Q: What is COOL? A: Barkley Hendricks

It’s 2012. I’m back from a long break. The joys of motherhood demanded time spent at home over the holidays with two little ones who really could care less that I want to have some physical and mental space to blog. Pa-lease. But, I’m back. With four talks lined up on four different artists (see what’s next), I’ve got a lot of ideas that need to take shape soon. And, as promised, I’ll be working on an article about me and my mommy phd friends (I’ll try to provide some teasers on that).

So, I’m continuing to work on funk rocker Betty Davis. Along with her gritty sounds and no-nonsense sex appeal, she provides an almost surreal sense of coolness that is undeniable. It got me thinking about how I’ve thought about visual representations of cool in the past. Below is an excerpt from a study I conducted for the Philadelphia Museum of Art and their African American collections. Barkely Hendricks, a Professor of Art at Connecticut College, has been defining cool for the last four decades. His retrospective The Birth of the Cool organized by the Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University practically canonized his stake on cool. Here’s my take on the PMA’s Miss T by Hendricks from my unpublished paper, “Cooling Black Skin: Selected Portraits in the African American Collections at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.”


According to African art scholar Robert Farris Thompson, “An aesthetic of cool,” signifies “the sense of a deeply and complexly motivated, consciously artistic, interweaving of elements serious and pleasurable, or of responsibility and of play.”[1] For example, in observing Barkley Hendricks’ portrait Miss T (1969), one easily gets a sense of what is “cool” about her. Her introspective glance downward from behind her gold-rimmed glasses while standing casually in her black pantsuit with shiny embellishments around her waist exudes a coolness about her that is unrehearsed and smooth. Miss T is presented without the context of her surroundings of, perhaps, a Philadelphia streetscape. She is calm. She is confident. She is at peace before the onlookers’ glare, caught up in her own thoughts of problems or dreams. Hendricks’ placement of the figure before a bare, vacant background, allows Miss T to be absorbed into the canvas with just her very presence. Hendricks provides her with a certain amount of power and agency, and perhaps this self-possession is the origin of her coolness.

[1] Robert Farris Thompson, “An Aesthetic of the Cool,” African Arts, v. 7, no. 1 (Autumn, 1973), p. 41.


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