Alison Stewart: This is All Of It. I'm Alison Stewart. There's a new exhibition at the Frick Madison that is the first solo show ever dedicated to a Black artist in the collection's history. The artist is Barkley Leonard Hendricks, who was born and raised in Philly before he became a longtime professor of Studio Art at Connecticut College. Hendricks passed away 5 years ago at the age of 72 and left behind a treasure of portraits inspired by his love of the Renaissance Era. Hendricks' subjects are predominantly Black folks he encountered throughout his life, whether it was a family member, someone on the street, a student, or somewhere in his travels, like Paris or Lagos.
The studio museum director, Thelma Golden, writes in the forward to the show's catalog, "Barkley L. Hendricks has achieved what may have been his most inspiring goal, to place Black bodies at the iconic level." Barkley L. Hendricks' portraits at the Frick is on view now at the Frick's temporary location at 945 Madison Avenue through January 7th. The show's co-curators Aimee Ng, Hi, Aimee.
Aimee Ng: Hi.
Alison Stewart: And Antwaun Sargent. Hi, Antwaun.
Antwaun Sargent: Hey.
Alison Stewart: Join me in the studio. As soon as you get off the elevator, the first piece you see is a shining gold leaf painting of a woman called Lawdy Mama. It's from 1969. It sits between these two busts, 18th-century old-school busts. Antwaun, why did you want this to be the first piece in that setting?
Antwaun Sargent: I think because Lawdy Mama really encapsulates what me and Aimee were set out to do at the Frick. Really think about Barkley Hendricks as an interlocker between past and present, but to also highlight his mastery of the techniques of Renaissance painting. It was actually Aimee's idea to place it in between those two busts, so maybe we can hear from Aimee.
Alison Stewart: Yes, Aimee, tell me.
Aimee Ng: What Antwaun says is true. It was probably the most famous painting that Barkley did and really encapsulates so many of the themes of the show. Really, he was a master of material. He really went in and learned how to put gold leaf onto a painting. That's not easy. He went through several trials, and that material aspect, I think, is really emphasized by placing Lawdy Mama between two marble busts.
Alison Stewart: Antwaun, what feel is that? What is the feeling that creates?
Antwaun Sargent: It really creates a feeling of awe, really. It's dramatic. The elevator doors open, and you don't really expect to see that painting. It opens, and then the lighting just hits it just so in this way that it really makes it gleam and glisten. It's also interesting because the bust or you're trying to make a connection between, "Okay, what's the connection here?" The connection is the collection, which is on every other floor of the museum, which creates the context for the exhibition and creates the context of the conversation, again thinking about the past as it inspired an artist, a contemporary artist, and then how that artist took those lessons from the past and applied it to his own style of painting and so he's not simply copying.
Then from there, there's a whole generation of artists working today who are included in the exhibition catalog, from Awol Erizku to Rashid Johnson to Mickalene Thomas, who took lessons from Barkley and then applied it to their own artistic investigation. What you have here is a real full-circle moment.
Alison Stewart: I believe Mickalene is going to be on the show tomorrow. I feel like I cut you off, Aimee, you were about to say something else.
Aimee Ng: No, just to say-
Alison Stewart: I'm sorry.
Aimee Ng: -it has the strong visual impact, Lawdy Mama, that right off the elevator. I know this sounds cheesy, but I have seen more than one person stand, stop, mouth agape with tears in their eyes. I'm not exaggerating here. I think it's a very emotional impact that that painting can have.
Alison Stewart: I know you feel like there should be a sound effect of, "Oh," once the elevator doors open. Before we leave this particular piece, Aimee, tell us what's impressive about using gold leaf in the painting. When we say it's gold surrounding this woman, this beautiful woman, it's gold leaf, it's not just gold paint.
Aimee Ng: Right, this is not Barkley Hendricks picking up a spray can paint of gold, this is, A, very expensive, so it is actually gold leaf. What they used to do in the Renaissance is they used to hammer gold coins down until they were really, really thin, and that's how you could buy the gold that you were going to put onto a painting and then you have to put down a really adhesive material and then lay it down so it doesn't crinkle, it doesn't flutter away, it doesn't fold, it doesn't have any holes. It really is a technical mastery that you have to achieve before you can create that effect.
Alison Stewart: He was a very studied painter. Part of the story of the exhibition, Antwaun, is that he went to Europe, he saw these Renaissance Era paintings, and thought, "What can I do with this? How can I take this in?" Where do we see that influence?
