Barkley L. Hendricks - Modern & Contemporary Art Evening Sale New York Tuesday, May 14, 2024 | Phillips

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  • “Everything is up for grabs in the creative arena, and I think it’s only a limited artist that limits his or her approach to using what’s available.”
    —Barkley Hendricks

    From its attitude to its title, Barkley L. Hendricks’ Vendetta, 1977, makes a statement—one that is bold, straightforward, and decidedly provocative. Hendricks asserts his place within the lineage of the Old Masters with the very same gestures he uses to declare them obsolete. He takes their medium, their methods, and their ideas of memento, and flips the message, declaring a new order in which ideals of whiteness and its attendant notions of beauty are ancillary, and the Black figure—in this case, the Black female figure—is in the foreground. To do this within the framework of something so traditional—and what is more traditional in art than a single-sitter oil painting portrait—and to do it in 1977? To quote the artist, "How cool is that?"i

     

    In Vendetta, Hendricks captures the essence of his artistic philosophy and technique, blending classical training with a contemporary flair that challenged and expanded the boundaries of portraiture. Hendricks, trained in both the United States and Europe, mastered and then redefined traditional oil painting techniques to celebrate the individuality and dignity of his subjects, often African Americans, with a bold, almost photographic realism. His use of vivid, unapologetic color and dramatic, life-sized presentation pulls viewers into a direct confrontation with the subject’s gaze, a hallmark of his style that reflects his deeper philosophies of presence and representation.

    “I wasn’t a part of any “school.” The association I had with artists in Philadelphia didn’t inspire me in any direction other than my own. I spent my time looking to the Old Masters.”
    —Barkley Hendricks

    Vendetta featured in the artist’s first career retrospective, Birth of the Cool, which toured across the United States from 2008 to 2010. Originating at the Nasher Museum of Art in North Carolina and spanning a total of 5 major museums across the country, this major exhibition, organized by then-curator (now Nasher Museum Director) Trevor Schoonmaker, not only cemented Hendricks’ status as a pivotal figure in American art but also recontextualized works including Vendetta within broader narratives of racial identity, aesthetics, and social commentary. The exhibition, and the continued study of his oeuvre, underscore Hendricks' lasting impact on challenging and expanding the conventions of portraiture, positioning him as a critical bridge between disparate artistic and cultural discourses.

     

    Hendricks on Rembrandt

     

    In 1966, while studying as an undergraduate at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Hendricks embarked on a transformative journey through Europe, visiting museums in the UK, Spain, Italy, and the Netherlands. In a 2009 interview with The Smithsonian, he reflected on this trip and his admiration for the work of Old Masters like Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn, and Johannes Vermeer. Highlighting the court portraits of Diego Velázquez and Anthony van Dyck, he cited the latter as an inspiration for his 1972 portrait entitled Sir Charles, Alias Willie Harris. “There was a cardinal with his beautiful bed robe on,' he recalls, 'and subsequently, years later, I did a painting that’s now at the National Gallery [of Art, Washington, D.C.] where there were three views of a man with a long red coat.”ii

     

    Hendricks was keenly aware of the scarce and often dehumanizing portrayal of Black figures in European art. Returning to the United States, he was determined to apply the Old Masters' techniques in a unique way, focusing on Black subjects. Asserting "It had to be done Barkley Hendricks style—no copies," he began creating innovative portraits from the late 1960s. These works not only redefined traditional portraiture but also enriched art history with a perspective that had been previously marginalized, laying the groundwork for a new generation of artists. In Vendetta, Hendricks masterfully adapts traditional techniques, showcasing his skill in paint and color through detailed textures, shadows, and depth. Set against a white backdrop, the focus shifts entirely to the sitter—to Vendetta, and who she is—emphasizing not only Hendricks' precise and nuanced handling of light, fabric, and hue, but also his ability to bring forth the peculiarities of a person that give them tangible presence.

    “Any consideration of my work has to take into mind the work of Barkley Hendricks. He is completely foundational to my understanding of how you can make painting relevant today.”
    —Kehinde Wiley
    Vendetta, the subject of the present portrait, was a friend of the artist and dancer based in New York. Not much is known about this enigmatic figure beyond what Hendricks captures in paint and provides in the work’s title. Yet, despite her mystery, Hendricks renders her in such a way that seems to transfer an almost intimate kind of knowing to the viewer. Much of what we know has been ascertained from Hendricks' many photographs—what he called his “mechanical sketchbook.”iii Hendricks employed photography in the way many painters use drawing: as a means of giving form to his ideas and documenting not only what he saw, but how he saw it. The paintings then are often a confluence of those images and his remembrances. In considering Vendetta, we can also rely on photographs of its subject, such as Vendetta in Lotus Position, 1977, and Untitled (New London, CT), c. 1977. In doing so, it becomes apparent that Hendricks, while mostly remaining faithful to Vendetta’s likeness, took some artistic liberties with her fashion. 

