As with all photorealist paintings, Barkley Hendricks’s “APB’s (Afro-Parisian Brothers)” is imbued with the period vibes of the photograph on which it was based. The title – with its reference to a cosmopolitan Black brotherhood – calls to mind the peak of Pan-African consciousness and the Black Power movement, as well as the fabulous dress sense of such internationally famous Black dandies as James Brown and George Foreman.
It was painted in 1978 from a photograph Hendricks (1945-2017) took in Paris. The vogue for photorealist painting peaked around the same time. Hendricks’s painting marries ’70s fashion (pointed collars, flares, facial hair) and physical comportment (the taller man’s dandyishly suspended left arm!) to the 17th century Baroque manner of Diego Velázquez. In particular, Hendricks adapted the great Spaniard’s penchant for placing full-length figures against empty backgrounds, a device previously copied by another Velázquez devotee, and Parisian dandy, Édouard Manet.
Photorealism got its charge from a kind of purposeful elevation of the humdrum. It transformed the accidental aesthetic of the photographic snapshot into large-scale, technically virtuosic, museum-ready paintings.
Hendricks was a bit different and, I think, a bit more ambitious than most other photorealists. He grew up in Philadelphia, where his parents had moved from Virginia during the Great Migration. After studying at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, he enrolled at Yale in 1970. His teachers included the painters Bernard Chaet and Lester Johnson, and the great photographer Walker Evans. A couple of years after graduating, he took a job teaching studio art at Connecticut College, where he stayed for almost 40 years.
Hendricks had already traveled in Europe by the time he got to Yale. In the continent’s great museums, he fell in love with the ravishing painterly style and haughty authority of Velázquez and Anthony Van Dyck. What he didn’t see much of – there, or back in the United States – were paintings by Black artists or images of Black people that weren’t demeaning. In his own work, he set out to change that, elevating photographs of Black friends, neighbors and sometimes strangers into suave, full-length portraits.
In “APB’s (Afro-Parisian Brothers),” note the subtlety with which one of his two subjects here is cropped at the crown of his head, the other at his toes. The effect deepens the picture’s space while simultaneously bringing both figures closer.
Of course, for all their stately presence, Hendricks’s portraits are based on photos. They remain chilled by the camera’s innate objectivity – its special way of consigning intimate, here-and-now presence to the cold storage of there-and-then.
But what they lack in Baroque glow and paint handling, they gain in factuality. Style mattered to Hendricks, but it didn’t swallow his portraits’ human content. Like Velázquez – and unlike, for instance, Kehinde Wiley, whose blindingly decorative portrait-fictions ham up the theater of power and presence – Hendricks applied a genuinely tender feeling for truth to his project.
If the colors of these two very cool cats’ fashionable outfits bring them together, I’m drawn, too, to what makes them distinct. Note their different facial expressions. One appears mildly concerned, the other mildly amused. Beneath both, I detect a drone note of bafflement – which may be just an instinctive human response to having a camera suddenly pointed at us.
It’s as if, in that split second, some part of us registers that our moment-to-moment subjectivity is about to be converted into a document, our selfhood cleaved in two, by nothing more sinister than a click. If that’s the apprehension their expressions give away, it’s something Velázquez never painted.