Museum  May 23, 2019  Chandra Noyes

The Lineman with a Paintbrush: Ernie Barnes Paints America

© Ernie Barnes Family Trust

Ernie Barnes, The Sugar Shack, 1976. Acrylic on canvas 36 in. x 48 in. Collection of Jeannie and Jim Epstein.

One of the most popular artists of the 1960s and 70s that you may have never heard of is the subject of a new retrospective at the California African American Museum (CAAM). Ernie Barnes (1938-2009) was an accomplished football player and artist, defying stereotypes of both with his acuity on the field and the canvas. Barnes painted the sports world, which he knew so well, as well as Black American life, in his Neo-mannerist style of elongated figures. Ernie Barnes: A Retrospective, now on view, brings together over 50 paintings, as well as ephemera and sketches in an exhibition that tells his incredible life story and shares his artistic vision.

© Ernie Barnes Family Trust

Ernie Barnes, Self portrait, 1968

Growing up in the Jim Crow south, Ernest Barnes Jr had limited options to pursue his artistic endeavors. His first opportunity came when accompanying his mother to work in the home of a wealthy local attorney, who encouraged the young Barnes to peruse his collection of art books. An all-star football player at his segregated high school, Barnes was offered 26 college scholarships, choosing to attend the nearby North Carolina College at Durham (now North Carolina Central University), majoring in art. In 1959 Barnes was drafted by the Baltimore Colts and went on to play for several NFL teams. An injury lead to his early retirement in 1965.

While he was a professional athlete, Barnes never strayed far from his passion for art. He continued to sketch on the sidelines, publishing illustrations in the off-season and painting commissions for his teammates. After leaving the field, the NFL made Barnes the league’s official artist, keeping him on in a salaried position. New York Jets owner Sonny Werblin introduced Barnes to the New York gallery scene, and in 1966, sponsored his first solo exhibition at Grand Central Art Galleries.

Ernie Barnes: A Retrospective, installation view, at the California African American Museum
© Ernie Barnes Family Trust, Courtesy CAAM, Elon Schoenholz

Ernie Barnes: A Retrospective, installation view, at the California African American Museum

Ernie Barnes, Friendly Friendship Baptist Church, 1994. Acrylic on canvas. The Hardy Nickerson Family Collection.
© Ernie Barnes Family Trust, Courtesy CAAM, Elon Schoenholz

Ernie Barnes, Friendly Friendship Baptist Church, 1994. Acrylic on canvas. The Hardy Nickerson Family Collection.

Ernie Barnes, Fastbreak, 1987. Acrylic on canvas. Collection of The Los Angeles Lakers, Inc.
© Ernie Barnes Family Trust, Courtesy CAAM, Elon Schoenholz

Ernie Barnes, Fastbreak, 1987. Acrylic on canvas. Collection of The Los Angeles Lakers, Inc.

Ernie Barnes, Late Night DJ, 1980. Acrylic on canvas. Collection of Ted Lange.
© Ernie Barnes Family Trust, Courtesy CAAM, Elon Schoenholz

Ernie Barnes, Late Night DJ, 1980. Acrylic on canvas. Collection of Ted Lange.

Ernie Barnes, Pool Hall, c. 1970. Oil on canvas. Collection of California African American Museum.
© Ernie Barnes Family Trust

Ernie Barnes, Pool Hall, c. 1970. Oil on canvas. Collection of California African American Museum.

Though he would eventually be named the "Sports Artist of the 1984 Olympic Games," Barnes’s portrayal of lithe bodies in motion was not limited to athletics. In the 1960s, in response to the Black is Beautiful movement, Barnes turned his focus to depicting the everyday lives of Black Americans. His The Beauty of the Ghetto exhibition traveled the nation and brought him to the attention of musicians and television producers. His most recognizable painting, The Sugar Shack was seen by millions as part of the Good Times television series and as the cover for the 1976 Marvin Gaye album, I Want You. Barnes also painted album covers for Curtis Mayfield and B.B. King, amongst others. At the height of his popularity, Barnes was a frequent talk show guest and his work appeared in numerous television shows and movies.

© Ernie Barnes Family Trust

Ernie Barnes, Miss America, 1970. Oil on canvas. Collection of California African American Museum.

Though less well-known in the art world than in popular culture circles, Barnes’s work reached a wide audience and represented lives not often seen in fine art. Throughout the CAAM retrospective, we see Barnes’s commitment to capturing the real dramas of both athletics and everyday African American life. Whether on the field or off, Barnes’s figures, always with their eyes closed, are frozen mid-motion, their muscles straining and their faces fixed in concentration. The intimate scenes he portrayed speak to the beauty and timelessness of these ordinary moments.

Ernie Barnes: A Retrospective is on view through September 8, 2019, in Los Angeles.

About the Author

Chandra Noyes

Chandra Noyes is Managing Editor for Art & Object.

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