An offensive lineman in the American Football League, after playing four seasons of the game in the ’60s, when Ernie Barnes announced that he would now devote his time to art, it wasn’t a complete surprise to his associates. After all, throughout his gaming career, Barnes’ sketchbook had been his constant companion. He would often turn to it to draw quick lines that documented his observations on the field or even freeze the movement of the players in the form of a picture for posterity. In 1965, too, after a fractured right foot, he aspired to become the official artist of a football league. Instead, a meeting with New York Jets owner Sonny Werblin led to a one-year contract of $14,500, and a promise of a solo, which, when it opened at the Grand Central Art Galleries in New York City in 1966, was not just critically-acclaimed but also a sell-out.
Last week, when Barnes’ The Sugar Shack sold at Christie’s for a whopping $15.3 million, it well-surpassed the higher pre-estimate price of $200,000 and the artist’s previous record of $550,000 set in 2021. Taking to social media after the acquisition, its buyer Bill Perkins noted: “My life has so far been a happy absurdity.” The hedge fund manager had flown from Houston to New York to bid in-person for the iconic work that has its own fascinating history. Painted in 1976, the scene from a packed club, with jubilant black dancers, was inspired by Barnes’ childhood memory of sneaking into a party in Durham, and seeing adults swinging to the beats. “It was the first time my innocence met with the sins of dance,” the artist reportedly recalled. The vibrant canvas appeared during the end credits of the television series Good Times and on the cover of Marvin Gaye’s album I Want You. It was also one of the most popular exhibits at the 2019 retrospective of the artist at the California African American Museum.
Growing up at the time of the racial Jim Crow laws in America, as a self-confessed chubby and unathletic child, Barnes had sought refuge in art. He was also drawing in his notebook, when masonry teacher and former athlete Tommy Tucker suggested that sports could help improve strength. A young Barnes was to take his words seriously, setting out on a regime that made him the captain of his school football team and state champion in shot put by senior year. The choice was between 26 athletic scholarship offers when he opted to attend the all-Black North Carolina University at Durham, where he majored in art, and had sculptor Ed Wilson as his instructor. There are important life lessons the sportsman learnt here, including Wilson’s advice “to draw what he knew”. Though for the next few years football took precedence over art – with Barnes playing for the Baltimore Colts, New York Titans, San Diego Chargers, Denver Broncos and the Saskatchewan Roughriders of the Canadian Football League – when he decided to turn to art whole-time, it seemed seamless and preordained. Nicknamed “Big Rembrandt” by his teammates, in his 1995 autobiography, From Pads to Palette, he wrote: “Throughout my five seasons in the NFL, I remained at the deepest level of my being an artist.”
But even when Barnes left the football pads for the palette, rhythm, energy and movement continued to be significant aspects for the “Neo Mannerist”. Painted in his unique elongation style, his works often depicted the quotidian lives of the African-Americans. If Pool Hall (1970) had a group of men engaged in a game around the table, in Room full of A’ Sistahs (1994) women are having a joyful time over tea. My Miss America (1970) depicts a muscular woman carrying load, a metaphor perhaps for the physical and mental strains. In his trademark style, her eyes are closed. As he stated in a 2009 interview to CNN: “I tend to paint everyone, most everyone, with their eyes closed because I feel that we’re blind to one another’s humanity. So if we could see the gifts, strengths, and potentials within every human being, then our eyes would be opened.”
Described by an art critic as “the most expressive painter of sports since George Bellows”, Barnes’ sporting career continued behind the canvas, as he painted gymnasts, hockey, tennis and basketball players, besides footfall. Several commissions were also received, including being named the official artist of the 1984 Olympics, and the Sports Artist of the Year by the United States Sports Academy in 1985. In 1996, to commemorate its 50th anniversary, the National Basketball Association commissioned Barnes to create a painting with the theme, “Where we were, where we are, and where we are going” and in 2004 he was named “America’s Best Painter of Sports” by the American Sport Art Museum & Archives.
While his early collectors were athletes and former teammates, as his exhibitions began to travel, recognition for his talent with the paintbrush grew. With close ties in the world of music, several of his works appeared on album covers, including jazz trumpeter Donald Byrd’s 1979 album, Donald Byrd and 125th Street, NYC, Curtis Mayfield’s 1980 cover for Something to Believe In and The Crusaders’ cover for Ghetto Blaster in 1984.