Blog / William Cordova on Barkley Hendricks


Every now and then, if I pester them enough, I hope that various artists will find the time to contribute their perspectives to the Nasher Blog site.  William Cordova, whom many of you may remember from his participation in the Nasher exhibition Street Level, wanted to share his thoughts on Barkley Hendricks‘s work.

-Teka Selman

By William Cordova

“stand up next to a mountain
-Jimi Hendrix (from Voodoo Child (slight return))

“Superman never saved any Black people,” remarked Black Panther Party Chairman Bobby Seale in 1969.  Seale made this statement as a response to what he perceived as American society’s racist values, right down to the pages of every comic book and comic book hero of the day. The Black Power movement stressed that changes needed to occur in the US and abroad. Soon Brown, Red and Yellow Power movements created coalitions in the struggle for freedom and equal representation in the US.

1968 was the height of the Black Liberation Movement, with Black students demanding not only the inclusion of more Black study classes in the curriculum, but of a complete overhaul of the education system or they would soon take their demands to another level.  Some schools, like Cornell University, did have a student takeover; “citing the university’s racist attitudes and irrelevant curriculum, the students occupied a building for thirty-six hours.”  This armed action saw results by leading to the establishment of the Cornell Africana Studies & Research Center.  Others institutions like Texas Southern University saw lawlessness by members of the Southern police force as they shot at and looted student dormitories, arresting hundreds of students for simply taking a vocal stance against discrimination.

Likewise, Yale University was one of many Ivy League institutions caught in the whirlwind of late 1960s radicalism. Indeed, the US witch-hunt against radicals caught up with Bobby Seale and 8 other Black Panthers in New Haven, CT.  Though not at the center of this movement, the young Barkley Hendricks was not excluded from it.    In 1970, Hendricks was a graduate student at Yale University, navigating through public politics with a private arsenal and weapon of choice, his paintings.

Barkley Hendricks’s work, like that of pioneering musical genius Jimi Hendrix, seized the moment and supported the radical movements shifting the American landscape. Both Hendricks and Hendrix had an effective approach that was visible and yet subversive, located on the frontlines of the issues of the day.  Hendrix was often accused of staying out of politics, but it is clear that his presence as a Black musician in the upper echelons of a white dominated rock industry was a political statement in itself.  Barkley Hendricks’s world was equally complex, and the sophistication of his palette complemented his urgency to make a mark by leaving evidence of the people he painted.

Brilliant, confident and playful sitters were captured in Hendricks’s paintings. But unlike a time capsule, these works have not lost their sense of importance or pride. Hendricks’s paintings are examples of moments in the late 1960s and early 1970s when self-worth and determination were both valued and promoted through the politics of the Black Power Movement.  Lawdy Mama (1969), for example, is a painting of a young Black woman in an angelic and confident pose with a full halo-like Afro and gold-leafed background radiating behind her stance of defiance.  Lawdy Mama could be said to relate to religious paintings like Renaissance artist Masaccio’s San Giovenale Triptych (1422), even as it responds to and challenges traditional Western standards of beauty.

There was urgency in Barkley Hendricks’s paintings to focus on his peers, friends, and lovers from his earliest works to his later pieces. There is the cool confidence in J.S.B III (James Sherman) (1968), with the protagonist’s shirt outlining the shape of an upside down arrowhead declaring “hesto es pa ti y pa mi.”  Salina/Star (1975) – a  honey brown Latina in blue and yellow on a vacant yellow canvas background – fills the landscape, confirming the need for everyday people to see themselves as able and capable of transcending far beyond the limits of two-dimensional representation. Hendricks, like Hendrix, always suggests the expansion of presence beyond the limits of any frame or form.

Alas, the geography of abstraction can never be far from the grounding of location. Barkley Hendricks’s intimate paintings of “lovers leap” in Southfield, Jamaica bring to mind the same southern coast and central highlands of that island that was home to the Maroons. Runaway slaves, the Maroons’ armed struggle and resistance against the British Empire during the 18th century served as an example for other slave uprisings, leading to an eventual end to slavery in the West Indies.  Hendricks’s Jamaican landscape painting The Anglican Perspective on January 3rd (2006) serves not as an alternative to his earlier figurative concept paintings but as a continuum of his subjects’ presence.  This approach brings to mind the late installation artist Felix Gonzalez-Torres’s piece Untitled (Alice B. Toklas’ and Gertrude Stein’s Grave, Paris) (1992), a photograph of a luscious flower patch which also utilizes the concept of space and time to address past and present for those persecuted and outcast.  What might seem unassuming both celebrates nature and functions as an ephemeral monument to a place, a people, and a moment forgotten or over looked.

In the end, Barkley Hendricks has continually been two steps ahead of the rest, operating in the lower frequencies. And like Jimi Hendrix he “stands up next to a mountain.”


Barkley Hendricks, Icon for My Man Superman (Superman never saved any black people – Bobby Seale), 1969.

Barkley Hendricks, Michael (BPP), ND.

Barkley Hendricks, J.S.B III (James Sherman), 1968.

Barkley Hendricks, The Anglican Perspective on January 3rd, 2006.

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