Antwaun Sargent: I think you see that influence in a number of things. One I'll point out is the way that he thinks about adornment in the work. You have this real history in portrait painting dating back to the Renaissance of using different jewelry and different accessories. The first painting that he created, a portrait painting of a nun growing up in Philadelphia, you see that in that work but you also see that in works throughout the exhibition, from Sisters of two Black women who are just totally adorned, the self-portrait that he has. You also see it in the necklace that he creates for himself. There's a picture, a really vibrant red picture called Blood. If you get close to it, it has this little button that he has on his jacket, and the sitter actually came into the museum before the exhibition opened and told Aimee that I wasn't wearing that.
Alison Stewart: Oh, interesting.
Antwaun Sargent: Not only was it about taking photographs and having live sitters and making work through that process, it was also about the addition of. In actually every one of the 14 portraits that you have on display in the museum, you have Barkley using this idea of adornment to re-establish notions of worth, power but also style. Every brooch or earring or necklace or ring or shoes that we wear really says something about who we are, about our personalities, about how we think about notions of self-regard.
Alison Stewart: The Renaissance meets swagger. Indeed.
Antwaun Sargent: Yes exactly.
Alison Stewart: Let's talk about that for that painting Blood. You have interviews at this audio tour as part of the show, and this is from the subject of Blood. Tell us a little bit about this gentleman who's the subject.
Aimee Ng: Donald Formey was a first-year student at Connecticut College. He says he was lucky enough to choose to take an art class with Barkley Hendricks. In his recording, he says it was not like any art class he'd taken before. He's from the South, and ending up in Connecticut, which seems like such an alien place to him. It was meeting Barkley and through the making of this portrait that he really felt a sense of individuality.
Alison Stewart: Let's hear from Donald Formey.
Donald Formey: He came to me one day after class, and he just asked me point blank, "Would you consider me painting a portrait of you?" I was honored to hear it because nobody ever asked me to do that before. I wasn't always a person that was in the forefront of anything. I was glad to do it because I liked him as a person, and he was always real nice as a teacher. He just asked me, would I do it, and I told him, yes, and he invited me to his home to do it. When I went into his home, it was like a big art studio on the inside, maybe unfinished paintings and stuff all over the place. I was standing there, and he was playing some kind of jazz or something like that.
I was just tapping my foot, and he goes, "Oh, very musical." He found the tambourine that he had, and he asked me, did I mind holding that? I told him, "No" because back then, a tambourine was pretty cool. In all the parties and stuff on campus I used to go to, the guy with the tambourine was the man, [chuckles] so I was more than happy to do that.
Alison Stewart: I love hearing that. What do you think hearing from people who are the subject of the painting? What does it add to the show, Aimee?
Aimee Ng: Well, because Barkley's no longer with us, we really wanted to keep the focus on the artist, on his practice, on his life, on his genius. The best way we could do that, and in conversation with Antwaun, we decided the sitters would be really crucial to that. It's not so easy finding people who were around in 1972. Donald Formey, in fact, it was Susan Hendricks, Barkley's wife, who put me in touch with that family. I just got an email this morning from someone who wrote saying, "I'm the model in October's Gone."
Alison Stewart: Wow.
Antwaun Sargent: I didn't even know that. Wow.
Aimee Ng: It literally just came into my inbox, and I haven't really dealt with it. They want to be connected, too, because they're part of the legacy. Not everybody does. There's some people who I think want to stay private in their own lives, but I think there's this pull being part of the Barkley world that, in a sense, you're part of something much bigger than yourself.
Alison Stewart: We are talking about Barkley L. Hendricks' portraits at the Frick with its co-curators, Aimee Ng and Antwaun Sargent. There's a whole room dedicated to paintings he made of Black subjects on white backgrounds and wearing white clothes. He manages to make them look distinct. He manages to get the texture and the highlights. When you look at that painting, Antwaun, those paintings, what is interesting to you about the way that Hendricks uses white and black?
Antwaun Sargent: I think that when we were thinking about this, me and Aimee were thinking about one of the decisions that we arrived at together organizing the exhibition was it'd be really great if we focused in on what he called his "limited palette series". It was a way to acknowledge Barkley and his own innovations. Throughout his portrait painting practice, you have paintings that are white on white, black on black, red on red, yellow on yellow. He really did that in a very deliberate way. Neither one of us could find an instance where there was a room dedicated to that limited palette investigation.