     

    Untitled (New London, CT) shows Vendetta with her arms bent and hands resting on her thighs. While in the painting, Hendrick’s cropping, the sitter’s pose, and her overall demeanor—an all-white ensemble, micro-braided hair, and an air of self-assured poise—are closely derived from the artist’s photograph, the cross-body satchel she wears in life is absent. Most notably, her tank top, which is simple in the photograph except for a small cluster of rosettes at the neckline, has been altered in the painting to include the word "bitch" in lowercase gold lamé lettering across her chest. Moreover, in the painted version, the letters "b" and "h" are enlarged and stylized to encircle and accentuate her breasts, and Hendricks has enhanced the contrast between skin and clothing for a more striking effect. The rosettes are also brightly colored, adding primary pops of yellow, red, and blue, creating a focal point that draws the eye directly to the word emblazoned on her chest. In Hendricks's work, clothing often represents power and self-awareness through self-fashioning. In Vendetta, the woman occupies the central space of the canvas confidently, and her attire is simple yet bold. Hendricks's decision to keep her clothing neutral allows the viewer's attention to focus squarely on Vendetta, and the embellishment of the word “bitch” can be interpreted as a kind of challenge—to societal labels or as an assertion of her own control over such terms.

     

    Transporting her to the flatness of a white-on-white painting, Hendricks foregrounds Vendetta as a physical being, showcasing not only her pose and the way she inhabits the pictorial space but also her particular features and expressiveness. The depths of contrast between her skin tone, hair texture, and clothing against the distraction-free expanse are striking. An early critic accused Hendricks of using the "same all-purpose brown" for his figures, to which the artist later responded, "Damn, even Stevie Wonder and Ray Charles can see a difference in the variety of skin handling I was involved with! The attempt on my part is always to address the beauty and variety of complexion colors that we call Black."iv

     

    James McNeill Whistler, Symphony in White, No. 1: The White Girl, 1861-1863. National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C. Image: National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., Harris Whittemore Collection, 1943.6.2

     

    Nowhere is this more evident than in Hendricks’ white-on-white paintings. Perhaps the most famous set in his experiments with different shades of the same color, the white-on-white portraits were recently showcased at New York’s Frick Collection, where a room of the 2023-2024 exhibition Barkley L. Hendricks: Portraits at the Frick was dedicated to these elusive limited palette works. Painting more than a hundred years earlier, the American artist James McNeill Whistler also experimented with form, limited palettes, and flesh color in his portraits. In the present work, one can easily see the influence of Whistler’s early 1860s series, collectively referred to as Symphonies in White, where the paintings' true subject was his handling of the thick white paint, its textures, and subtle tonal contrasts. In Whistler’s time, paintings like the National Gallery of Art’s Symphony in White, No. 1: The White Girl, 1861-1863/1872 constituted a radical break with traditions of portraiture; in the 1970s, Hendricks took that subversion a step further. In his own white-on-white paintings, Hendricks demonstrates his masterful handling of color and the painted edge, not only in his machinations of one color against itself but also in that color against its opposite. In Vendetta, white is not only a compositional device, but also a signifier and a powerful element of social commentary. By using white in portraits of Black figures, Hendricks subtly addresses themes of visibility and identity. This approach invites viewers to consider how race is portrayed and perceived in art, encouraging a deeper reflection on both the medium and the message.

     

    Hendricks's rich treatment of color shines through in Vendetta, evident in his choice of background, displaying an intimate relationship with the materiality of clothing with great attention to how they fold or reflect light, and in minute details like how he paints the weave and fade of fabrics. Hendricks' relationship to the minutiae of lived reality transcends visual perception, engaging viewers on a multisensory level that mirrors the tactile experiences of everyday life. By emphasizing textures like the cotton weave of Vendetta’s tank top, Hendricks evokes not just sight but the sensation of touch, inviting the viewer to experience the material as if it were tangible. This depth of sensory engagement allows viewers to connect more profoundly with his work, as Hendricks masterfully blurs the line between the painted image and real-world experience.

