Frick Curator Aimee Ng Discusses Barkley L. Hendricks’ Influences and Influence

The co-curator of the institution's first solo exhibition featuring an artist of color caught up with Observer to talk about the development of the show and the artist’s legacy.

Today The Frick Collection opens “Barkley L. Hendricks: Portraits at the Frick,” a highly anticipated show at the Frick Madison that marks the 87-year-old institution’s first solo exhibition featuring an artist of color. The show features fourteen early Hendricks portraits—the earliest painted in 1969—that showcase the artist’s influence on artists like Derrick Adams, Mickalene Thomas and Kehinde Wiley, as well as the degree to which his work was in conversation with the much older portraits in the Frick’s collection.

Aimee Ng. Joseph Coscia Jr.

We caught up with the show’s co-curator, Aimee Ng, to talk about the exhibition on the occasion of its opening.

How did you come to this show? What were you talking about in the early planning discussions surrounding it?

The show emerged from a conversation my co-curator, Antwaun Sargent, and I had about The Frick Collection, its identity and the kinds of contemporary artists who might be well-aligned with the Frick’s collection of historic European art. Antwaun suggested Barkley L. Hendricks; I discovered through conversations with Jack Shainman, gallery director Elisabeth Sann and later, Barkley’s wife Susan Hendricks that the Frick was one of Barkley’s favorite museums. It felt like a cosmic match.

Our early planning discussions were around how to celebrate Barkley’s art and its connections to the Old Masters and how to tell important and complex stories of artistic legacy. We considered how best to engage our particular areas of expertise: me considering Barkley and the Old Masters, and Antwaun exploring Barkley’s legacy for artists who came after him. This is reflected in the exhibition catalogue, which has me writing about Barkley and the past, and Antwaun on Barkley and the future.

What are the standout works in the show for you, and why? 

Every work in the show is a standout! Each of the fourteen portraits—selected from some hundred or so known portraits by Hendricks—was chosen to represent the highest quality and impressive range and variation of Barkley’s early portraiture period, which he started as soon as he returned from his first trip to Europe in 1966. (The works in the show date from 1969 to 1983, at which point he took about twenty years hiatus from portraiture). Each painting has a singular story to tell. Some have not been seen in public exhibition in decades, or in the case of Lagos Ladies, ever.

Barkley L. Hendricks, ‘Lawdy Mama’, 1969, Oil and gold leaf on canvas, 53 3/4 x 36 1/4 in. (136.5 x 92.1 cm), Studio Museum in Harlem; gift of Stuart Liebman, in memory of Joseph B. Liebman. © Barkley L. Hendricks; courtesy of the Estate of Barkley L. Hendricks and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York

The press release remarks that Henry Clay Frick might have collected Hendricks. What do you think would have drawn Frick to Hendricks?

Henry Clay Frick was drawn to artists and works with a high level of technical achievement and visual force; he collected art for his home that was considered the top of a particular type or genre—e.g., the great Rembrandt Self-Portrait, the finest Holbein portraits—that were also “pleasing to live with.” This could be one way to describe Hendricks’s portraits: the grandeur, style and quality share obvious commonalities with what Frick acquired for himself. And I have heard from a number of owners of Barkley’s paintings that they love living with them.

What are the challenges of curating a show like this in the context of a collection as distinguished as Frick’s?

This was an extraordinarily joyful show to put together. One challenge of its setting at the Frick was balance: the Frick has a long, storied history as a museum and collection, representing some of the highest achievements of historic European art. How do we celebrate the Frick and Old Master painting as crucial inspirations for Barkley, while also highlighting the enormous innovation of Barkley’s portraiture and Barkley as a pioneer? As he said himself, no matter what his inspiration or admiration was, “It had to be done Barkley Hendricks style—no copies.”

This need for balance informed our installation plan. All three floors of Frick Madison (including those displaying historic paintings from Spain, Italy, the Netherlands and Germany) are the context for the exhibition, though Barkley’s paintings are only on the fourth floor. Barkley’s portraits are connected to and share sight lines with the Frick’s historic works but—importantly—the exhibition galleries are devoted specifically to Barkley, just like we would present a group of any historic artist’s work.

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What could Hendricks teach the other portraitists in the collection? Where do we see his influence today? 

What could Henricks teach the Old Masters? He was interested in materials and experimented with what was old and new—gold leafing and Magna; it would be great if he could reach back in time and introduce Vermeer and Van Dyck to more stable modern pigments and paints. He also had a brilliant approach to titling his works, which sometimes come from song lyrics or are witty plays on words; Rembrandt and Van Gogh could have had a field day titling their many self-portraits in Barkley Hendricks’ style. We see his influence in so many artists working today. Some of the most prominent and exciting artists of our time contributed reflections on Barkley’s impact on their art, which we published in the catalogue accompanying the exhibition.

Not long before his death, Hendricks told the Brooklyn Rail: “My paintings were about people that were part of my life. If they were political, it’s because they were a reflection of the culture we were drowning in.” Do artists have a duty to be more consciously political now?

I admire Barkley in part for his commitment to not being pinned down, categorized or defined by others. Of course he was consciously political; political content was reflected in what he saw, and what he saw was what he chose to see and focus on. But his art was not to be categorized as “political” or have a single interpretation. He had an incredibly layered, open and human way of seeing his art and viewers of his art, welcoming people to see his paintings with whatever perspectives they had.

For the gold-leafed portrait Lawdy Mama, for example, he knew some people would understand its inspiration in Byzantine icons and Italian Renaissance paintings, but he also saw it and other metal-leafing paintings of his as “shiny things” that appealed to people visually, regardless of what they knew about art history.

We could talk all day about the many functions and roles of art and the place of politics in it. Maybe one thing we would agree on is that art reflects the time in which it is made, inclusive of the life and worldview of its maker. I don’t think artists “have a duty” to be more consciously political today; they have a duty to make what they think is good art. If political consciousness is part of their idea of good art, then they should engage with it.

Besides demography, what’s changed most about America since Hendricks’ time?

Hendricks’ life spanned the late 1940s to 2017, so he lived through various evolutions of America. His later work reflected more obvious political content (e.g., t-shirts branded with “Fox News”). What would he have made of the pandemic and masks and vaccines, I wonder. I wasn’t around when Hendricks was painting the portraits in our show, so I don’t have a lived experience to compare today’s America to. More mass shootings? A crisis of facts? Faces stuck in smartphones? Barkley did not do email.

Frick Curator Aimee Ng Discusses Barkley L. Hendricks’ Influences and Influence