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The Human Metaphor: Marlene Dumas and Barkley Hendricks | The Nation

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The Human Metaphor: Marlene Dumas and Barkley Hendricks

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Like Dumas, Barkley Hendricks is a painter who has asserted the human metaphor in art. Unlike her, he has not been taken up by the international art market or, although he has a substantial exhibition history, by the mainstream New York art world--though on the strength of his current exhibition, "Birth of the Cool," that is likely to change. The exhibition, curated by Trevor Schoonmaker, is at the Studio Museum in Harlem through March 15. Having previously been seen at the Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University, it will be on view at the Santa Monica Museum of Art from May 16 to August 22; the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in Philadelphia, October 17-January 3, 2010; and the Contemporary Arts Museum in Houston, January 30-April 18, 2010.

About the Author

Barry Schwabsky
Barry Schwabsky is the art critic of The Nation. Schwabsky has been writing about art for the magazine since 2005, and...

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I became aware of Hendricks in 1994, when three of his paintings from the 1970s were included in the much criticized exhibition "Black Male: Representations of Masculinity in Contemporary American Art" at the Whitney Museum. Those paintings, like the ones that dominate "Birth of the Cool," are grand-scale, sometimes larger than life, highly detailed portraits of people whose full-length figures are crisply silhouetted against a monochromatic background to lend them a minimalist graphic force. Each is a character in an almost linguistic sense. Reviewing "Black Male" in the New York Times, Michael Kimmelman emphasized the unfamiliarity of Hendricks's work, finding it to be among the show's highlights. "Black Male" was curated by Thelma Golden, who is director of the Studio Museum. Golden's loyalty to Hendricks is a good reminder of why, after a couple of decades in which the adjective "international" has been about the most glamorous word in the vocabulary of art, we need institutions with such seemingly parochial missions as black artists or American art. Giving international stars a monopoly on our serious attention might have meant ignoring an artist as interesting as Hendricks, who might have seemed too much of a traditionalist to be fully accepted, too involved with representation in the pre-Modernist sense. Certainly his education at the Pennsylvania Academy, a bastion of realism, would have oriented him in that direction, as would the fact that when he went on to Yale to get an MFA his mentor was the earnest, backward-looking Bernard Chaet. Though Hendricks is also a photographer, his painting is not essentially oriented toward the changes in perception wrought by photography. His most striking work is concerned with the attempt to sustain high-style portraiture--a tradition that went out with John Singer Sargent--in the present. But what's clear is Hendricks's realization that, for this genre to be kept up, it would have to be thoroughly transformed.

Most postwar artists, American or European, would have found it impossible to undertake this kind of painting in good faith. In attempting to do so, Hendricks's only credible immediate precursor would have been Alex Katz. As Katz once put it to me, "There are hardly any painters since the Impressionists who have really refused transcendental subject matter, whether it be mythological or existential or something else--it's all subject-matter art. And people think it's serious. But if you deal with an optical or social world, people think it's not serious." Perhaps the crucial issue was art's autonomy. High-style portraiture became nearly unthinkable because of its dependence on a form of patronage that had long since lost any legitimacy. Katz bypassed the problem by taking his family and friends--poets like Frank O'Hara, dancers like Paul Taylor--as his subjects, thereby reaffirming the myth of the artist. For Hendricks, painting acquaintances in the African-American community in the wake of the Black Power movement and the proclamation that "black is beautiful," on the other hand, the essence of his portraiture would seem to be an assertion of a politics of style, one he clearly shared wholeheartedly. His subjects' swagger and flourish convey a sense of ingrained nobility as convincing as that of the earls and duchesses painted by van Dyck or Gainsborough--more convincing, really, as soon as one reflects that, unlike the court painters of old, this artist's flattery had not been bought, and his subjects had achieved their dignity in the teeth of a system of caste and class that was built to grind them down.

This fascination with style, with attitude, is already present in My Black Nun, an early student work dated to 1964, when Hendricks was just 19. Except for the fact that it is a portrait, albeit an imaginary one, it has almost nothing in common with the painter's later work--except that it shows blackness, not so much as a biological given but as a manner of projecting one's image in the world. This is one tough sister, and her sassy, cross-armed stance effectively détournes the habit that is supposed to remove her from worldly concerns. In the large-scale portraits from the late '60s through the late '70s that make up the bulk of "Birth of the Cool," this intensely stylized self-presentation becomes not merely the subject but the content of Hendricks's art. The emphatic presence of the painting is completely identified with that of the person pictured in it. Style, here, may have to do with the impressively inventive approach to dress manifested by the subjects of paintings such as George Jules Taylor (1972) or Bahsir (Robert Gowens), from 1975--one of several paintings here that productively take up Katz's device of peopling a painting with multiple avatars of the same figure (consider, for instance, the elder artist's sixfold portrait of his wife, Ada, in The Black Dress, from 1960). Bahsir's striking get-up, which in the catalog Richard Powell aptly sums up as "part Superfly, part reminiscent of the male Hasidic uniform, entirely self-concocted," is offset by a distinct sense of reserve, the projection of an inner distance that simultaneously contrasts with and justifies his visual flamboyance. But clothes are optional to Hendricks's modern dandies. The sense of style is already there in the stance of a nude, in one's way of wearing the body, for instance in Brilliantly Endowed (Self-Portrait), from 1977 (its title a double entendre on the possibly unwelcome praise the conservative New York Times critic Hilton Kramer had paid Hendricks in a review that year).

"Birth of the Cool" includes only a few examples of Hendricks's portraiture from the early '80s and then again the early 2000s, but they are enough to suggest that his work in this genre eventually lost its focus. The show skips 1984-99 entirely. The best of the recent works are small-scaled landscapes of Jamaica, often tondos or ovals, which one would hardly recognize as being by the same artist as the imposing portraits of the '70s. There is an eerie calm about the landscapes; they seem to gather within themselves more space than their modest dimensions should be able to bear. These seemingly delicate yet powerfully built paintings deserve a closer look than an exhibition so focused on Hendricks's eye-catching portraits can easily allow them. They are just as ambitious, but their ambition is no longer focused on the social world as a completely sufficient subject matter. They suggest that we are just beginning to see what this artist can do.

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