    “No one paints jeans like me, with the consciousness of the fact that jeans are a material that is worn rather than painted… The art of painting is not only about putting paint down. I like to use the texture of the canvas as a vehicle to get the illusion that I'm interested in.”
    —Barkley Hendricks

    In an interview with Thelma Golden, Hendricks called his white-on-white portraits "double whammies," referring to the combination of the figures’ strong personalities coupled with the bold formal aspect of his "limited palette series." In portraits like Vendetta and Tuff Tony, 1978, Hendricks subjects confront the viewer with a direct gaze. The eye contact serves to draw the viewer in but also stimulates self-consciousness in viewing, speaking to the idea of viewing itself, of seeing and being seen. Hendricks captures performative attitudes in his subjects, as if they were self-conscious about the version of themselves they chose to convey. This self-consciousness comes across as much a part of Hendricks’ palette as his paint, working with tonal shades of attitude. Tuff Tony frames a young man, centered in the composition, hands hung loose at his sides, his face a mask of calm and defiance, undergirded by the slightest hint of sadness. Similarly, Vendetta sizes up her viewer. Her pose is confident, sitting with her legs wide and hands assertively placed below her hips. She extends outside the picture plane, seeming to spill over into the gallery space. This, combined with Hendricks’ construction of her eyeline such that she appears to be looking down at us from somewhere slightly above, contributes to the sense of monumentality that seems to far exceed the painting’s scale.

    “I wanted [the image] to have some potency besides the scale element...if you get too small, you start to dwarf it. If you get too large, you get into a billboard sort of situation. But if you keep it pretty close to human scale, you have a better chance of having the human that’s looking at it interact with that... And adding the ingredient that would hopefully catch your eye, that I hope will make it linger.”
    —Barkley Hendricks
    Hendricks’ white-on-white paintings masterfully elevate his sitters to iconic status through a simple yet potent visual strategy that mirrors the sacred aura of Byzantine and medieval religious icons. In Vendetta, Hendricks employs a monochromatic, all-white background that strips away contextual distractions, focusing the viewer’s attention solely on the figure. This deliberate sparseness and the halo-like effect created by the uniform color field not only draw parallels to the spiritual reverence of religious art but also frames the Black figure as both timeless and venerable. The lack of background emphasizes the intrinsic worth and dignity of the individual, positioning the subject almost as an archetype. In works like Vendetta and Lawdy Mama, 1969, at the Studio Museum in Harlem, Hendricks suggests that these women—his friend and cousin “who had a beautiful ’fro”—are akin to modern-day Madonnas.v Thus, his technique not only celebrates the individuality of his subjects but also asserts their universal significance in the broader iconography of art, readdressing historical omission and making “icons for a new era.”vi

    “Using rich, bold colors, [Hendricks] documents the beauty and power of young African-Americans underrepresented in the mainstream, from Lawdy Mama, a 1969 painting of a woman on a gold background with an afro (it’s known as the Madonna of the Studio Museum in Harlem), to Vendetta, a 1977 portrait of a fearless-looking woman with the word “Bitch” on her tank top. Cool, indeed.”
    —The Village Voice

    Following his passing in 2017, Hendricks' legacy has experienced a notable resurgence, highlighted by significant exhibitions such as Barkley L. Hendricks: Portraits at the Frick, which ran from September 2023 to January 2024 at the Frick Collection in New York. The groundbreaking exhibition presented a selection of Hendricks’ figurative works in the context of the Frick’s holdings, emphasizing the dialogue between Hendricks’ vivid depictions of Black figures and the traditions of European art that he both drew from and challenged, and marking the first solo show for an artist of color in the collection’s 88-year history. As described by Trevor Schoonmaker, “[Hendricks] has defied easy categorization, and his unique individualism has landed him outside of the mainstream, but his bold and empowering portrayal of those who have been overlooked and underappreciated has positioned him squarely in the hearts of many…By representing the black body in new and challenging ways, Hendricks’ pioneering work has unwittingly helped pave the way for future generations of artists of color to work with issues of identity through representation of the black figure. Today his body of work is as vital and vibrant as ever, and it should prove him to be a lasting figure in the history of American art.”vii

    “I like to feel that once you leave a show you remember my work either through what I’ve done with the paint or something that may have intrigued you or something that got your attention… if you’re gonna do it, you might as well be memorable.”
    —Barkley Hendricks

     

    i Barkley Hendricks, “Palette Scrapings,” pp. 105-107, in Trevor Schoonmaker, Birth of the Cool, Exh. Cat., Durham, North Carolina, 2008.

    ii Anna Arabindan-Kesson, Interview with Barkley L. Hendricks, 25 August 2016.

    iii Arthur Lubow, What You Didn’t Know About Barkley L. Hendricks, The New York Times, published May 14, 2021, updated May 15, 2021, online

    iv Zoé Whitley, ed., Barkley L. Hendricks: Solid!, Milan, 2023, p. 76. 

    v Barkley Hendricks, quoted in Leila Pedro, “Barkley L. Hendricks with Laila Pedro,” The Brooklyn Rail, April 2016, online

    vi C. Wiley, “Fashion and Politics in Barkley L. Hendricks’s Pictures,” The New Yorker, May 28, 2023.

    vii Trevor Schoonmaker, Birth of the Cool, Exh. Cat., Durham, North Carolina, 2008, p. 36.

