Painter Barkley L. Hendricks was a wanderer, traveling the world and capturing the people who captivated him. He was renowned as a painter of people, whose style gave the impression that his subjects could jump off the canvas. But after his death in 2017, the discovery of photographs Hendricks took over a lifetime revealed how much of humanity he saw with his camera.

A new exhibit at the Rose Art Museum, titled My Mechanical Sketchbook, explores Hendricks’ photographic work and the role photography played in his creative process. “The way an artist would sketch in a sketchbook to kind of remind himself of what he saw, Barkley Hendricks called the camera his mechanical sketchbook,” Gannit Ankori, director of the Rose Art Museum, explained.

From his earliest days growing up in North Philadelphia, Hendricks walked the city with a camera around his neck. But it was during his travels throughout Europe in 1966 when the then 21-year-old artist saw — and photographed — work that would change his life: paintings by the old masters.

Hendricks found the museum paintings riveting for their beauty, but striking for their lack of Blackness. Ankori says it was this revelation that revolutionized Hendricks’ approach to his art.

“He decided that his role would be to bring his people, his friends, his family, himself — bring them visibility, bring them into people’s range of vision,” she said.

Barkley L. Hendricks, Untitled
Barkley L. Hendricks Courtesy of the artist’s estate and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York

Hendricks also often turned the gaze on himself, occasionally addressing his own nudity. He titled one of his nude self-portraits “Brilliantly Endowed,” after a 1977 New York Times review labeled him “brilliantly endowed.” Of course, the Times meant he was “brilliantly endowed” as a painter — but as Ankori explains, that description conjured up all the tropes of Black men.

“He was aware of the hypersexuality, hypersexualization of the Black body. And he was taking these stereotypes and exploring them, putting his place there,” Ankori said.

Elyan Jeanine Hill, the show’s co-curator, says Hendricks used his photography and self-portraiture as a way to show the world through his eyes.

“His gaze is what we are seeing. He’s central,” she said. “We don't get to kind of push him to the side and make our own assumptions.

“You see him playing with visibility, hypervisibility and invisibility in these various ways that I think in a post-2020 U.S. is very important for us to think about how Black and brown people come into view,” Hill continued.

Confederate Flag
In the Crosshairs of the States, 2016
Barkley L. Hendricks Courtesy of the artist’s estate and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York

Hendricks bristled at assumptions, especially when his work was labeled “political.” Hill says the characterization was problematic for Hendricks because it was a way for people to oversimplify what he was doing.

“People often used the word as a way to dismiss his work as doing only one thing,” she said. “What he was really doing was showing this deep complexity of the people he saw around him and also of the nation that he lived in.” A nation where he saw Anita Hill fashioned as a pariah, where space was made for the Ku Klux Klan and the Confederate flag was embraced.

Through his work it’s clear that Hendricks also seemed to revel in life’s pleasures, in togetherness and in the beauty of life.

“There’s a lot of sensuality in the beauty that he portrays,” Hill said. “That for me brings to mind his portrait of ‘Vendetta Sitting in Lotus Position,’ almost star-like.”

“Vendetta,” shown in the exhibit, a black-and-white portrait of a nude Black woman assuming the Lotus position. Her facial expression is both serene and focused as she looks directly at the camera.

“We learn that people like Angela Davis and Rosa Parks used yoga as a form of self-care and as a way for preparing themselves for political struggle,” Hill said. “So beauty is not just something on the outside, it’s beauty as sort of a technology of survival.”

Not to mention a mechanism, like the mechanical sketchbook, for seeing the world with the widest possible lens.