Barkley Hendricks: Brown Sugar “Cool”

“Cool.” To many, this is an everyday phrase we use when we find something or someone good or agreeable. To describe a thing or idea as being sound in some way; we would say “it’s cool.” According to social historian Peter N. Stearns, the word itself has gone through a process of lexical amelioration or broadening, from its previously “icy” connotations to something good. In the 1970s art scene, “cool” was an energy.

Barkley Hendricks: Brown Sugar "Cool"
Barkley L. Hendricks, Brown Sugar Vine, 1970. Oil and acrylic on linen, 50 x 48″. Philadephia. 

Born in Nicetown–Tioga, Philadelphia in 1945, Barkley Leonard Hendricks grew-up observing western art in different forms. From seventeenth-century Spanish portraiture by artists like Diego Velásquez to Byzantine painting, Hendricks fed his artistic mannerisms and interests in representation, power and divinity. But, as evidenced in the art produced throughout his career, the emphasis was always on blackness. Some argue that his artworks; created at the height of the black power movement during the late twentieth century, were purely political. In a 2016 interview with Laila Pedro for ‘The Brooklyn Rail,’ Hendricks articulated a clear definition for his work:

            “Let me correct the assumption that my early work was explicitly political. I was only political because, in the 1960s, America was fucked up and didn’t see what some artists or what black artists were doing. It was political in their minds. My paintings were about people that were part of my life. If they were political, it’s because they were a reflection of the culture, we were drowning in.”

His 1970 self-portrait “Brown Sugar Vine” shows the artist quite literally baring all. This nude, oil and acrylic on linen  piece reflected his previous life-sized portraits, but his steely, barely visible gaze and slightly pouted lips bring us back to this idea of the “American cool.” This portrait is potentially more than just physically revealing. As Hendricks said before, his paintings were about his life. Thus, it becomes somewhat difficult, due to the context of creation surrounding this piece, to separate the personal from the political. That is because the experiences that conjured this self-portrait or reflection revealed a complete submersion in the culture he was “drowning in.”

This soul-baring performance from Hendricks shows his perception of his body and indicates the conception of his ideologies. The quietly vibrant pride, which radiates from this piece is not dissimilar to the western artworks that equally inspired and somewhat appalled him as a young artist, due to the lack of seeing people that looked like him. His arms are relaxed; his head slightly tilts towards his right shoulder. Creating compositional informality with this asymmetry not only makes the piece seem somehow more natural, but it could also have minor references to the contrapposto we see in sculpture from antiquity.

Visually, this painting works in terms of colour due to contrasts between the slate-like background and the warmth of his skin. Hendricks modulates these tones to accentuate his physique, particularly in the upper arms and abdomen. The significance of this is the translation of a largely white-washed visual history of “noble simplicity and quiet grandeur,” famed by Johan Joachim Winkelmann onto the artist as a black man in the seventies.

Is this display of the “American cool” Hendricks’ rebuttal? Stearns’ hypothesis, that “the positive connotations of “cool,” along with its increasing usage, symbolises our culture’s increased striving for restraint,” is rather fitting. It seems, to those who potentially over-generalised his work previously; to be plainly powerful and show restraint was natural in whiteness, but heavily political in blackness. His art is not that black and white.

Here Hendricks has put himself front and centre; his portrayal is entirely in his hands. A performance of this nature has the potential to reveal so much about an artist. Each brushstroke symbolises a decision made. He chooses to show us his body in a “cool” and unbothered way, yet most of his head remains covered by both a dark pair of glasses and a hat. Does this action somehow separate the body and mind into different entities that can be opened and closed at will? We see the body freely, but the head is covered. Potentially, this could be playing further into the idea of being cool and reserved; a composed state of being. Equally, this could have been the artist’s preference of accessories on a purely aesthetic level. Potentially, by looking at Hendricks’ other self-portraits, we may be able to determine if this was a message, or simply a look.

Barkley Hendricks: Brown Sugar "Cool"
Barkley Hendricks, Brown Sugar Vine (detail), 1970. Oil and acrylic on linen, 50 x 48″. Philadephia. 

There is much to be uncovered about the work of Barkley Hendricks. So, let us continue to ask ourselves the question “why?” in relation not only to his work but within the broader context of self-portraiture and self-image. For it is not just a reflection of physiognomy, but perception and self-awareness. As a woman of colour, seeing self-portraits like this allows another level of reflection, particularly about race and how we view the image of blackness in western art; the politics of representation. Art will usually find ways to become personal because we interpret it based on our experiences. When we look at the work of Barkley Hendricks and reflect, do we see personality or politics and how to we separate the two?

For further reading, scholarship by Richard J. Powell, Peter N. Stearns’ ” American Cool: Constructing a Twentieth-Century Emotional Style,” 1994 and The Journal of Contemporary African Art are great resources. 

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