The Virtual Opening Celebration for the Rose Art Museum’s new exhibition “My Mechanical Sketchbook” took place over Zoom on Feb. 16. Selections from the work of American artist Barkley L. Hendricks were curated by Dr. Gannet Ankori, Henry and Lois Foster Director and Chief Rose Art Museum Director, and Dr. Elyan J. Hill, Guest Curator of African and African Diaspora Art. It includes oil paintings and photographs retrieved from Hendricks’s estate after his death in 2017.
“At Rose, we really like to amplify the voice of the artists,” said Ankori. She described Hendricks as “a virtuoso painter, a brilliant photographer, fashion icon…[and] a lover of basketball, music and poetry.” The hour-long celebration opened with a video, assembled by Rose intern Vincente Cayuela ’22, introducing Hendrick’s work. It was set to “So What” by Miles Davis, one of the artist’s favorite musicians.
The exhibit consists of five overlapping sections. One section, “The Eye and the Lens as Reflections of Self,” addresses Black invisibility. In 1966, Hendricks participated in the Penn Academy Traveling Scholarship of the Arts. Noticing an absence of diverse representation in portrait paintings, Hendricks highlighted Blackness as a “spectrum, rather than a monolith” in his own painted and photographic portraits, according to Dr. Hill. One full-length portrait shown during the ceremony depicts Hendricks himself, wearing a crisp hat and a white blouse in his studio. One hand rests on his heart while the other holds a camera pointed at a mirror.
“Boombox and Television” is inspired by technology, sights and sounds. A print of Anita Hill on a television screen and photographs of Miles Davis are showcased. Another series, “I, Too Sing America,” is inspired by a Langston Hughes poem—Hendricks was an avid fan. Hughes’s quotes have been placed on the walls of the Rose Art Gallery.
“My work provides me with total freedom. In turn, it demands total honesty,” said Hendricks in 1976. He challenged viewers’ conceptions of masculinity and racial stereotypes; his art is marked by a use of high-heels and the color red, a representation of blood. Ankori described Hendricks as an individual who “defied categorization.” His works were often subversive and political. More than anything, they were tied to his emotions, said James “Ari” Montford.
Montford, a graduate of the Brandeis Art Department and Hendrick’s friend of over 40 years, characterized his peer and “role model” through anecdotes. They met at a party in 1972 and became close over the decades, eventually calling each other “brothers from another mother.” He remembers long conversations about the art community in Hendrick’s kitchen, visits to Hendrick’s studio in London and artistic escapades. Posturing as press reporters, they took photographs of a Klu Klux Klan rally in Connecticut. Hundreds of Klan members gathered, some harassing the two artists for the color of their skin.
“Someone could’ve walked up behind us and put a knife in our back. It radically changed my work and I know it impacted Barkley as well,” said Montford. Back in Hendrick’s kitchen after the rally, the two men stood in stunned silence. Montford later received a postcard from his friend, a gesture of gratitude for accompanying him. It also acknowledged their special kinship. On the back of the postcard: a painted self-portrait of Hendricks. He had sent Montford a piece of himself.
Montford described Hendricks as relatively private with his work. Few people visited his studio. Following Hendrick’s death in April 2017, his widow called Montford. Susan Hendricks asked for help sifting through her late husband’s work, and together, they came across a garage of uncatalogued art. Montford recovered one of the photos taken during the Klan rally, a close-up of men and women in full regalia. Now, the startling image hangs on the walls of the Rose.
It was difficult for Montford to talk about his departed friend, but he offered an expansive portrait of the artist. “He was constantly, sort of, navigating that whole world out there,” said Montford.
Hendricks was given the last word of the virtual ceremony. In an old interview clip, he states, “My camera, I call it my mechanical sketchbook.”