By turns extravagant and direct, the portraits Barkley L. Hendricks has made of his African-American friends and neighbors since the late 1960s variously recall the indolent nudes of Philip Pearlstein and the deadpan chic of David Hockney. But in these canvases and in other works—such as his series of landscapes freighted with Barbizon-school scrupulousness—the artist has sought modes of representing that go beyond the pursuit of likeness, gesturing toward abstraction, anamorphosis, and anachronism. On the occasion of a major traveling exhibition centered on these two bodies of work (organized by Trevor Schoonmaker for the Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina, recently shown at the Studio Museum in Harlem, New York, and appearing this summer at the Santa Monica Museum of Art in California), Artforum asked art historian HUEY COPELAND to engage Hendricks’s alternate realisms.
THE WHITE-SUITED BLACK SUBJECTS are rendered with varying degrees of realism: There is the chalky brown man at left, who possesses all the charm of a department store mannequin; the androgynous youth at right, with unfurled scarf and ghostly tinted glasses; and, of course, the woman at the center of the work, whose adjacent nude double seems to both teasingly recede into and forcefully protrude beyond the group. Barkley L. Hendricks executed this large-scale canvas, What’s Going On, in 1974, and it is perhaps the most striking of what the artist calls his “limited palette” works, with its fractured modes of depiction and hue. Indeed, for all their matching Ebony elegance, the figures might as well inhabit separate pictures, appearing less a community than a cast of characters layered into the same phantasmic envelope. Cool, aloof, and ethereal, these men and women are packaged together,
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