    • Provenance

      ACA Galleries, New York
      Acquired from the above by the present owner in 2007

    • Exhibited

      Durham, Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University; Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts; Houston, Contemporary Arts Museum, Barkley L. Hendricks: Birth of the Cool, February 7, 2008–April 18, 2010, no. 35, pp. 38-39, 41, 85, 131 (detail illustrated, p. 38; Vendetta with the present work in the artist’s studio illustrated, p. 39; illustrated, p. 85)

    • Literature

      The Barkley L. Hendricks Experience, exh. cat., Lyman Allyn Museum of Art, New London, Connecticut, 2001, pp. 6, 8 (illustrated, p. 6)
      Richard J. Powell, Cutting a Figure: Fashioning Black Portraiture, Chicago, 2008, no. 78, pp. 156, 166, 169, 219, 270, 275 (illustrated, p. 156)
      Amy White, “Barkley L. Hendricks’ Nasher show: Art history, honored and challenged,” INDY Week, March 5, 2008, online
      Araceli Cruz, “Cool Cat,” The Village Voice, November 5, 2008, online
      Kelly Klaasmeyer, “The Art of Cool,” HoustonPress, March 10, 2010, online
      “At Home in New London with Artist Barkley Hendricks,” Hartford Courant, April 30, 2010, online
      Trevor Schoonmaker, “Barkley L. Hendricks: Reverberations,” Fresh Paint, 2012, p. 98
      Robin Cembalest, “Reinventing the African American Portrait,” ARTnews, August 1, 2013, online (dated 1978)
      Jared Bowen, “With his camera, artist Barkley L. Hendricks brought his world view into focus,” GBH. Boston Public Radio, March 16, 2022, online
      Jared Bowen, “New exhibit chronicles work of late painter Barkley Hendricks and his use of the camera,” PBS News Hour, May 18, 2022, online
      Zoé Whitley, ed., Barkley L. Hendricks: Solid!, Milan, 2023, p. 79 (illustrated; dated 1978)
      Barkley L. Hendricks: Portraits at the Frick, exh. cat., The Frick Collection, New York, 2023, fig. 83, pp. 108-109, 158 (installation view in the artist’s studio illustrated, p. 109)

    • Artist Biography

      Barkley L. Hendricks

      American • 1945 - 2017

      An artist well ahead of his time, Barkley L. Hendricks radically embraced figuration in the 1960s—a time when abstraction ruled the global art world. It was whilst touring European museums that a young Hendricks was so taken aback by the lack of Black subjects in Old Master paintings that he embarked upon what is now his best known body of work: life sized portraits of Black and Latino men and women primarily from his native Philadelphia, depicted in contrapposto. The tonal subtleties and exquisite attention to light, fabric, and flesh in Hendrick’s portraits are utterly impressive, revealing Hendrick’s adoption of Old Master techniques with a Pop Art sensibility to render the full complexity of everyday people. In the commanding, towering presence and undeniable swagger of many of Hendricks’s subjects we recognize that very sense of cool detachment and defiant empowerment so characteristic of the artist’s revolutionary portraiture.

      A pioneer of post-war Black figuration, Hendricks paved the way for such artists as Kehinde Wiley and others. As Trevor Schoonmaker, the curator for Hendricks’ career retrospective in 2008, said in a nutshell, “His bold portrayal of his subject’s attitude and style elevates the common person to celebrity status. Cool, empowering, and sometimes confrontational, Hendricks’ artistic privileging of a culturally complex Black body has paved the way for today’s younger generation of artists.”

       
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Vendetta

signed "B. Hendricks" upper right; signed, titled and dated ""VENDETTA" 1977 BARKLEY L. HENDRICKS" on the overlap
oil, acrylic and Magna on canvas
35 7/8 x 48 in. (91.1 x 121.9 cm)
Painted in 1977.

Full Cataloguing

Estimate
$2,500,000 - 3,500,000 

Sold for $3,206,000

Contact Specialist

Carolyn Kolberg
Associate Specialist, Head of Evening Sale, New York
+1 212 940 1206
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Modern & Contemporary Art Evening Sale

New York Auction 14 May 2024