high court

words: alex waxman

images: barkley hendricks COURTESY jack shainmain gallery


In the mid 1970s, the art world began to take notice of a young black figurative painter coming out of Yale named Barkley Hendricks. Hendricks’ high-impact life-sized portraits of striking black individuals, painted with Old Master virtuosity and detail, commanded attention, putting the viewer in what felt like direct contact with his subjects. Today, these portraits are owned by major museums, coveted by collectors, and Hendricks is widely credited with reviving portraiture at a time when it was very much on the sidelines, making him a forefather to the resurgence of black artists working in figuration like Kehinde Wiley, Mickalene Thomas, and Amy Sherald, to name just a few.


Back then, however, Hendricks’ work couldn’t have been further from what was happening in the art world, where minimalist abstraction was the dominant orthodoxy. Hendricks couldn’t have cared less. Early on at Yale, when the abstract painters attempted to enlist him, Hendricks was quick to let them know he wasn’t interested. Instead, he went to learn from the photographers, including the great American documentarian Walker Evans. In reality, Hendricks was already on his own trajectory, one shaped and set in motion years earlier in his hometown of Philadelphia.


In the mid 1960s, Hendricks was working part-time as a roving art teacher on the playgrounds of North Philly for the Department of Parks and Recreation while training at the classically-oriented Philadelphia Academy of Fine Arts. The mythic hometown legend Wilt Chamberlain had just returned to the 76ers. Philadelphia’s young black artists were engaged in discussion about what “black art” should be. Hendricks, a local kid from the working-class neighborhood of Nicetown-Tioga, was equally steeped in the academy and the culture of the street. On the playgrounds and basketball courts he knew well, and where he was well-known (by the nickname ‘Butch’), Hendricks found subjects for early portraits. And it was there that he drew inspiration for another body of work, largely overlooked, that he called his Basketball Paintings.


With their playful graphic compositions, elevation of the vernacular to near sacred heights, subtle rendering of light and shadow, and titles freely mixing street culture and high art, the Basketball Paintings are in many ways the spatial counterpart to Hendricks’ arresting portraits. They reveal an artist engaged with the language and ideas of abstraction, while also very much rooted in black life and his community. Hendricks passed away in 2017, but the Basketball Paintings are set to be exhibited for the first time in the spring of 2022 at Jack Shainman Gallery.


In the early 2000s, I was fortunate to study drawing with Hendricks at Connecticut College, where he taught for over 30 years. He was a demanding, if for many of us, bewildering figure, prone to extended monologues on matters obscure to most of us: the tyranny of framers, the semiotics of women’s footwear, racial dynamics in the art world, Reaganism. He was known to wield a laser pointer when addressing an anatomical question of particular concern, or the subtle rendering of drapery. All of this is to say, he was deeply memorable. And while Hendricks was constitutionally unwilling to follow the prescribed rules or prevailing winds of the art world, his influence only seems to grow year after year. As his own words and interviews with those who knew him or fell under the sway of his works attest, the Barkley Hendricks experience is on full view in the long overlooked Basketball Paintings. 



BARKLEY HENDRICKS [Oral History, 2009]: I was the arts and crafts specialist for the Philadelphia Department of Recreation for District 10. I would go around to various playgrounds. There were some places where I did, like, marble tournaments or plaster of Paris molds and stuff like that. But the situation was such where the district chairman recognized that he had a goldmine in me. I worked well with the kids...If the adults didn’t get in the way, we made good stuff.


MOE BROOKER, PHILADELPHIA ARTIST, PEER: That was a job that a number of artists would take. I did the same thing. You’d work from 2 o’clock until 10. It was a good gig. You got money, and you were able to paint on the job if you wanted to.


BARKLEY HENDRICKS [Writings, 2007]: The courts were just barely marked, and the rims never had nets or chains that lasted more than a week or two (that is, if the entire rim was not bent or broken off from the backboard). The street balls rarely had distinguishing lines on them to say, “I’m a basketball.” When the large orange ball was launched from the shooter’s hand, there would follow a confident cry of “Two!” which could often be heard in the next block. At times, which were many, the ball would hit the rim or backboard and soar in directions away from where the game was played. Scrugs, tremblers, and slop were just a few of the names labeling players of dubious skills.


MOE BROOKER: There was a group of us in Philadelphia who were artists who got to know each other. We’d get together from time to time and talk about what the possibilities were in terms of becoming a black artist—what the problems were and the difficulties. Do you paint African-esque work? Or do you do something else that’s more relevant to you? One of the things that made Barkley very wonderful and very special is that he searched out and started talking about things that were important to him, and that were important to most young black males. We all played basketball on the playgrounds. It was a way of declaring your manhood, a way of signaling to those around you that you had purpose, that you had skill. Where you determined who you were. You could go on the court and you could be anything. You could be the best you could possibly be, and no one could prevent you, except if they had better skill. So you honed your skills. 



BARKLEY HENDRICKS [Interview, 2014]: There was [an instructor] at the Academy named Walter Staumfig. Staumfig was very hard edge. He’d be very honest. Colorful language. He didn’t take any shit from anybody. Whenever he dealt with modernism or abstraction, he would let you know. One particular time, I brought two paintings to him: one was more geometric, one was the figure. The geometric images were of basketballs. I brought these two paintings and he looked at me and he pointed to the basketball piece and he says, ‘Turn that shit to the wall, it hurts my eyes, it reminds me of that goddamn French painter Leger.’


