“Everyone who works in the art world has an artist that unlocked art and made them fall in love with it in an almost spiritual sense,” says writer and curator Antwaun Sargent. For Sargent, that artist is the late Barkley L. Hendricks, born in 1945, and known for his vivacious, life-size portraits primarily of Black figures. “I’m someone that fits in both the art and fashion worlds, and Barkley is a prolific representation of the seriousness of both.”
Two years ago, when Frick Collection curator Aimee Ng approached Sargent to identify an unexpected contemporary artist connected to the history of Old Master painting, Hendricks was the obvious answer. Not only did the Philadelphia-born artist’s paintings reference works by Rembrandt and Van Dyck, but the Frick also happened to be one of Hendricks’s favorite museums. Open September 21, 2023-January 7, 2024, Barkley L. Hendricks: Portraits at the Frick, is the splendid result of Ng’s collaboration with Sargent, who served as Consulting Curator for the show.
On view at Frick Madison (the institution’s temporary outpost in the famed Breuer Building that once housed the Whitney Museum of American Art), the exhibition represents a homecoming for Hendricks. “This is where Barkley got his first big break,” says Sargent, referencing Hendricks’s inclusion in curator Thelma Golden’s seminal 1994 Whitney show, “Black Male: Representations of Masculinity in Contemporary American Art.” The Frick exhibition’s indisputable shining star, Lawdy Mama (1969), has been loaned from The Studio Museum in Harlem, where Golden is director and chief curator.
It’s this entrancing work, which evokes gold-ground medieval paintings, that greets visitors and sets the scene for 13 additional canvases from the late 1960s through 1970s, Hendricks’s most prolific portrait-making period. Deliberate sightlines to Thomas Gainsborough, Joshua Reynolds, and James Abbott McNeill Whistler portraits in the Frick’s collection nod to Hendricks’s admiration for centuries-old works.