BARKLEY L. HENDRICKS changed the course of my life when I cold-called him at his home in New London, Connecticut, in March of 2000. At that time, I was curating my first exhibition, a summer show called “The Magic City” at the New York gallery where I worked, Brent Sikkema (now Sikkema Jenkins & Co.). Barkley’s paintings had been on my mind since I encountered them in books during graduate school in the mid 1990s, so I reached out to a curator at the Studio Museum in Harlem and asked if she would pass along his contact information. She did, with the caveat that I promise not to tell him where I got his number; Barkley had a reputation for being kind of prickly. I assured her that her secret was safe and gave him a call. What I found on the other end of the line was a warm, inquisitive, funny, and generous person. We spoke for over two hours—about his work, music, Nigeria, and the Afrobeat pioneer Fela Kuti. At the end of the conversation Barkley invited me to visit him and his wife, Susan, at their home. I took the train out the next weekend.
Over the next seventeen years, Barkley and I worked together on a number of exhibitions and projects, and along the way we developed a close friendship. In 2002, he painted an iconic portrait of Fela for the exhibition I was curating, “Black President: The Art and Legacy of Fela Anikulapo-Kuti.” At that time, Barkley was working in photography, landscape painting, and mixed media, and had not painted a large oil portrait in nineteen years. I also had not yet secured the New Museum of Contemporary Art as the show’s opening venue in 2003, but Barkley dove into his new portrait of Fela just the same. It is hard to describe the magnitude of that gesture. He was inspired by Fela, to be sure, but it was also a tremendous leap of faith. A few years later, I worked with Barkley to organize his painting retrospective “Barkley L. Hendricks: Birth of the Cool,” which opened at the Nasher Museum in 2008 and traveled across the country. Barkley’s work from that exhibition appeared on the cover of Artforum’s April 2009 issue, which also included an incisive review by Huey Copeland that brought broader and long-deserved attention to his painting. Most recently, Barkley and I were working on assembling a selection of portraits for the forthcoming edition of Prospect New Orleans, “Prospect.4: The Lotus in Spite of the Swamp,” this fall. It will be a significant presentation of twelve of his portraits from 1970 to 2016 that were not part of “Birth of the Cool.” Long ensconced in private collections, the majority of these works have rarely, if ever, been shown in a public venue; now, together, they will serve as a tribute of sorts to the late artist. But if his portraits are iconic images that inescapably foreground his influence on so many artists to come, it is less known that Barkley was equally dedicated to photography, amassing an extensive archive—film, slides, prints, and digital images—that has yet to be properly explored. The Nasher Museum has three of his photographs in its collection, but those images are only the very tip of the iceberg. So much more has yet to be discovered and shared with the world.
Barkley was a pioneering spirit who defiantly went against the grain and remained true to himself at all times. His unrelenting dedication to his vision and style has deeply inspired younger generations, and he has left behind a powerful legacy. He thankfully didn’t care much about other people’s opinions, and he didn’t suffer fools—but he was also a thoughtful teacher, a keen observer of life, and a loyal and generous friend with a great sense of humor. I am forever grateful for his friendship. That I will miss the most.
Trevor Schoonmaker is chief curator and Patsy R. and Raymond D. Nasher Curator of Contemporary Art at the Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University.