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Barkley L. Hendricks at the Santa Monica Museum of Art

May 25, 2009 |  4:00 pm

Lawdy Mama When Barkley L. Hendricks began to paint portraits in Philadelphia around 1969, one would have been hard-pressed to find many black faces over the prior five centuries of Western art. “Lawdy Mama,” the first work encountered in Hendricks' survey exhibition at the Santa Monica Museum of Art acknowledges as much.

A three-quarter length young woman wearing a high-collared, short-sleeved, horizontally striped black dress is shown frontally, her left arm crossing her waist so that a hand can clasp her right arm at the elbow. The pose is casual, but it is also slightly defensive — a protective gesture.

Tenuous unease, perhaps from being scrutinized as an artist's subject, flickers across her face. Finally it's overcome by the straightforward stare — lips pursed, eyes set — all beneath the soft brown cloud of an enormous Afro hairdo.

The curve of the Afro is echoed in the arched top of the canvas — a lunette, common for religious paintings before the modern era. This reference is further enhanced by the gold-leaf background with which Hendricks sanctifies his otherwise realistically painted “lawdy” mama.

That gesture is a bit clumsy for being so old-fashioned, but it does serve a savvy purpose. Historically, gold-ground paintings are Byzantine — which means the reference dates to before the Renaissance, prior to the modern history of Western painting. Hendricks' ambitious picture is taking a wide and pointed historical detour, starting before America's colonization.

North Philly Niggah Hendricks wasn't yet 25 when he painted it. He had recently returned from trips to Europe and North Africa, between graduation from the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts and the beginning of art study at Yale University. “Lawdy Mama” is a youthful and somewhat scattered effort, but the artist accomplished two important things with it.

First, the 1969 portrait demonstrates an acute social awareness of black experience during a period of challenge and upheaval. Second, it shows an emerging understanding of the relationships between that awareness and the long history of painting. Hendricks' portraiture over the next 15 years explores that complex intersection, often in remarkable ways.

An artist long below the radar, Hendricks was the primary revelation in “Black Male,” the controversial 1995 traveling show from the Whitney Museum of American Art about representations of black masculinity. I noted at the time that Hendricks, an artist who was new to me, “doesn't come across as an overlooked major artist, but he's a distinctly under-recognized one.” Since then some younger artists, notably Kehinde Wiley, have built their own work on the scaffold Hendricks first erected.

“Barkley L. Hendricks: Birth of the Cool, Paintings 1964-2007” assembles more than 50 works on canvas. Organized by the Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University, it should not be confused with “Birth of the Cool: California Art, Design, and Culture at Midcentury,” which was at the Orange County Museum of Art last year. (Both take their cool titles from the famous Miles Davis jazz album.) It's good to finally have a chance to see his work in some depth.

Yet, the show is disappointing — not because of Hendricks' three-dozen portraits, which are frequently absorbing, but because of a confusing curatorial organization. “Birth of the Cool” would have benefited from a keen focus on Hendricks' portraits from the 1970s, which seem sure to rank as his primary achievement. Instead, it includes some minor early experiments in abstraction and a selection of modest landscapes begun in 2000. But it's not exactly a retrospective, either, since the show excludes works on paper (including photographs). 

Portraiture dominated Hendricks' output between 1969 and 1983. The show includes nothing for the next 16 years. Why did he turn away from painting, in general, and portraiture, in particular? I don't know. The artist has disparagingly referred to the 1980s as “the Ronaissance” — the age of Ronald Reagan, “two steps forward and four steps backward.” But the show doesn't explain, and the catalog offers little help.

That Hendricks' portraits have been generally overlooked is partly a function of race, as the catalog rather single-mindedly attests. But other, equally exclusionary hurdles made the 1970s an especially daunting time.

Painting generally had to be abstract to be taken seriously. Even then it was in the critical cross-hairs, pushed aside by Conceptual art, sculpture and the emergence of video. Portraiture didn't stand a chance (witness Don Bachardy and Alice Neel). Even commissioned portraits by Andy Warhol, a hugely successful Pop artist and filmmaker, were suspect, while Chuck Close's giant heads were exploring formal issues. Good luck to an African American portrait painter teaching at Connecticut College, a small private school in New London.

The portraits at the heart of the exhibition show a figure (and sometimes two or more) isolated against a flat background of solid color. The figure is usually slightly cropped, cut off at the feet and just at the top of the head. Illumination tends to be very strong, as if the man or woman had been painted in the studio from photographs shot outdoors in bright sunlight. Corporeality thus emphasized, the difference between the illusion of a three-dimensional figure and the fact of a two-dimensional plane of painted color is heightened.

One consequence is that the depicted person appears to stand in front of the field of pure color — a none too subtle swipe at 1970s claims about the relative importance of abstract versus figurative painting. Hendricks plays with this distinction in a variety of ways — most eloquently in a group of paintings in which black men and women, dressed from head to toe in white, are shown against an all-white background.

The blank white background derives from popular standards of fashion photography, like Avedon and Irving Penn. Ironically, it makes the stylish white clothing an object to be closely scrutinized.

You move in close, and the tightly cropped figure meets your gaze by having been subtly but emphatically pushed into the foreground. A visual confrontation occurs. If you're going to look at me, the highly individuated portrait silently seems to say, you must really see me.

For an African American, navigating the dangerous shoals of a racist society meant invisibility could be the difference between life and death. So Hendricks' strikingly contrary profiles amount to a politically and emotionally trenchant pose.

Dr. Kool Take “Dr. Kool” (1973), which shows a black man carrying a black briefcase. He's dressed in a white hat, white turtleneck sweater, white greatcoat, white slacks and white shoes, and he stands before a white background. What's inside the dark briefcase, which stands out? What's hidden in his loosely cupped left hand? What's inside the man?

In Hendricks' best portraits, surface is substance. Among the disenfranchised, life must be invented from scratch. That detailed self-presentation, often sexualized, is what Hendricks zeros in on.

I think of these paintings as contemporary swagger portraits. The term dates to the European Baroque era, from Rubens and Van Dyck on through Gainsborough and Reynolds to the American expatriate John Singer Sargent at the turn of the 20th century. Elaborate dress and fancy demeanor were a means of social confirmation and advancement, which amplification in a painting could valorize.

Interestingly, Hendricks' work in this vein hit its stride shortly after New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art acquired — with great fanfare and for a then-record price — Diego Velázquez's astounding 1650 swagger portrait of Juan de Pareja, a Sevillian of Moorish descent. Perhaps it was just coincidence, but the fact that the greatest Baroque portrait in America now depicted a black man was an irony unlikely to have been lost on an artist of Hendricks' distinctive gifts.

-- Christopher Knight

"Barkley L. Hendricks: Birth of the Cool, Paintings 1964-2007," Santa Monica Museum of Art, Bergamot Station, 2525 Michigan Ave., Santa Monica. 11 a.m.-6 p.m. Tuesdays-Saturdays. Ends Aug. 22 $5. (310) 586-6488.

Top: "Lawdy Mama," 1969.  Middle: "North Philly Niggah (William Corbett)," 1975. Bottom: "Dr. Kool," 1973. Credit: Santa Monica Museum of Art

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