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.
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.
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