (1969), Hendricks carves up a circular canvas with a choppy, primary-colored Mondrian-style grid, and crowns the top with a basketball rim. In every work, he recombines and pays homage to an impressive array of influences in ways that continue to be striking and relevant today.

In an era when the image Hendricks was looking for—an African-American figure with deep historical gravitas—has finally come to the forefront of national and international news (and has been reinforced in the public’s mind with appearances on every television and computer screen), it’s worth appreciating not only Hendricks’s skill as a painter, but also his fruitful investigation into his own artistic and personal identity.

This exhibit originally began at the Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University, and was organized by Trevor Schoonmaker, the museums curator of contemporary art.

Studio Museum in Harlem, through Mar 15

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