Barkley L. Hendricks
In the Paint
The timeless geometries of basketball are in full bloom at Jack Shainman Gallery in a striking series of early paintings by Barkley L. Hendricks, created between 1966–71. Presented with an adjacent gallery of basketball-related sketchbooks and photographs from throughout his career, these works belie their minimal aesthetic to express Hendricks’s affection and reverence for the game.
While Hendricks became famous for his towering portraits of Black Americans, made primarily during the 1970s, not a single person appears within these paintings. Still, after spending time with them, I felt more and more that the pictures are preoccupied with the people who live and breathe basketball. Hendricks made the bulk of them while working at the Department of Recreation in Philadelphia as an arts and crafts specialist. He began by sketching the ramshackle basketball court visible from his office window. “Beside the game that provided color and geometry for many of my compositions,” Hendricks explained, “there were the playground regulars who always provided attention-getting behavior besides their faces, fashions and attitudes.”
Yet the artist chose to focus on the lines and forms of the game’s equipment. He elongates backboards and dramatically delineates the shadows of the rim and the ball, which is often rendered simply as an orange sphere. Hendricks’s abstracted and pared-down representation celebrates Blackness in a different way than his portraits: through the lens of the game’s cultural ubiquity. This idea is evoked more literally in a television screen splashed with basketball star Michael Jordan, which anchors one of Hendricks’s photographs in the adjacent gallery.
In Hendricks’s wake, many artists have similarly considered basketball through its symbology. In Higher Goals (1986), David Hammons commented on youthful dreams of basketball stardom by erecting a series of elaborately painted 30-foot-tall basketball hoops in Brooklyn’s Cadman Plaza Park. Theaster Gates remixed the markings of basketball courts in his Ground rules series from the mid-2010s, wherein he repurposed salvaged remains of gymnasium floors taken from high schools in his native Chicago.
Hendricks’s approach was to unambiguously honor the game. He crafts an ode to basketball in these works, by way of art history. Many of the canvases are circular, semi-circular or rectangular with curved protrusions, which recall Renaissance tondos, Romanesque tympana and Gothic altarpieces. Hendricks’s paintings expand the narrow vision of those ancient icons, which didn’t depict quotidian subjects such as basketball, let alone engage with Black culture. The exhibition’s titular pun plays with this dichotomy: “In the paint” refers to when a player is within the rectangle beneath the hoop. Ultimately, the two rear galleries of Jack Shainman, where these works hang, feel like a sanctuary dedicated to the societal significance of basketball—a chapel for the game. —Beryl Gilothwest
Barkley L. Hendricks, Still Life #5, 1968. Oil on canvas, 51 7/8 x 53 x 1 5/8 inches. © Barkley L. Hendricks. Courtesy of the Estate of Barkley L. Hendricks and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York.