Crossing Rembrandt with David Hammons

Stylin': Hendricks' Bahsir (Robert Gowens)

Stylin': Hendricks' Bahsir (Robert Gowens). Courtesy of Nasher Museum of Art

Barkley Hendricks, best known for the life-size portraits of people of color from the urban Northeast that he began painting in the late 1960s, holds an unusual place in American art. He derives his inspiration from both the technical virtuosity of Old Masters such as Van Dyck and Rembrandt and the African-American style and attitude of his own era. His work resides at the nexus of American realism and post-modernism—somewhere between portraitists like Chuck Close and Alex Katz and pioneering black conceptualists David Hammons and Adrian Piper.

Beginning in February, the Nasher Museum of Art will present Hendricks' first career retrospective. The show, "Barkley L. Hendricks: Birth of the Cool," organized by Trevor Schoonmaker, the Nasher's curator of contemporary art, will include work from 1964 to the present.

One high point is Bahsir (Robert Gowens), a 1975 painting that depicts the same subject from three different angles. The triple-perspective composition is loosely based on historical depictions of The Three Graces who represented beauty, charm, and joy in Greek mythology. Hendricks' subject is a mere mortal, dressed like a character out of Shaft, Super Fly, or another of the Blaxploitation films of the early 1970s. But the artist's bold portrayal of the man's attitude and style elevates him to celebrity status.

The exhibition will be on display at Duke February 7 through July 13, then travel to the Studio Museum in Harlem, the Santa Monica Museum in Los Angeles, the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts in Philadelphia, and the Contemporary Arts Museum in Houston.

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