This article was originally published in 2012
When it comes to painting, Barkley L. Hendricks is indisputably the creator of cool. His 2008 traveling retrospective, Birth of the Cool, took its title from the 1957 Miles Davis compilation of the same name. “You don’t decide to be hip, it just happens that way,” said Hendricks, who has inspired many younger artists, including überstar Kehinde Wiley and international phenom Fahamu Pecou—both of whom look to Hendricks as a primary influence. He was the vanguard who gave them the conceptual framework with which to see not just portraiture, but the black body.
Hendricks, born in Phildelphia in 1945, came of age in the art world when abstraction and minimalism were all the rage. While at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, he received travel scholarships to Europe and North Africa, where he became painfully aware of the lack of black representation in Western art. In 1971, while he was attaining his MFA at Yale, his work was curated into his first major museum exhibition, Contemporary Black Artists in America, at the Whitney Museum of American Art.
In a definitive reference to Blaxploitation, his images—portrayals of black people as seen from within—are raw, realistic, and liberating. With names like Sweet Thang (Lynn Jenkins), Michael BPP (Black Panther Party), Slick (self-portrait), and Dr. Kool, his paintings depict real-life characters.
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