So the artist began to mix the three influences—the attitude of musicians like Simone and Davis, the iconic style of old world European painting, and the everyday black folks he knew from the neighborhood or saw strutting through the streets—in a distinct visual style that has been referred to as “cool realism.” Works like his 1974 oil What’s Going On, titled after Marvin Gaye’s smooth 1971 protest album, often show black figures, en vogue or nude, against flat, bright monochrome backdrops.
The four portraits and one still life on display in “Barkley Hendricks: ‘Let’s Make Some History’” were all painted early in Hendricks’s career. Toast of Amos (1966) is the earliest work on display. It shows a young student, teasingly nicknamed “Toast” because of the shade of his skin, fashionably sporting a long side part in his closely cropped brown hair. Set against an olive green background, he wears a woolly red turtleneck and blue cardigan; his eyes are cast downward behind circular thin frames as if he’s reading a book.
Hendricks portrays a dynamic subject who is complexly layered. He is pensive, stylish, and intellectual. Before Hendricks’s Toast, black subjects like him were hard to find in art. The artist was adamant that his work was not political and that he painted “personal joy and enlightenment,” but his early works manifested a new, liberating way of seeing the black body on canvas. Toast is not a stand-in for a cause—which was typical of the art of the Black Aesthetics Movement—but a self-possessed individual. As Hendricks wrote in a 2008 essay, “How cool is that?”