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Barkley L. Hendricks' Nasher show: Art history, honored and challenged

See me, feel me


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Barkley L. Hendricks: Birth of the Cool
Nasher Museum of Art
Through July 13

Barkley L. Hendricks, in conversation at the Nasher with Duke art professor Richard J. Powell, described an aspect of his experience as a young man visiting the great museums of Europe, indicating there were not many works of art that reflected images of his "peeps."

This resonant turn-of-phrase bears the valence of visual awareness that permeates Hendricks' world. In telling this story, Hendricks goes on to say that we in the audience are all, in fact, his "peeps," proof of which is borne out by science where any person can donate organs to help another. Hendricks gives the example of how one person's eyes can be used to help another see.

Hendricks' story continues with how he was given the opportunity to copy a Van Eyck painting at that time, but at the last minute realized he did not want to copy the work. Later on, the red cloak of Van Eyck's cardinal finds its visual resolution in "Sir Charles, Alias Willie Harris" (1969). This painting is the first work one encounters in Birth of the Cool, a mid-career retrospective currently on view at the Nasher.

Two of the earliest works in the show open up Hendricks' dialogue of seeing, visualizing and representing. First is "My Black Nun," a diminutive painting that postulates an idea, Hendricks' conception of a black sister who never existed. Yet by exercising imagination and painterly skill, Hendricks has created an indelible imprint, an implosion of fantasy and possibility in the image of a character who projects so much life force you feel like you've met her (and who pre-dates Whoopi Goldberg's Sister Act by decades). Next to "My Black Nun" is an early self-portrait. Hendricks stands at an easel with his eyes trained directly on the viewer, paintbrush poised to capture what he sees. As a viewer, it is somewhat unnerving to feel Hendricks' gaze in this work—one feels both intimate and exposed.

Most of the portraits in Birth of the Cool situate their subjects in direct gaze, making eye contact with the viewer. The eye contact serves to draw the viewer in but also stimulates self-consciousness in viewing, speaks to the idea of viewing itself, of seeing and being seen. Hendricks captures performative attitudes in his subjects, as if they were self-conscious about the version of themselves they chose to convey. This self-consciousness comes across as much a part of Hendricks' palette as his paint, working with tonal shades of attitude. "Tuff Tony" (1978) frames a young man, gracefully centered in the composition, hands elegant, hung loose at his sides, his face a complex of calm and defiance, with the slightest hint of sadness.

The reflexive experience of seeing and being seen is furthered in the sense of individual style of Hendricks' subjects, an essential aspect of each of the portraits that make up the majority of Birth of the Cool. The portraits work as cultural time capsules, with images of fashion choices that were the hippest in their era. The red and white goucho ensemble worn by the young woman in "Tequila" (1978) is at once dated but somehow still undeniably cool. In all of these paintings, Hendricks' imagery is refined. Component visual elements are distilled, transmuted into symbolic forms. Fashion is underscored as a language people use to communicate identity and project self-image. Contemporary fashion in Hendricks' portraits also bears the aesthetic earmarks of Pop Art that permeates much of Hendricks' production. Note the Winston cigarette brand logo on the matchbook in "Down Home Taste" (1971). By incorporating a corporate logo as part of this portrait, Hendricks executes a Warholian flourish.

Perhaps nowhere in Birth of the Cool is visual self-consciousness more evident than in the multiple views of Hendricks himself, in his self-portraits, where he produces a spectrum of permutations of his own image. "Slick (Self-Portrait)" (1977) displays a sophisticated Hendricks in a cool white suit, no shirt, pendant hanging from his neck. He sports glasses, his trademark toothpick hanging from the corner of his mouth, and a multicolored crocheted cap, echoes of Marvin Gaye. "Doc and Ruby's Oldest Boy (Self-Portrait)" (1977) presents a very different Hendricks, black T-shirt with an anatomically correct heart emblazoned on his chest, black pants and a straw hat. Toothpick and medallion are there, but here Hendricks explores the black-on-black version of his "limited palette" approach. His visage is relaxed, upbeat, with a smile. He again holds a paintbrush. "Brilliantly Endowed (Self-Portrait)" 1977 shows a whole other version of Hendricks. Nude, save for a white cap, shades and some thick sports socks and sneakers, this outrageous version of himself plays with cliché notions of black alpha-maleness, powerful, in-your-face, bad-ass, sexual.

The history of portraiture is one of privilege and power, and Hendricks' portraits carry the full weight of that history. Hendricks' choice to focus his portraits on people of color addresses issues of representation in dominant culture, a corrective to a history of limited and distorted representation in a range of media. Focusing his time, attention and artistic mastery on these subjects, Hendricks frames them in a manner that parallels portraits of aristocrats and royalty. In this way, Hendricks' portraits were and remain subversive, radical—beacons of critique and social justice.

Hendricks' limited palette approach causes his subjects to visually "pop." By rendering his figures against single-color fields, Hendricks draws the viewer in toward the characters of his ongoing narrative. However, as in the paintings of Alex Katz, Hendricks' portraits function on multiple levels, including as powerful abstractions, shape and color in carved-out space. His limited palette white paintings are truly fascinating in their use of minimal pigment. "Dr. Kool" (1973) is sensitized to subtle nuances of whites and off-whites, shades of Robert Riman. "Vendetta" (1977), on the other hand, cuts a powerful figure that could hold its own as a bold abstraction next to a Franz Kline.

Hendricks' world is punctuated by imagery that embodies the idea of visual phenomena. Painting after painting features characters who wear glasses. Hendricks gives special weight to glasses and sunglasses, providing detailed information seen in reflections in the lenses, doubling the complexity by incorporating reflections of windows, frames within frames, all of which speak to issues of perception, visual and otherwise. "Seeing" in much of Hendricks' work becomes a metaphor for awareness, for heightened consciousness. Hendricks' more recent paintings, landscapes done in Jamaica, point to another development in Hendricks' visual exploration, serving as bright windows onto natural vistas of a place where Hendricks has found his "power spot." His mastery as a painter allows him to communicate elements of this special place, seen and unseen.

There is a lot to be said about Birth of the Cool, much of it can be found in the thorough and well-wrought catalogue for this exhibition, edited by its curator Trevor Schoonmaker. However, in the end, what is no doubt more important than any words, for Hendricks, is that his work be seen. Hendricks' early self-portrait, where he looks directly at the viewer while he paints the viewer's portrait is echoed in one of the latest pieces in the exhibition, "Fela: Amen, Amen, Amen, Amen..." (2002), which pays tribute to Kuti's power and artistry. The work also brings the show full circle. Embedded in Kuti's microphone is a digital video camera that records viewers in real time as they experience this artwork. The live feed can be viewed on the Nasher's Web site ( This remarkable use of technology is a brilliant extension of Hendricks' ongoing preoccupation with the visual experience and the myriad complexities surrounding representation, seeing and being seen.


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