A RECORD BREAKER opened Sotheby’s Impressionist, Modern & Contemporary Art Evening Sale last week. The first lot was a 1972 portrait by Barkley L. Hendricks (1945-2017). His subject in “Mr. Johnson (Sammy From Miami)” wears a football jersey and a red visor atop a vertically impressive afro. He’s holding a comb with a few teeth missing. Apparently it’s run up against some resistance. The painting sold for $4,013,000 on Dec. 8, exceeding the estimate ($2 million-$3 million) and setting a new auction record for the artist.

The result narrowly surpassed the previous auction record for a work by Hendricks, set in May 2019 when “Yocks” (1975), a double portrait, sold for $3,740,000, also at Sotheby’s. (The price was a huge leap. Just two years earlier, “Yocks” sold for $942,000. It was the first Hendricks painting to come to auction after the artist’s death in 2017.)

Last week’s evening sale featured 25 premium lots. Hendricks’s “Mr. Johnson (Sammy From Miami)” yielded the fourth-highest result. Paintings by Glenn Ligon (“Stranger #37,” 2008) and Mark Bradford (“Drag Her To The Path,” 2011) were also included in the auction.


Lot 1: BARKLEY L. HENDRICKS, “Mr. Johnson (Sammy From Miami),” 1972 (oil and acrylic on canvas, 60 ¼ x 60 ¼ inches / 153 x 153 cm. | Estimate $2 million-$3 million. | Sold for $4,013,000 fee included. ARTIST RECORD

 

Portraits by Philadelphia-born Hendricks are compelling studies of character and color. Largely defined by a sense of cool, self-possession, and individuality, the artist has said his subjects have “flash, style, and beauty.” Sammy From Miami certainly fits the bill.

Obscuring the gaze of his subjects, adding to their sartorial flair, and upping their cool factor, Hendricks often painted them wearing sunglasses and hats, caps, or visors. In the current painting, the visor covers Sammy’s eyes entirely, piquing the viewer’s fascination and desire to know more about the sitter.

Hendricks is known for his full-figure, standing portraits. “Mr. Johnson (Sammy From Miami)” is a a rare seated portrait by the artist, only the second to come to auction. (The other, “Jackie Sha-La-La (Jackie Cameron)” (1975), was first offered at Swann in 2008 and then last month at Sotheby’s.)

Hendricks is known for his full-figure, standing portraits. “Mr. Johnson (Sammy From Miami)” is a a rare seated portrait by the artist, only the second to come to auction.

Also uncommon, the nearly black background in the current painting draws the eye to his subject, who in stark contrast is dressed head-to-toe in off-white. Hendricks generally works with white backgrounds or brightly colored backgrounds, often pairing a subject wearing red clothing against a red background or a yellow outfit with a yellow background, for example, in the case of his limited-palette portraits.

Among the few occasions when the artist has employed very dark backgrounds is a striking double portrait called “Sisters (Susan and Toni)” (1977). Hendricks also used nearly black backgrounds for three self-portraits—”Brown Sugar Vine” (1970), “Brilliantly Endowed (Self-Portrait” (1977), and “Doc and Ruby’s Oldest Boy (Self-Portrait)” (1977). The first two are nudes. One of them, “Brown Sugar Vine,” was featured in the Whitney Museum of American Art’s controversial 1971 exhibition “Contemporary Black Artists in America.”

At the time, Hendricks was pursuing his MFA at Yale University. A year later he painted “Mr. Johnson (Sammy From Miami).” He also started teaching at Connecticut College in New London, Conn., in 1972. He became a full professor in 1987 and retired in 2010. During his tenure at the college, students, friends, and locals served as his sitters.

“Mr. Johnson (Sammy From Miami)” was originally purchased in 1973 from Kenmore Galleries in Philadelphia. That same year, the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., acquired two Hendricks portraits from the gallery: “George Jules Taylor” (1972) and “Sir Charles, Alias Willie Harris” (1972).

Those paintings and “Mr. Johnson (Sammy From Miami)” were all produced in 1972 and all three were also featured in the 1975 exhibition “Barkley Hendricks – Recent Paintings” at the Greenville County Museum of Art in Greenville, S.C.

In the chronology Hendricks wrote for his “Birth of the Cool” catalog, the artist notes the Greenville exhibition was his first solo show in the South. “I was told I would not be able to show any nudes,” he wrote. “I later discovered they had white nudes in their collection. My black nudes were just too ‘black’ so I’ve been told.” CT

 

FIND MORE about the Souls Grown Deep Foundation’s a resale royalty program benefitting Black artists from the American South at Hyperallergic

 

BOOKSHELF
A new series of books documents the practice of Barkley L. Hendricks. Volumes include “Barkley L. Hendricks: Works on Paper,” “Barkley L. Hendricks: Landscape Paintings,” and “Barkley L. Hendricks: Basketball.” Recently re-issued, “Barkley L. Hendricks: Birth of the Cool” accompanied his traveling retrospective. Hendricks is also featured in “Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power.”

 

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