Ernie Barnes: the overlooked legacy of the athlete turned celebrity artist

The work of the football player who became a painter is finally being celebrated, from his Olympics artwork to his Marvin Gaye album cover

Historically noted as the first professional American athlete to become a painter, the artistic legacy of football player Ernie Barnes still remains overlooked.


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But now, as part of a long overdue survey, his art is on view in Ernie Barnes: A Retrospective, which runs at the California African American Museum in Los Angeles until 8 September. Over 50 paintings, photos and ephemera including his football helmet, the chair from his studio, and his paintbrushes are on view, detailing his career, hidden from the spotlight. This is despite creating album covers for Marvin Gaye, receiving a commissioned by Kanye West and being named the official artist of the 1984 Olympics.

Hes not a part of art history, said Bridget R Cooks, who co-curated the exhibition with Vida L Brown. Barnes is not someone in any art history book that I own or have seen, but he has influenced thousands of people through the popular vehicles he accessed for his work.

Barnes most famous painting is The Sugar Shack, a 1976 piece showing a group of dancers busting a move. The work was famously used on the cover of Marvin Gayes album I Want You, released that same year. The painting was inspired by an early experience Barnes had in Durham, when he managed a sneak peek of an event venue called the Armory, which was holding a R&B dance party. He was young, peeking in the window, said Cooks. He was captivated by the style of dance and never saw that before.

Barnes was born in 1938 and grew up in Durham, North Carolina during the Jim Crow era. His father worked as a shipping clerk for a tobacco company and his mother worked on the household staff of a lawyer. Barnes attended a segregated school and was always a fan of art, soaking up the works of Delacroix and Rubens long before he was allowed to enter museums because of segregation.

Ernie Barnes playing for the San Diego Chargers between 1960 and 1962. Photograph: Courtesy of the Ernie Barnes family trust

He was also a prolific athlete, and chose from one of 26 scholarship offers. He studied at what is now North Carolina Central University, majoring in art, before being recruited to join the Baltimore Colts in 1959. He enjoyed a career at the Titans of New York, the San Diego Chargers, the Denver Broncos and the Saskatchewan Roughriders.

He always had his sketchbook when he was playing football, said Cooks. After he got injured while on the field, he retired and focused on art full time.

In 1966, Barnes had his first exhibition after impressing the owner of the New York Jets, Sonny Werblin, with his paintings. In the 1960s, it was clear to him that he could make more money as an artist, said Cooks. At the time, athletes made very little money.


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Barnes painted female basketball players, Olympic runners racing towards the finish line and gymnasts waving around ribbons before a collection of world flags, in a piece titled The Rhythmic Gymnast from 1984. One of his paintings called Late Night DJ shows a female DJ in a red dress with a martini glass in a radio studio, about to put an LP on a record player.

He became recognized for being the most expressive painter of sports since George Bellows, and after his debut exhibition at the Grand Central Art Galleries in New York City, Barnes continued to exhibit as an artist. In his prominent 1972 exhibit called the Beauty of the Ghetto, his works were described as a style known as neo-mannerist.

Barnes with his 1984 Olympics artwork. Photograph: Chan Bush

He was ignored by the mainstream art world, said Cooks, the author of a book called Exhibiting Blackness: African Americans and the American Art Museum. His 1972 exhibition was his one foray into one mainstream art institution, but he largely survived through this network of entertainers on commissions and became a part of an elite group. He was friends with famous athletes and celebrities, and he sold paintings to football players and did artworks for NFL administrators.

Barnes had close ties to the music world, especially after Gaye used his painting on the album cover. In turn, Barnes was asked by a number of artists to use his paintings for their albums, including the cover of jazz trumpeter Donald Byrds 1979 album, Donald Byrd and 125th Street, NYC, as well as for Curtis Mayfields 1980 cover for Something to Believe In and The Crusaders cover for Ghetto Blaster in 1984.

Four years before his death in 2005, Barnes was commissioned by Kanye West to make a painting based upon the rappers near-fatal car accident, which now is a mural called A Life Restored.

But he also used his paintings as a vehicle for change. His painting Growth Through Limits shows a group of young men centered around a weed sprouting through a concrete sidewalk.

This image was plastered on a billboard in Los Angeles as part of a city campaign spearheaded by mayor Tom Bradley after the 1992 riots. He also participated in a 1995 group show called 20th Century Masterworks of African-American Artists II and made a remembrance painting after 9/11.

Ernie Barnes painting Pool Hall. Photograph: Courtesy of the Ernie Barnes family trust

One of the notable works in this new exhibition is Pool Hall, which shows a group of people lurking around a dark, smoky poolhall. He always painted everyday people, said Cooks. Its a style of painting he became known for, and this became a relatable painting to African Americans.

Barnes made this piece into prints and sold them, to make it affordable art, said Cooks.


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Another piece in the show is My Miss America, which depicts a black woman with her eyes closed. Cooks said Barnes once said: People are blind to each others humanity. Cooks went on: It can be interpreted in many ways; its a philosophical nugget. Its about being reflective about the commonalities and differences we have with the people around us. Maybe we dont see each other and appreciate each other the way we should.

He had an impact on his community with his expressive, figurative paintings. People feel a sense of freedom of expression because theyre felt in his work, said Cooks. He is metabolizing his own understanding of art history, formal and informal, then making it relatable to a culture that is contemporary and racialized. He was able to make work that is accessible.

Despite growing up in the segregated south, that didnt stop Barnes from pursuing his dreams. Being black was not a limitation to him, Cooks said. He was surrounded by black people and could see all the different attitudes and philosophies, in ways of which we survive. It shows a real love of blackness.

Original Article : HERE ; This post was curated & posted using : RealSpecific

This post was curated & Posted using : RealSpecific

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