Renowned New London artist Barkley Hendricks dies at 72

Painter Barkley Hendricks at his New London home in 2011. (Peter Huoppi/The Day)
Painter Barkley Hendricks at his New London home in 2011. (Peter Huoppi/The Day)

Artist Barkley L. Hendricks, a longtime New London resident and professor emeritus of studio art at Connecticut College who taught at the school from 1972 to 2010, died Tuesday of natural causes. He was 72.

Renowned for his life-size oil and acrylic portraits of everyday people, often African Americans, Hendricks' paintings reflected a variety of societal attitudes — both in the viewer and the subject — and were often juxtaposed with tangential or background images that conveyed political or social irony. Typically, the subjects of Hendricks' portraits were friends, family members or people he met on the street who agreed to pose or be photographed.

Hendricks told The Day in 2010 that his paintings of African Americans were partially in response to an artistic vacuum. "Unfortunately," he said, "the culture has been one that has omitted imagery of black people: biased, prejudiced and ignorant — the stuff that goes with racism and bigotry."

At the same time, Hendricks often said he didn't set out to paint political or message images; that he made art because he liked to paint.

In addition to his portraiture, Hendricks painted lush and colorful landscapes of Jamaica, a yearly destination for him and his wife of 34 years, Susan, who survives him.

Hendricks, an enthusiastic musician, also was fascinated by fashion as a cultural statement. His photographs of famous jazz artists from the 1950s club scene in Philadelphia are highly regarded.

Hendricks' exhibitions included the widely traveled "Barkley Hendricks: Birth of the Cool," "Hearts Hands Eyes Mind" and "Barkley L. Hendricks," the latter of which debuted in 2016 at the Jack Shainman Gallery in Manhattan.

"Barkley's groundbreaking oeuvre represents everyday people, shining a light on subjects who were typically depicted in life-sized oil paintings," said Shainman, who will continue to represent Hendricks' art, in a release Tuesday. "His work paved the way for a new generation of figurative painters, and his absence in the art world will sure be felt."

Hendricks was born in Philadelphia in 1945, studied at The Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, and earned both his BFA and MFA from Yale University. His work is included in a variety of public collections in the United States and abroad such as The Whitney Museum of American Art in New York City; The National Gallery of Art and The National Portrait Gallery, both in Washington, D.C.; the Nasher Museum of Art in Durham, N.C.; The Tate Modern in London; the Fogg Art Museum at Harvard University; and the Museum of Fine Art in Houston, among others.

Hendricks' 1973 painting, "New Orleans Niggah," was part of last year's opening exhibition at the New Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of African American Art and Culture.

Funeral plans have not been announced.

Timothy McDowell, a professor of art at Conn College, remembers being "intimidated as hell" when he was interviewed for the faculty position by Hendricks.

"I saw a one-man show of Barkley's when I was an undergraduate, and I remember thinking, 'Man, this guy is so good.' Then I showed up at Conn and Barkley was sitting there. I was floored," he said.

"I'm lucky; we were friends and colleagues for 34 years. He was iconoclastic in all ways possible and ironically managed to upset the establishment canon of our society using the most traditional of all mediums: painting. The members of the art department are deeply saddened by this loss."

Ted Hendrickson, associate professor of art, Conn College, called Hendricks "a complicated and sensitive artist" who was a "demanding but patient teacher."

"At heart he was an improvisor, and in this jazz was his muse," Hendrickson said. "A little bit of pop culture, a little high style, some hard earned training mixed with an ironic take on a multicultural, multiracial America got you an undeniably unique art."

If Connecticut College meetings became too inundated with theory or jargon, he said, "I will always remember his saying: 'Come on. Let’s get real!'”

In addition to Hendricks' longtime association with Connecticut College, he was a proud and frequent participant in New London's annual mid-winter public Hygienic Art Show, in which any citizen can display one piece of art. In 2011, he told The Day that founders of the Hygienic had kidded him, suggesting his status might preclude his taking part in such a hometown exhibit.

"I told them, 'Sure, no problem!'" Barkley said. "And when the show rolled around, I brought a piece, and I've been exhibiting there ever since."

Hendricks thought the Hygienic show was integral to the community as a prism to society itself.

"There's a larger need in a culture such as this to develop situations that unite folks," he once said. "And the arts have a potential to do that."

In a news release, Trevor Schoonmaker, chief curator of the Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University and curator of Hendricks' landmark "Birth of the Cool" exhibition, said he had worked closely with the artist for the past 17 years.

"But it is his deep friendship that I will miss the most," he said. "With so many artists and writers now responding to his paintings and photography, Barkley now stands out as an artist well ahead of his time."

Hendrickson said his colleague was talented in many areas: painter, draughtsman, printmaker, photographer and musician.

"He approached creative expression by putting a personal twist on everything he touched, unafraid to both celebrate and confront," Hendrickson recalled. "His art, like him: one of a kind."

r.koster@theday.com

In this February 2008 Day file photo, Connecticut College professor and local artist Barkley Hendricks, is shown in his New London home. (Tim Martin/The Day)
In this February 2008 Day file photo, Connecticut College professor and local artist Barkley Hendricks, is shown in his New London home. (Tim Martin/The Day)

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