How a Great, Neglected Northern Painter and a Young, Rising Southern Museum Put Each Other on the Map | Arts Feature | Indy Week

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How a Great, Neglected Northern Painter and a Young, Rising Southern Museum Put Each Other on the Map

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"Bright colors, imagination, champagne, drawing, taking pictures, teaching, telling stories, process, everyday rituals, style, grace, Rome, Durham, discovery, Hawaiian shirts, a woman in high-heeled shoes, a lack of inhibition, directness, honbesty, individuality, self-confidence, humbleness, and, most of all, Susan."

This is but a partial list of the loves and traits ascribed to the artist Barkley L. Hendricks, who died in April at age seventy-two, by Durham's Teka Selman, who has worked throughout the art world—as a consultant, writer, dealer, and curator—over the last fifteen years.

On Sunday afternoon, a few dozen people, including Susan Hendricks, were gathered in a small auditorium at the Nasher Museum of Art to pay tribute to the artist whose vivid yet stoic life-size oil paintings of black people, often posed on strong monochrome backgrounds, were a commanding corrective to the whiteness of the art canon in the sixties and seventies, let alone the Renaissance portraiture Hendricks so admired.

Selman went on to describe a man of robust contradictions, who was kind, warm, and stubborn, who did not suffer fools but had a ready sense of humor, who was an individual to the point of contrariness—who was completely himself.

"He always had a toothpick at the ready, usually tucked behind his ear," Selman said. "He owned more sunglasses than anyone I've ever met. He didn't waste time trying to convince people how cool he was. He was just cool."

Next, Selman's husband, Trevor Schoonmaker, the chief curator of the Nasher, took the podium, dwarfed by an aptly outsize slide show. In a personal tribute full of long, emotional pauses, Schoonmaker remembered discovering Hendricks's portraits in grad school at the University of Michigan in the mid-nineties while reading the work of Richard J. Powell, a leading scholar of African-American art who is now also at Duke.

Schoonmaker soon went to work for a gallery in Chelsea that offered him the chance to curate a summer show. So he cold-called the famously prickly artist ("Here's his home number, don't tell him I gave it to you, and good luck," said a colleague at the Studio Museum in Harlem) and they wound up speaking for hours. Schoonmaker went to New London, Connecticut, where the Philly-born Yale graduate had settled down, and they immediately bonded.

But neither could have known the meeting would be a turning point—in each of their careers, for the Nasher, and, arguably, even for the Western canon.

This was in 2000, a time when interest in Hendricks had sharply waned after he had stopped making portraits, for decades, in favor of photographs and landscapes.

"In part, it was because they were so amazing that everybody wanted to see them, so he said, No thanks, I've got other things I can do," Schoonmaker remarked.

So Hendricks must have seen little risk in loaning two paintings to a six-artist gallery show by a young, untested curator. But it was a surprise success, and when Schoonmaker curated Black President: The Art and Legacy of Fela Anikulapo-Kuti at The New Museum in 2003, Hendricks painted a picture of the Nigerian music giant—his first portrait since 1983's "Ma Petite Kumquat," which depicted his wife.

“Down Home Taste” (1971), oil and acrylic on linen, 48 x 48 inches - © BARKLEY L. HENDRICKS, COURTESY OF THE ARTIST AND JACK SHAINMAN GALLERY, NEW YORK.
  • © Barkley L. Hendricks, courtesy of the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York.
  • “Down Home Taste” (1971), oil and acrylic on linen, 48 x 48 inches

But for Hendricks and the Nasher Museum of Art, the gleaming postmodern building and young staff that had replaced the small, ad hoc Duke University Museum of Art in 2005, everything clicked in 2008. Schoonmaker, as the Nasher's contemporary curator, mounted Barkley L. Hendricks: Birth of the Cool, Hendricks's first major solo retrospective. Though the ascendant curator was beginning to hear Hendricks's name whispered reverently among young artists in New York, the artist himself was game but skeptical.

"He said, 'Trevor, I love you, dude, and we're going to put on a great show, but I'll believe that shit about the others when I see it,'" Schoonmaker recalled with a fond smile. "Well, Barkley did get to see that admiration, and even revel in it, and now he has hundreds of artistic children, if not more."

