Frick Madison to open Barkley Hendricks exhibition in fall 2023
The late New London artist Barkley L. Hendricks will be the first artist of color to have a solo show in a museum renowned for a collection of European masters that includes works by the likes of Rembrandt, El Greco, Turner, Vermeer and Van Dyck.
An exhibition of portraits by Hendricks will open at New York’s Frick Madison, 945 Madison Ave., the temporary home of the Frick Collection, on Sept. 21, 2023, the museum announced in a news release last week.
“Barkley L. Hendricks: Portraits at the Frick” will contain about a dozen pieces typifying the artist’s lucid, vibrant, life-size images of Black Americans — friends, family members and random people he encountered in daily life.
Hendricks, an African American artist who was similarly respected for his landscapes, drawings and photographs, died in 2017 at the age of 72. He also taught at Connecticut College in New London for almost four decades.
The Frick exhibit “was an idea whose time had come,” says Susan Hendricks, the artist’s widow and executor of his estate. “Truthfully, this has been in the works for a little while. The idea was proposed a couple of years ago, and (Frick curator) Aimee Ng has been quietly working to ensure happened the way we wanted it to happen. I’ve always tried to perpetuate Barkley’s confidence in his talent.”
Through the efforts of Ng and consulting curator Antwaun Sargent, the Hendricks show is an example of how the museum is evolving its mission to reflect contemporary and evolving artistic culture in the city.
In addition to the exhibition, the Frick plans an array of educational programs to complement the show, as well as an illustrated catalogue that includes images from Hendricks’s work and contributions by artists such as Nick Cave, Awol Erizku, Jeremy O. Harris and Fahamu Pecou.
In the news release, Ng explained that many visitors to the Frick have never been there before, which inspired personnel to make a fresh examination of the demographics and determine how they might best be served by the museum.
The Hendricks show “allows us to consider connections the Frick has made with artists since it became a public museum in 1935,” Ng said. “Hendricks’s astonishing portraits of predominantly Black figures, not represented in the Frick’s historic paintings yet who, with their self-assured style, appear right at home among them, grants unprecedented opportunities to celebrate and explore the Frick’s collection, Hendricks’s groundbreaking innovations, and the bridges between them.”
The exhibition will be yet another indication that Hendricks is an artist whose fame and reputation is gradually catching on in a manner that perhaps should have happened decades ago. In February of last year, for example, one of Hendricks’s paintings sold at a Sotheby’s auction for $4 million.
Also, Susan Hendricks says New York’s Jack Shainman Gallery, 524 W. 24th St. in New York City, which represents her husband’s work, has partnered with Italian publisher Skira and released a four-book set of Barkley Hendricks’s work organized by medium. A bigger and more comprehensive monograph of his works is being planned.
Past exhibitions of Hendricks’s portraits include two separate shows at New York’s Whitney Museum of American Art, the “Birth of Cool” display at the Nasher Museum at Duke University and “Heart Hands Eyes Mind” in the Jack Shainman Gallery.
“Barkley had some nice success — which never went to his head — and then it faded — and that didn’t bother him, either,” Susan Hendricks said. “Fortunately, he was teaching at Conn, and he really loved that. And he loved being in his studio. He never needed to paint; he WANTED to paint and draw and take photographs. It was never about fame but instead the ability to pursue his muse and respect that paper or canvas or the lens of a camera.”
Barkley’s photography included many remarkable images of jazz musicians he captured performing in his native Philadelphia. Images range from Miles Davis and Dexter Gordon to Dizzy Gillespie and Sonny Rollins.
In an interview with this reporter two weeks before he died, printed posthumously in CC, the Connecticut College alumni magazine, Hendricks said, “A lot of my inspirations and good feelings come from music in my life. I can put (Charles) Mingus or (Thelonious) Monk on the stereo and instantly get in a mood and it makes me happy to be in my studio.”
Hendricks added that he became familiar and even friends with some of the jazz luminaries and “to see artists so gifted in one discipline is inspiring in what I do.”
If Hendricks’s work was very much about purity of expression, it’s true that his paintings were often — and mistakenly — perceived as political or social commentary.
“The essence of his work was that Barkley painted and photographed what he saw,” Susan Hendricks said. “That could be a series, a head, a self-portrait, somebody in London in a dandified outfit — or it could be a landscape. It’s true the subject matter of what he saw was increasingly depressing, political or racist — but that doesn’t mean the work reflected his feelings. It was just what he saw.
“As the country got more divided and political — and Barkley lived four months after (the inauguration of Trump) — the things a lot of people were seeing for the first time were not new to him. He grew up in Philly and Virginia, and he and his family had been seeing these things forever.”
In the conversation shortly before he passed, Hendricks said, “To certain people, almost any of my paintings can be viewed as political because, in this society, they ARE political regardless of what I was trying to convey. The nature of our culture is such that Black people weren’t even viewed as artists, and thus were not perceived to make art to begin with. When they were finally recognized as making art, in the 1960s, it was already a time of political unrest. Thus, ‘Black art’ was automatically politicized.”