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, before the modern history of Western painting. Hendricks' ambitious picture is taking a wide and pointed historical detour, starting before America's colonization.
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 the 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 the 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.