MOE BROOKER: Barkley didn’t care what Walter Staumfig thought about it. He would bring the work to him, and put it right there in front of him. Staumfig didn’t know what to say. He missed the point about Barkley making these paintings that was a statement about his masculinity as a young black male in this country, and what you could do and what you couldn’t do. He missed it entirely, completely. He was a good critic generally, but if you brought things he didn’t understand, he would insult you.


BARKLEY HENDRICKS [Writings, 2007]: Subjects like Toast and Reggie and Buck and Li’l Bits were all portraits I did in the office at Amos Playground. I also had the job of trying to stop the local gang members from drinking wine and smoking various weed products in the toilets. 


HENRY KULKOWITZ, HENDRICKS’ FIRST DEALER IN PHILADELPHIA: What Barkley Hendricks was showing me was pure, direct depictions of the world he was growing up in–unadulterated realism. Basketballs on round canvases. Full length, life-size portraits of people doing their thing. Intimate but honest depictions of our world, right in your face. 


RICHARD POWELL, PhD, ART HISTORIAN, DUKE UNIVERSITY: It’s not a stretch when you remember that Philadelphia is a very rich place in terms of black culture. John Coltrane spent formative years there. Very important black dancers come out of Philadelphia, as well as important African American artists and writers. This is really a rich center of black cultural life. It just takes a mind and an imagination and a belief in that culture to take it to the next level.


HANK WILLIS THOMAS, ARTIST: He was a visionary. He was thinking in very complex ways around things that people were yet to be aware of about the way that sports was becoming a new avenue for freedom and creative expression as a metaphor for other forms of liberation happening in the black community, and that the players and the sport were a canvas–a canvas for making dreams reality.  



MOE BROOKER: He made these images that were stark. You had a basketball and a backboard confronting you and saying, “This is who I am, this is my strength, you can’t take this away from me, I can control this.” There’s no way in the world that you could mistake it, at least for me, the intent. The portraits absolutely put it right in your face: “I am who I am. We are who we are. You have to confront my image, you have to confront me.” The relationship between the two was brilliant—that he was able to take those images, and get across the message about who he was as a painter: “Here I am, you deal with it.” 

JACK SHAINMAN, GALLERIST: I always thought [the Basketball Paintings] were really interesting. I remember asking Barkley about them, too, and he talked about this kind of beauty and poetry of basketball. He told me that they’re like portraits, and I never really knew what he meant until I saw the triptych [Father, Son, and…] They’re almost like religious paintings. They certainly harken back to that. 


RICHARD POWELL, PhD, ART HISTORIAN, DUKE UNIVERSITY:: These are Philadelphia paintings. They come out of his engagement with the art world and also the black community. It can be easy to zoom in on these basketball paintings and zoom in on his play with geometry, but there’s more to it than that. There are real people, real lives there despite the fact that we don’t see them in the painting. He’s saying, what about a black reality that has to do with those who are not viewed as carriers of great high culture? This is not just elevating the culture to a spiritual level, it’s the beauty of moving across the space to put the ball in the hoop. Behind these pristine city abstractions of space and form is the poetry and the choreography and the floating of Wilt the Stilt. These things are art unto themselves. And it took Barkley Hendricks to concretize that. One also doesn’t want to lose sight that simultaneously to these paintings, he is doing portraits. And he’s doing portraits of these same young men. 


ELLIOT PERRY, NBA POINT GUARD 1991 – 2002, CONTEMPORARY ART COLLECTOR: Obviously I played basketball, but what resonates with me and what resonated the first time I ever saw a Barkley Hendricks painting was, “That’s me.” Or, “That’s my family member.” There is a direct and instant connection and gravitation to that work. They just sort of bring back memories—not just the style, but the way he painted with pure clarity.


HANK WILLIS THOMAS: He had a painting of a person named Jules, who was a family friend, and there was either a postcard or print of that in my aunt’s house. Speechless is the only way to really describe it. I don’t think I’d ever seen a painting of a person of African descent that was like that. It said as much about style and grace as it did about beauty and technical ability. I never thought that I’d make a work of art that was as timeless and affective as those. It definitely is kind of like... that’s the goal.  

TREVOR SCHOONMAKER, CURATOR, BIRTH OF THE COOL RETROSPECTIVE: They feel like disparate bodies of work just because people know the portraits, and because people haven’t seen the Basketball Paintings. They were made simultaneously. The basketball paintings give a lot of insight into how he came up to his idea of monochromatic flat planes of color behind his figures. The basketball paintings are planes of color and geometric fields. They are feeding into one another. 


NICK CAVE, ARTIST: I saw a number of these [basketball] paintings and I was literally shocked that they came from Barkley. I would have never guessed that he was working in this direction. They’re just so modern. And so graphic. I see Barkley as a figurative painter. But then I started to think about it, and I got really caught up in this whole notion of time. I think that came about when I started to pay attention to the shadows on the rims. The subtleness of how that rim is lit on that edge. You know it’s like 9:30 at night. The physical presence of the body is very much part of this work although it’s not present. You can still feel the action. You feel how time is part of a collective experience and you would find yourself with your friends and community for the entire day. You really feel like you’re on the court.