Barkley L. Hendricks: In the Paint
On ViewJack Shainman
May 14 – August 1, 2020
This spring, when New York City implemented shelter-in-place orders to help slow the spread of infections caused by COVID-19, I was fortunate to be working for a company that shifted very quickly to remote working. We provided information and resources to help our members navigate the early stages of the pandemic and manage some of their anxiety about an unknown future. Professionally, this was soothing to me also: I like helping people. But personally, everything I turn toward for solace in stressful times—concerts and musical performances, plays and dance shows, the gallery districts around town—was suddenly closed.
A number of arts spaces, however, started creating viewing rooms to convert planned in-person exhibitions into virtual experiences. While these gestures were welcomed, allowing the public to see art and exhibitions at a time when it was dangerous to provide those physical experiences, there is no denying that detail and nuance of those works is missed. Writing is a way of thinking and processing for me, and part of the joy and solace I glean from seeing art is puzzling through its meaning, discerning what a work is “doing” at different times or in different contexts. Being forced to look at Barkley Hendricks’s early work in viewing rooms added another layer of context for me to puzzle through: absence.
Originally planned as an installation of approximately 12 paintings, along with sketchbooks and early 1990s photographs of makeshift basketball hoops and television stills of Michael Jordan and Dennis Rodman from the history-making Chicago Bulls team, Barkley L. Hendricks: In the Paint became a virtual exhibition from its planned opening on May 14 through August 1. Though a small selection of works, In the Paint aptly demonstrates the foundation for Hendricks’s explorations of aesthetic sensibility and racial identity that would predominate his decades-long career.
Before studying for his MFA at Yale, Hendricks worked for the Philadelphia Department of Recreation as an arts and crafts teacher, a great job for the artist as he attended the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. An avid fan of the 76ers, Philadelphia’s hometown basketball team, Hendricks was able to play basketball in the warmer months and use the ball courts and other aspects of the game for his art studies in the winter.
As a young art student, Hendricks traveled to Europe and saw masterworks by Rembrandt and historic architectural sites including the Alhambra, but he was always troubled by the absence of Black representation in European art. Back at home, the United States was in the thick of the Civil Right movement where Black Americans were fighting for equal representation and access in education and politics, and also in arts and culture, and sports and leisure. In the 1960s, as art movements such as Minimalism, Pop, and Conceptual art took hold, Hendricks created work that centered Black people within those movements. His emerging style combined abstraction and representational figuration to create scenes and figures focused on everyday people doing everyday things in everyday settings, but always drawing from art historical traditions.
These early paintings feature the sparse geometries and monochromatic color palette of Minimalism, echoing the work of Josef Albers (which Hendricks admitted he knew little about at the time until he took a color theory course later at Yale). For One Up, One Down (1970), Hendricks placed six, evenly-spaced spheres on a canvas divided in half by a gold and silver leaf, using the familiar worn, orange, rubber game balls that would have been used for pick- up games at the neighborhood park to explore color and form. And with Two! (1966–67), the first painting completed for the series, Hendricks creates a study of light and shadow by rendering the ball as it soars out of the shooter’s hand and passes the backboard before swishing into the hoop.
Just a few years later, Hendricks would begin to focus on photos of acquaintances, family, and friends to paint detailed images that captured the essence of his subject to create what would become his signature style of “Black Cool.” The 12 paintings in the basketball series hint at this evolution through the accoutrements of sport. Much like his contemporaries such as Kerry James Marshall, Mickalene Thomas, and Kehinde Wiley, Barkley Hendricks asserted that aesthetics and Black identity could co-exist in the art historical canon. His mastery of mediums, most prominently portraiture, underscore such harmony. His respect for the past and embrace of a culturally-conscious present allowed him to make a seemingly antiquated tradition radically exciting and fresh.