We thought because the ones the that, in his practice, the white on white painting recurs that we would dedicate a room to those works. What I love about the five works that we have on display there, is that it really each one has a different mood. One's a self-portrait, one's of a gentleman, Steve, who he encounters on the street. He's in Lagos during FESTAC, and he encounters this group of women, and then there's this sitter that emailed Aimee this morning from October's Gone, "Goodnight." Some of them is a group portraits. You have individual portraits. You have these three perspectives of this particular sitter from October's Gone.
I think that what always resonated with me in terms of Barkley Hendricks, and you see this in this black and white play or black and brown play with the flesh tones. Each of those individuals have the flesh tones are so distinctly theirs. You don't have this glossing over of black skin. You have actually a real dedication, a real respect for the way that we are in the world. I very solemnly have I seen that in contemporary painting. I think that's important, because what was so key or central to Barkley's project was that he was capturing individuals. Even in Lagos Ladies, you have the uniformity of them all wearing white, but then you have each individual woman in that in that painting, you have their different brown shades of brown skin that really shows you that this is what you're looking at is a community as individuals.
Then you go down to the shoes, and they each are wearing their own, red or green, or shoes style that really think, again, reinforces this notion of individuality. In each of those works, there's just something different about them, but then the thing that I keep coming back to with those works and the period in which they were created right this decade that spanned in 1970s, late '60s to 1981 is the final painting. We were in, you cannot divorce what Barkley was doing from the sociopolitical context in which he was painting. I think that what was important if you consider that we're that moment post civil rights into the Black Power Movement, that was for the country, really, a moment of search around notions of identity and belonging. Which is not unlike where we are today.
Alison Stewart: That's interesting.
Antwaun Sargent: I just really continue to come back to that history and to try to situate myself in that moment where he had these different folks who he's often encountered in the street or in classrooms, that really was trying to establish themselves as individuals in some ways for the first time in terms of how they were entering the world and being in the world. We have to remember that style, really, the way that it develops in America, we have the 1950s, early '60s the pre preceding that, where there was a really about uniformity about fitting in community, and so when you have folks with afros and-
Alison Stewart: Just breaking out being--
Antwaun Sargent: -jeans and all of that, those were radical gestures in that moment, and so I wanted to-- and so when I look at those paintings, I'm always drawn to the great expressions of individuality.
Alison Stewart: I was so, Aimee, drawn to how he was able to capture how fabric moves and how it drapes. He even said of himself, "No one paints jeans like me." [chuckles] When you look at that, what kind of training does it take, does an artist need to do that to understand how to create drape and how to create the movement of fabric or is that a matter of talent?
Aimee Ng: Of course it's both, but you can't be technically proficient without investing the time. The idea that Barkley Hendricks would spend two, three years learning how to make a gold leaf painting, he's also studying exactly how to create the illusion of denim or the illusion of velvet or a knitted shirt. He's as much a studious since, I think, a student of art history and history and art, as he is an innovator. I think those two combine that innovation with a deep understanding and almost diligence in terms of an understanding of making art, makes him who he is.
Alison Stewart: He was born and raised in Philly. Where do we see that in the show? How do we know this is a Philly man?
Aimee Ng: Well, it's funny. When Rick Powell recorded his memories of being with Barkley and the importance of fashion in Barkley's paintings, and he describes Barkley's own personal style as it was clear he was a child of Philadelphia. It was clear that he had an urban elegance to him, and that's what he could spot in others. Donald Formey said the same thing, the sitter of Blood said, "I didn't know where he was from, but you could tell he was from a city. He could see cool in people. It wasn't this bright-eyed boy from the countryside, he could see urban cool."
Alison Stewart: I want urban elegance on a t-shirt.
Antwaun Sargent: We should have made that.
Alison Stewart: There's still time. We are talking about Barkley L. Hendricks' portraits at the Frick. My guests are its co-curators Antwaun Sargent and Aimee Ng. I want to talk about that self-portrait, Slick, from 1977. Hendricks says he got the title from when his sister said, "You think you're so slick, just wait one day, a woman is going to straighten you out." He's wearing a cap. He has his hands behind his back, a white suit, toothpick in his mouth. What do you see when you see that? What is revealing in that portrait to you, Antwaun?
