Last week the Jack Shainman Gallery premiered “Barkley L. Hendricks: Myself When I Am Real” a retrospective of the photographs of the late artist Barkley L. Hendricks.

Best celebrated for his paintings, Hendricks, who passed in 2017, is known for having reinterpreted the visual perceptions of African Americans. 

Black people had been traditionally depicted by artists of different ethnicities as either viewed from afar or as embodying certain tropes which could then be comfortably understood by those observing them. Hendricks’ full-length portraits of various people helped transform Black visual culture: he allowed everyday Black Americans to express a sense of style and to stand before viewers with a distinct assurance. In his oil paintings from the 1960s and 1970s, Black Americans are seen presenting themselves as they wanted their presence to be understood and interpreted in the world.

The Shainman Gallery in Chelsea, which is representing Hendricks’ estate, presents some of the artists’ photos in this new exhibit. Photography was another medium he often turned to—these photos allow us to see the world and period of time he lived through, and to look at what caught his attention. 

These photos range from the 1960s through the 1990s, important periods in African American history. These decades saw changes brought about by the Civil Rights Movement and a resultant political and social progress on the grassroots level. Hendricks’ Shainman Gallery photos show how he witnessed the way the lives of ordinary Black people changed, and the ways that even celebrated African Americans––from Martin Luther King Jr. to 1983’s Miss America Vanessa Williams to jazz trumpeter Louis Armstrong to attorney Anita Hill and to the boxer Muhammad Ali––imprinted on U.S. society. 

The gallery notes in its literature for the exhibit that Hendricks has many photos he took while at a bar near where he lived in Connecticut: “A series of television screens, another recurring theme that fascinated Hendricks throughout his practice, documents vignettes of popular culture, news, and public figures such as Anita Hill and Ronald Reagan. The images serve as a record of the American media landscape and Hendricks’ own surroundings; a large number were taken at the Dutch Tavern, a local establishment in New London, Connecticut, over the years. Covering a broad range of subject matter, the series demonstrates Hendricks’ keen eye for American life during the birth of media oversaturation and the shape of visual culture in its wake.”

These photos are not solely of African Americans. They show the world African Americans lived through—where other figures, like Salvador Dali and Richard Nixon and Judy Garland also made impacts. Swirling around this larger world, Black life in America is put in context.

“Barkley L. Hendricks: Myself When I Am Real” is on view through May 26 at the Jack Shainman Gallery, 513 W. 20th Street, Manhattan, NY. Gallery hours are Tuesday to Saturday from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.

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