At the time of Hendricks's death, he and Schoonmaker had been at work on a new exhibit for Prospect New Orleans's fourth international art exhibition, Prospect.4, in 2018, which Schoonmaker is curating. Now a tribute featuring the portraits, some of which you can also see in an exhibit at the Nasher through mid-June, will go up instead.

Just as Selman had opened her encomium in litanical form, Schoonmaker closed his by intoning a list of noted artists who claim Hendricks's influence: Kehinde Wiley, Jordan Casteel, William Cordova, Rashid Johnson, Stacy Lynn Waddell, on an on. The Nasher alone owns two works that are direct tributes to Hendricks and has included others in its exhibits, including Amy Sherald's "High Yella Masterpiece: We Ain't No Cotton Pickin' Negroes," a 2011 canvas where two men in white suits holding pink cotton candy pose against a goldenrod background.

"The full impact of his art and teaching is only beginning to unfold," Schoonmaker said.

After the tributes, as Durham bassist John Brown's quartet filled the Nasher atrium with jazz, Schoonmaker, who is forty-seven but looks thirty-five, found a moment to sit in a quiet corner and reflect on time and timing.

"No one else was painting that kind of imagery, personalizing everyday people of color and making them larger than life," he said. "When we met in 2000, it was perfect because I was an aspiring curator and he felt like he'd been completely overlooked."

From the Nasher, Birth of the Cool traveled to The Studio Museum in Harlem, The Santa Monica Museum of Art, PAFA in Philadelphia, and Contemporary Arts Museum Houston. Black President and the renewed attention from Birth of the Cool inspired Hendricks to finally return to portraiture with new vigor.

"Nineteen years is a long time, when you're a master of portraiture, not to paint them," Schoonmaker said. Hendricks also got picked up by the reputable Jack Shainman Gallery in New York, enjoying a final decade of unexpected success and acclaim. But Birth of the Cool not only revitalized Hendricks's career, it also put a new museum in a growing city on the map.

"Some of the younger artists I mentioned first learned about him through that show, while the ones more my age had only seen a work here or there," Schoonmaker said. "It was hugely beneficial to [the Nasher]. He had done all the hard work, but we were the fortunate ones to present it to the world."

Hendricks developed a close relationship not just with Schoonmaker and the Nasher, but also with the city. He had first visited in the late seventies, when the American Dance Festival moved from New London to Durham, and later he had a studio at Golden Belt.

"Barkley felt like he got his first big love here and he never forgot it," Schoonmaker said. "He had a lot of respect for Durham and knew a lot of people who weren't necessarily affiliated with Duke."

But this is more than a story of a mutually beneficial friendship between an artist and a curator. It's a story of the revision of a racially unbalanced Western canon, which caught up with Hendricks just in time. In 2008, when Kehinde Wiley's heraldic but naturalistic portraits of black people were gathering wide acclaim, a much different art world than Hendricks faced in his youth began to turn him into a retroactive icon.

“Slick (Self-Portrait)” (1977), oil, acrylic, and magna on linen canvas, 72 x 48 inches. - © BARKLEY L. HENDRICKS, COURTESY OF THE ARTIST AND JACK SHAINMAN GALLERY, NEW YORK.
  • © Barkley L. Hendricks, courtesy of the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York.
  • “Slick (Self-Portrait)” (1977), oil, acrylic, and magna on linen canvas, 72 x 48 inches.

"Some of the younger artists, who were then in their thirties, like Kehinde Wiley and Mickalene Thomas, who speak so eloquently about his impact on their work, were starting to get a lot of attention, critically and in the market," Schoonmaker said. "They made an easy reference point for him. The younger generation of African-American artists working with representation really opened the door for people to rediscover Barkley's work."

"I see a lot of up-and-coming artists who speak about him like this giant of the art world, which wasn't the case ten years ago," Schoonmaker went on. "There's so much more diversity now. So I think it's inevitable that history is being rewritten a little, and he's being written into the canon."

This article appeared in print with the headline "Life of the Cool."

Corrections: An earlier version of this article misquoted Teka Selman as saying "race" rather than "grace." Trevor Schoonmaker read the work of Richard J. Powell in grad school rather than studying with him. And the Nasher does not own Amy Sherald's "High Yella Masterpiece."

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