Opinion: Barkley Hendricks is New London’s cultural treasure
The subject of Barkley L. Hendricks’ 1976 six-foot-tall oil painting, “Steve,” is a young Black man dressed all in white, a big billowing overcoat tied at the waist, against a white background.
He is wearing dark aviator glasses, and the reflection in them is a small window, literally, onto New London, the gritty little Connecticut city that helped put so much life into Hendricks’ now-famous work.
In fact, the reflection in the glasses is of the windows of Hendricks’ 1970s-era third-floor studio on New London’s lower State Street, with their distinctive arches, which were behind him as he painted. You can still pick out the arched windows from the painting when you stand on State Street today.
“Steve” is owned by New York’s Frick Collection, one of Hendricks’ favorite museums, which is planning an elaborate show of his work Sept. 21 through Jan. 7, interspersing the New London artist’s stunning portraits of Black Americans with those of the great masters.
It will be the first solo show for a person of color at the revered New York institution, home of Rembrandts and van Dycks. New London’s arched windows will recall some of the kinds of architectural detail from the Renaissance works that were such an influence on the late artist.
It will put Black subjects of paintings in the context of history’s great works of art, which, as a young man touring Europe, Hendricks noted wryly, were all of white people.
The Frick show is one of three planned for the immediate future to showcase Hendricks’ works. His photographs will be a focus of a show opening April 13 at the Jack Shainman Gallery in New York. “Barkley L. Hendricks in New London” will be presented by the Lyman Allyn Art Museum here May 27 to Sept. 3, featuring 35 works in a range of media, including ten newly archived photographs taken in New London.
This is a moment, it seems to me, for New London to celebrate the growing celebrity of an artist who made New London his home and inspiration for so long. It’s remarkable to think that paintings by the regular contributor to the casual, non-juried shows at Hygienic Art on New London’s Bank Street, of which Hendricks was a founding force, are now prized by international collectors, selling at auction for millions of dollars.
Many of those valuable works were sold by the artist years ago and are now held in private collections and by museums.
New London named Main Street after its famous playwright, Eugene O’Neill Drive. Maybe there will need to be a Barkley Hendricks Boulevard. Fame, it seems, is just now catching up with his remarkable talent.
“I think we still are at the tip of the iceberg,” Elisabeth Sann, director of the Shainman gallery, said about the growing acclaim for work by Hendricks, who died in 2017.
I recently caught up with his widow, Susan Hendricks, who met him in 1979, while she was bartending in a jazz club on Golden Street. They were married in 1983 and she still lives in the New London home where he maintained a studio for decades.
The Hendricks, before officially retiring, were New London professionals. She held management posts at the local office of a publishing company and at the Lyman Allyn. He taught at Connecticut College, although the college has done little over the years to celebrate his association with the school.
I remember him as the most prominent emissary from the college on the hill in the city proper, often roaming downtown streets with cameras around his neck, reserved but quick with a welcoming smile.
Susan recalled, when we spoke recently, the joy he took in painting, quick to slip into his studio at home to work.
Hendricks grew up in Philadelphia and worked for a while in New Haven, where he earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees at Yale University.
He could have spent more time and worked in New York City later in his career, but he felt comfortable here, his widow said.
Recognition of his work, positive reviews, museum shows, sales, came in waves over the years, she said, sometimes in what seemed to be a reflection of changing tastes in the art world.
The latest wave appears to be the biggest, and I was glad to share some of the enthusiasm she seems to be enjoying on his behalf. She seems devoted to his legacy.
“He would be amused,’ she told me, talking about the latest acclaim.
I asked what it is like to encounter her husband’s work hanging in a museum. She said she does indeed sometimes seek it out.
“There’s nothing more thrilling than going anonymously into a museum, to see one of Barkley’s painting on view and see people talking about it,” she said.
Seeing his work hanging feet away from a Rembrandt, as it will at the Frick this fall, is an appreciation and acknowledgment of his skill, technique and creative genius, she said.
It will also be, I like to think, a great moment for New London.
This is the opinion of David Collins
Editor’s note: This version updates the photo credit for “Steve.”