Antwaun Sargent: I'm always drawn to the scale of those portraits, and the way that they are centered in the canvas but also they are just about life-size. There's always something withholding in those portraits. Maybe the eyes are slanted, maybe there are glasses, and so what you really get is that what you're looking at is a real person. Someone with styles, someone with individuality, someone who wanted to show up in the world and be perceived a certain way and have a certain level of dignity and self-regard. I had the fortune of meeting Barkley Hendricks a few times and interviewing him, and he was just that cool.
The way that that painting, the white on white and you don't know if he's going to church or going to an all-white party, or going to a wedding, or in this black lexicon of why we deploy this white on white monochromatic dressing, but you know he was going and he was going to be someone that was looked at. I think that's what's really important about these sitters, whether it's the formal dressing that is in Slick or in any of the others from the blue jeans to even Woody who is the ballet dancer is that they were going to take up space. They wanted to be noticed.
I think that in that moment in 1970s to have women, and Black folks and gay folks not hiding, really speaks a lot to me and speaks a lot to this idea that we've all have all been here, playing our role in this history and living our lives.
Alison Stewart: As you were thinking about the flow of the show and what you'll see when you see it, talk to me a little bit, Aimee, about that plan and some of the conversations because you can go from this show into a gallery with art from the collection. That's interesting that you have that opportunity to go there and come back if you want or just stay in the Barkley universe. I was curious about how you decided to place the exhibition.
Aimee Ng: From the very beginning, I think, Antwaun and I had a few priorities, and that was making sense of this show at the Frick. The Frick's own collection as the frame, the context for Barkley. There were a lot of ways we could have done this, and I think there was an expectation that we would have done a, one Barkley, one Rembrandt, one Barkley, one Rembrandt, that kind of thing. We decided it would be most important to allow sight lines, but also to dedicate galleries to Barkley's paintings as we would any historic artist from the European tradition. It's a combination of both. You encounter Barkley with the two 18th century busts at the beginning, but then you can see 18th century Reynolds wearing a red coat, but then Barkley's much redder and much more exciting, much bolder, Blood, is just through. They're not meant to be one-to-one, but they're meant to remind that there's a history, there's legacy, and Barkley is engaging with legacy and turning it on its head.
Alison Stewart: What's a part of a painting that you want people to spend a few more moments in front of?
Antwaun Sargent: So many, but I would say it would probably have to be Blood, and it changes every day, I must say.
Alison Stewart: [laughs] Sure.
Antwaun Sargent: If you'd asked me this 20 minutes ago, I probably said, Woody, 20 minutes before that, Sisters. Blood in this moment, because you have what I like to say is a real complete history of painting in the Western tradition in that painting. I think that you have the little Picasso shout-out with the coat and the pants that he's wearing. Then you have this idea around abstraction with the background. You have this idea of adornment with a button and a tambourine. Even on his wrist, there's a little bracelet, just a little silver bracelet on the wrist. Then you have all the lessons from old master painting and the Renaissance around the creation of illusion, the creating of feeling and mood.
Then you also just have an individual whose portrait, as we heard earlier, was made, and it made him feel something. Just like during the 1400s, you have paintings of aristocrats and other folks. You have that same power play in each and every one of these images. Which is to say that these people, who Barkley painted, had a great sense of self-regard, and felt empowered in themselves. Because that's what caught his attention with these different folks. We like to say a lot about "marginalized people", but what has always drawn me to Barkley Hendricks is the fact that he just treated people like people and really found the power and beauty and desire and even alienation that occurs in our lives and form who we are.
Alison Stewart: Aimee, what little part of a painting would you--
Aimee Ng: There are many details, but I think for me right now, my favorite, which changes all the time, too, is in Steve, the picture from the Whitney, the reflection in the glasses, the sunglasses, which for the coolest painting in the world, there's like a really nerdy Jan van Eyck tight little architectural detail and a tiny, little self-portrait of Barkley in the side.
Alison Stewart: Go see for yourself. It's Barkley L. Hendricks portraits at the Frick. It is up through January 7th, 2024. My guests in studio have been Antwaun Sargent and Aimee Ng, co-curators of the exhibit. Thank you so much for joining us.
Antwaun Sargent: Thank you.
Aimee Ng: Thank you.
Alison Stewart: That's All Of It for today. I'm Alison Stewart. I appreciate you listening and I appreciate you. I'll meet you back here next time.
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