Portrait painter Barkley L. Hendricks, who died in 2017, considered the Frick Collection to be one of his favorite museums. Now Hendricks’ large-scale celebratory paintings of black Americans will hang in that institution, long the home of Rembrandt, Bronzino and Van Dyck, as the first artist of color to have a solo show at 87-year-old Frick.
In the fall of 2023, the museum will intersperse a dozen portraits of Hendricks among his holdings in an exhibition at his temporary home, Frick Madison. Hendricks made life-size portraits of black friends, relatives and strangers he met on the street, paintings that have only recently been widely recognized by museums and the art market, but have helped to set the tone for figuration and have opened the field to many younger artists.
“He painted according to the old tradition of the masters: the quality is excellent, their visual impact is there,” said Aimee Ng, curator of the Frick. “We wanted to bring his paintings to the fore as we would treat any historical artist.”
Ng is organizing the exhibition with Antwaun Sargent, a director of Gagosian, who will act as consultant curator and initially came up with the idea.
“You have a painter who is very much in the tradition of the old masters and who was not largely revered during his time,” said Sargent. “He was thinking about contemporary culture, but he was also thinking deeply about our history, about artists like Whistler”.
Hendricks’ portraits of black men and women will be hung throughout the museum. A canvas by his cousin in an Afro, “Lawdy Mama” (1969), for example, uses the gold leaf technique used in religious depictions, and is exemplified by a group of early Italian Renaissance panels in Frick’s collection.
Curators pointed to his limited palette painting “Steve” (1976), noting that it evokes Northern Renaissance artists such as Jan van Eyck, whose “The Virgin and Child with St Barbara, St Elizabeth and Jan Vos” resides in the Gallerie del Northern Europe.
“We’re not cornering it, we’re putting the work into the collection and saying it’s as significant as any other wall in the museum,” Sargent said. “I’m interested in what the reaction will be and what connection our visitors will create between Barkley’s work and the work of these old European masters.”
A catalog that will explore Hendricks ‘impact will include contributions from artists such as Derrick Adams, Nick Cave and Toyin Ojih Odutola, acknowledging Hendricks’ widespread influence.
“For the generation of portrait painters that came after him – Kehinde Wiley, Amy Sherald and even Rashid Johnson – he was an important predecessor,” Sargent said. “I would also say that, without Barkley’s work, you don’t get this moment in the figuration you are seeing today.”
Hendricks’ interest in black figuration in the 1960s and 1970s put him out of the mainstream of black artists during that time, many largely concerned with civil rights and the Black Power movement.
His work was largely unrecognized until recently, when the art world began correcting cannon and black portraiture became popular.
Although the time seems to have passed for Frick to focus on a contemporary black artist, the museum – whose mandate is to collect and present European art from the 14th to 19th centuries – recognizes that there will inevitably be some pushback from part of the purists.
The Frick has tentatively experimented with more progressive programming. His current project, Living Histories: Queer Views and Old Masters, features the work of four artists – Doron Langberg, Salman Toor, Jenna Gribbon and Toyin Ojih Odutola – who explore gender and queer identity issues that have typically been excluded from narratives of the first European modern art.
“There are traditionalists who don’t think there’s a place for artists of color because that’s not what Frick has traditionally done, and there are those who are really dying for this sort of thing,” Ng said. “Our group of young people is bigger than it has ever been. This tells me that we are going in the right direction. I don’t want to alienate people who have been with the Fricks for 40, 50, 60 years. I want to connect the historical collection and other works of art “.