New York

Barkley L. Hendricks, Sidecar #1 (For Miles), 1979, graphite, glow stick juice, ink, blue-foil seal, and collage on paper, 22 1/4 X 29 3/4". © Estate of Barkley L. Hendricks.

Barkley L. Hendricks, Sidecar #1 (For Miles), 1979, graphite, glow stick juice, ink, blue-foil seal, and collage on paper, 22 1/4 X 29 3/4". © Estate of Barkley L. Hendricks.

Barkley L. Hendricks

Barkley L. Hendricks, Sidecar #1 (For Miles), 1979, graphite, glow stick juice, ink, blue-foil seal, and collage on paper, 22 1/4 X 29 3/4". © Estate of Barkley L. Hendricks.

The great Barkley L. Hendricks, who passed away last year, is best known for his majestic painted portraits of confident, self-assured black men and women, their dignified presence amplified through attitude and sartorial panache. Hendricks also worked in many other media—notably photography—and the full-breadth of his creative practice is only now beginning to emerge. “Them Changes” at Jack Shainman presented forty works on paper, including mixed-media collages and watercolors, that Hendricks produced between 1974 and 1984. Though touted as “newly discovered bodies of work” by the gallery, at least some were included in his solo exhibition at the Studio Museum in Harlem in 1980.

The mixed-media collages, which made up the bulk of the show, are surprisingly spare given the sheer variety of marks and images the artist used to create them—graphite, ink, watercolor, and glow stick, as well as collaged elements including pornography, postcards, postage stamps, ink stamps, dollar bills, blue-foil seals, price stickers and packaging, graph paper, and empty music paper. Music, and especially jazz, had a strong influence on Hendricks, who himself was an accomplished player. Icons such as Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, and Charles Mingus are repeatedly referenced in his titles, and reappear throughout these works as faint outlines and ghostly graphite renditions haunting the frame. Even the compositions seem inspired by jazz’s improvisatory spirit, repetitive structures, syncopated rhythms, and meandering melodies; they feel like intuitive riffs. In Sidecar #1 (For Miles), 1979, a silhouette of Davis floats atop a facsimile of the Declaration of Independence, extending the ideals of freedom and independence from the political to the musical. Hendricks challenges the authority of the founding fathers, exaggerating their ornate signatures into lines of nonsensical squiggles and scratch marks, and embellishing the foot of the document with a blue-foil seal. Such signs of power are rendered decorative and repeated in other works.

Hendricks’s portraiture, especially of himself, is known for its frank sexuality and, unsurprisingly, these works are filled with double entendres and suggestive humor. Rear Entry, 1974, features an X-ray of a pelvis shown from behind, and framed by stamped pink hearts. Hendricks softens the edges of the hand-drawn image precisely where it cuts across the body, allowing its fleshiness to diffuse onto the paper. One of three works featuring such imagery, it demonstrates Hendricks’s tremendous drawing skills. A row of three minimal line drawings based on the same pornographic shot, the genitals highlighted through delicate shading, fills the top half of Royal Canadian Mounted Police, 1975. In the third iteration, the bodies appear as white cutouts against a ground of gridded graph paper, emphasizing their salacious subject. A postcard of the titular figure appears below, his power and prestige compromised through the vulgar pun. The same basic composition is repeated in Vacuum Packed, 1975, but here the collaged element is an empty hot dog packet. Featuring the various sizes and types available—tiny, tall, skinless, with casing, etc.—the juxtaposition evokes a sexual slang while simultaneously undermining pornography’s masculine bravado.

Hendricks never idealized his human sitters, and a series of watercolors from 1979 demonstrates a similarly uncompromising approach to various nonhuman subjects: the peel of half a watermelon, emptied of its luscious pink flesh; bananas, blackened but still firm, a racially coded phallic reference; an ass’s jawbone; pairs of unshelled peanuts and mushrooms, both rendered to resemble testicles. Isolated on paper, accompanied only by their carefully sketched shadows, they felt more like character studies than conventional still lives.

In each of the four works in the most recent series, titled after poet and humorist Langston Hughes, a television screen occupies the center of the frame. In one work, it becomes a yin-yang-like abstraction, harking back to Hendricks’s occasional experiments with that idiom. In Grand Master, 1983, a spectral image of a hip-hop group appears in the space, with the phrase ASK YOUR MAMA, a reference to the title of a jazz-inspired poem by Hughes from 1961, scrawled at the foot of the frame. Possibly a meditation on jazz’s legacy in the era of music television, it posits a genealogy of black culture defined by music, poetry, and irrepressible swagger, extending from jazz and poetry to the rhythms and rhymes of hip-hop.

Murtaza Vali