Professionally, Ernie Barnes was a football player for the NFL. Creatively, he was a painter. He switched careers and reinvented himself in the 1960s; the civil rights movement was breaking through, but few African Americans were visible in mainstream museums and galleries. He would not only become a successful artist and break down racial barriers, but create one of the most recognizable and beloved works of modern art.
Ten years after his death in 2009 in L.A., the California African American Museum pays tribute to Barnes in its new exhibit, “Ernie Barnes: A Retrospective.” The displays’ paintings, drawings, photographs and memorabilia chronicle Barnes’ 40-plus-year trajectory, from offensive guard to artist with a celebrity clientele, and spotlights his twin loves: sports and African American culture.
Born in 1938 in Durham, North Carolina, during segregation, Barnes was shy and bullied as a child and found escape in painting. His mother worked as a domestic for a white attorney whose art books further fueled Barnes’s passion.
In 1959, while a student at then all-black North Carolina College at Durham (now North Carolina Central University), Barnes was drafted into the NFL by the Baltimore Colts. The following year, a group of North Carolina students protested the south’s discrimination laws at a Woolworth’s in Greensboro, leading to a chain of nonviolent sit-ins. Though he majored in art, Barnes knew a black man making a living as an artist in the south was impractical.
Barnes played for the New York Titans, San Diego Chargers and Denver Broncos. In his 1995 autobiography, From Pads to Palette, he described making art during his five seasons in professional football, saying the two weren’t mutually exclusive. “The rewards are similar,” he wrote. “Recognition, celebrity, wealth, the admiration and envy of others in the field…”
Sports art has long been a medium, and it was while playing football that Barnes developed his signature style, often called “Neo-Mannerism”: elongated limbs and menacing figures that depict the agony of the game and bond between players on and off the field. The exhibit features several paintings from that era, including “Stored Dreams,” which Barnes began in 1962 and continued to paint until 1994.
“Football taught him discipline,” says exhibit curator Bridget R. Cooks, a UC Irvine associate professor of African American Studies and Art History. “It helped him as a player and a spectator. It had tremendous impact on his style: the effort, the reach, the curves, the gestures.”
After retiring from football in 1965 and moving to L.A., Barnes asked hotel magnate Barron Hilton to become the official artist of the NFL (then the AFL, American Football League). The next year, Barnes, with support from New York Jets owner Sonny Werblin, staged his first exhibit at the Grand Central Art Galleries in New York. Soon, Charlton Heston, Jack Palance, Mary Tyler Moore, Burt Reynolds, Howard Cosell and other famous collectors were buying his art.
Another Barnes exhibit, “The Beauty of the Ghetto,” toured the country in the ‘70s and helped popularize the “Black is Beautiful” movement. It also caught the attention of famed TV producer Norman Lear, who approached Barnes about his new comedy about a working class African American family. In Good Times, the character of eldest son J.J. Evans is an aspiring artist, the “Picasso of the projects.” Barnes made all the art that appeared in the series, including the painting of the Evans family and the more famous “The Sugar Shack.”
“The Sugar Shack” was inspired by Barnes’s memories of watching a dance at the Durham Armory in his teens. The painting captures men and women dancing to lively music with their eyes closed, another Barnes trademark.
Barnes adapted “The Sugar Shack” for the cover of Marvin Gaye’s 1976 album, I Want You, which made his work even more popular. The painting in the museum is one of two versions of the original; Gaye later sold his copy to Eddie Murphy. (Barnes also painted album covers for B.B. King, Curtis Mayfield and The Crusaders.)
Barnes didn’t just illuminate African American life. For a time, he lived in the Fairfax district and the exhibit highlights a section of paintings and drawings that depict the neighborhood’s Jewish community.
“He was interested in celebrating Jewish culture and people,” says Cooks. “It was a major inspiration for him. He was also interested in the teachings of Judaism.”
Focusing on motion, Barnes illustrated all types of athleticism, from boxing to surfing to soccer, even ballet. The collection includes “The Rhythmic Gymnast,” one of five commissioned paintings for the 1984 L.A. Olympics. In 1987, Barnes was also commissioned to create a painting for the Lakers after winning the NBA Championship.
Barnes’s art still resonates today. Cooks points to a drawing of “A Life Restored,” a mural Barnes was asked to paint for Kanye West in 2004 after the rapper survived a car crash. But it’s “The Sugar Shack” that’s had the most enduring influence, and you can see it everywhere, from singer/rapper Anderson .Paak’s video for “Come Down” to Southside with You, the 2016 romance-drama that recounted Barack and Michelle Obama’s first date.
“It’s a big part of our national memory,” says Cooks of the iconic painting. “It gave artists license to be more expressive and exaggerated in terms of movement.”
California African American Museum, 600 State Dr., thru Sept. 8; caamuseum.org.