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Basketball and Barkley L. Hendricks: The lesser known work of an influential artist
Barkley L. Hendricks, Father, Son, and..., 1969 (detail). Oil and acrylic on canvas 54 x 36 3/8 x 1 1/2 inches (each panel), 54 x 109 1/4 x 1 1/2 inches (triptych overall dims). © Estate of Barkley L. Hendricks. Courtesy of the artist’s estate and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York.

by Sopan Deb

NEW YORK (NYT NEWS SERVICE).- Breaking the rules always came easy to Barkley L. Hendricks. One of the most influential artists and photographers of the 20th century, he was best known for his portrayal of everyday black life in the United States. He often eschewed convention and experimented with shapes and space in his works unlike anyone had before him.

But his most significant departure from the norm was in the subjects he chose to paint.

They were his neighbors, friends and strangers set against bold backdrops in works that might not have seemed out of place among centuries-old European portraits. Hendricks was a student at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in the 1960s and took a trip to Europe to study European masters, like Paul Cézanne and Rembrandt, and was dismayed to find a dearth of black subjects, so he painted his own.

His style combined the techniques of the old masters with his own abstractions in an effort to bring to life a vibrant black America. By doing so, he set the stage for several notable contemporary artists, such as Kehinde Wiley and Mickalene Thomas. He died in 2017 at 72.

“It was very impactful because African-Americans and people of color and people who seemed to be pushed out of the elitism of the art world could see themselves in a museum for the first time,” Trevor Schoonmaker, the director at Duke University’s Nasher Museum of Art, said in an interview. Schoonmaker worked with Hendricks extensively beginning in 2000, including curating shows featuring the artist.

Hendricks, a Philadelphia native, was also an avid basketball fan. Several never-before-seen works by Hendricks relating to his love of the sport are set to go on display to the public at an exhibition of his paintings at Jack Shainman Gallery in New York. (The physical opening of the exhibition, titled “Barkley L. Hendricks: In the Paint,” was supposed to be in the spring but was delayed because of the coronavirus. Instead, the gallery opened a digital version of the exhibition on Friday that will last until July 3.)

The works came from Hendricks’ time as an arts and crafts teacher at the Philadelphia Department of Recreation from 1967 to 1970, after he graduated from the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts but before attending Yale for his master of fine arts degree.

He was particularly fascinated by using the geometry of the basketball court — the shape of the hoop, the circle at the top of the key, the backboard — to create striking images that would mold his career and, by extension, the art world, for decades to come.

Here is a look at some of the works that will be on display.

‘Father, Son, And’

Hendricks grew up a passionate basketball fan, particularly of his hometown 76ers, and often played in pickup games. As in many of his works, these personal experiences made their way to the canvas because the images were right in front of him at the Philadelphia Department of Recreation. The basketball paintings feature flat monochromatic backgrounds, much like his other notable works at the time, such as 1969’s “Lawdy Mama.”

“When we look at the basketball paintings really closely, for Barkley, in many ways, they were like portraits of a sport,” Schoonmaker said. “Portraits of a place. Portraits of a time, rather than as an individual.”

“Father, Son, And” is a nod to centuries-old triptychs — paintings presented in three parts or panels, often religious works. In this case, it is the basketball court that Hendricks has made sacred.

‘Dippy’s Delight’

This work is an homage to another Philadelphia institution: Wilt Chamberlain, who played seven seasons in the city, first with the Warriors and then the 76ers. Dippy was a nickname for Chamberlain, along with Wilt the Stilt. Many of Hendricks’ paintings had whimsical titles with pop culture references.

‘I Want to Take You Higher’

“I Want To Take You Higher” may not look connected to basketball upon first glance. (The title is not basketball related, but rather a nod to Sly and the Family Stone.) But a closer examination shows that a section in red marks two separate basketball key areas meshed together.

“That’s the artistic license of Barkley,” Schoonmaker said. “Taking something he knows and really abstracting it to the point that it is almost not decipherable unless you know that he spent all this time with other basketball paintings.”

The red, black and green colors, Schoonmaker said, are a reference to the black power movement.

‘Still Life #5’

“Still Life #5” shows Hendricks’ interest in light, color and form — the reflection of the rim on the backboard and the ball seemingly extend off the canvas. Hendricks often observed, and played, basketball outdoors, and paid particular attention to how the sun would change the lighting on recreational courts. This interest shows up in granular details in this painting: The sun reflects off the ball from above on the left side but not beneath.


According to Schoonmaker, this painting shows a basketball in motion, much like what you might see in a chest pass as the ball spins in the sunlight on the way to its target. The ball’s lines aren’t particularly visible, in part, Schoonmaker said, because this represented a ball that was worn down.

© 2020 The New York Times Company

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