In a famous essay published in the January 1971 issue of ARTnews, Linda Nochlin reiterated the question that was constantly thrown in the faces of women who dared to paint or sculpt: “Why have there been no great women artists?” For Nochlin, it seemed obvious that no effort to respond with a historical counterexample would serve. Not that Artemisia Gentileschi or Berthe Morisot shouldn’t be taken more seriously than male art historians had done thus far. But still: “The fact, dear sisters, is that there are no women equivalents for Michelangelo or Rembrandt, Delacroix or Cézanne, Picasso or Matisse, or even, in very recent times, for de Kooning or Warhol,” she wrote, adding for good measure, “any more than there are Black American equivalents for the same.” The art historian’s problem in her view was to show why.
Admitting my own leanings toward the abstractionist camp—some of the highlights in Soul of a Nation, for me, were abstract works by Howardena Pindell, Jack Whitten, and William T. Williams—does not prevent me from finding many of the overtly race-centered figurative works just as impressive. I’d particularly like to have seen more from Wadsworth Jarrell and Jeff Donaldson, both of whom were part of the Chicago-based AfriCOBRA group. Immersing their imagery in vibrant patterning and (as Donaldson wrote) “Color color Color color that shines, color that is free of rules and regulations,” their art is every bit as formally driven as that of the abstractionists. Indeed, something that Soul of a Nation does not sufficiently show is how many artists went back and forth between abstract and representational modes. But if I had to pick a single artist to sum up what’s so inspiring about this vast exhibition—which I can’t—it would probably have to be Barkley Hendricks, a figurative painter whose work was all about “the beauty, grandeur, style of my folks,” and who scoured the old masters and modernists alike for clues on how to paint as stylishly as his subjects—which is simply to say, the people around him—dressed. His work was not about protest or propaganda; Hendricks made himself the court portraitist of everyday life.
– Barry Schwabsky