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The world of sports has shaped the iconic painting style of Ernie Barnes, and defined the major milestones of his career as an artist. In his current retrospective at the California African American Museum (CAAM) in Los Angeles, we see how both football and Hollywood played prominent roles in his career development; without the two, Barnes would not have created the work he’s known for today. Yet equally powerful elements of his work are originated from his North Carolina roots, and evidence of this heritage can be found among subtle details in his work which pay tribute to his upbringing.
Originally from North Carolina, Ernie Barnes grew up in a segregated district of Durham called “the Bottoms,” near Hayti, a historically African-American community. As a child, art became a spiritual solace from the bullying he experienced in school, while the discipline and rigor from football fortified him physically. For Barnes, the sport eventually became a ticket out of the Jim Crow South. He studied art at the historically Black North Carolina Central University and was drafted by the Baltimore Colts in 1959. During his professional football career, he continued to paint and sketch, but after being plagued by multiple injuries, he retired from the game in 1965 after five seasons. Shortly after his retirement, Barnes secured an early patron, Sonny Werblin. The New York Jets owner commissioned Barnes to paint as a salaried player, and he also sponsored the artist’s first solo show at the Grand Central Galleries in New York.
Barnes’s neo-mannerist style is characterized by elongated figures with lean, sinewy muscles that accentuate his subjects in motion. Encouraged by his art teachers to leverage his experience with football to render movement on canvas, Barnes focused on what he knew, capturing the seminal moments of his life that were seared into his memory. While CAAM’s show prominently highlights a series of football paintings, one of his most iconic works comes from an enduring childhood memory.
“The Sugar Shack” (1976) depicts a riotous scene from a Durham dance hall the artist snuck into when he was 13 years old. Within the painting, Barnes perfectly captures the collective energy of a club packed to the rafters with dancers and musicians who are in a euphoric zone. Looking at the ribald reverie in the painting, you can almost hear the band play as the heat generated in the dance hall radiates from the canvas.
The painting became the cover art for Marvin Gaye’s 1976 album I Want You, and it was most popularly used in the closing credits of the 1970s TV sitcom Good Times. Throughout CAAM’s exhibition, reminders of Barnes’s connection to Good Times permeate the gallery space: studio contact sheets of actor JJ Walker photographed alongside Barnes’s art are displayed with a video clip of an actor playing Barack Obama in the film Southside With You. In the scene, Obama is discussing an Ernie Barnes exhibition and enthusiastically croons “Dyn-o-mite” to Michelle Robinson while they on their first date.
Beyond its pop culture permanence, “The Sugar Shack” establishes Barnes’s North Carolina roots as a key influence in his work. The painting also features a bodacious woman wearing a yellow dress and white shoes who makes repeated appearances in many of Barnes’s works. The celebration of kinship among the women depicted in “Room Full A’Sistahs” (1994) conjures fond memories of the conversations my mom and aunties would have with each other. The painting leaves you wishing you were in on the tears and laughter, knowing who they were spilling tea over.
Some of the most powerful works in the show celebrate the uncompromised strength of Black women. In “My Miss America” (1970), a golden halo of light caresses the tilted head of a woman with closed eyes. Her elongated arms and oversized hands carry two large shopping bags that seem to contain the weight of the world. We see this motif repeated in the show, with additional context in “Study for Walk in Faith” (2000), in which Barnes frees his subject from the heft of her burdens, making them visible to the viewer. In colorful squares resembling patches from a quilt, racial epithets compete with affirmational attributes that envelop the woman. In this piece, Barnes shifts the burden away from the subject to the viewer, questioning who we see first: a bitch or a coon, or a mama and a teacher who’s following in the footsteps of Rosa Parks and Barbara Jordan? The proud woman holds her head high, assured in her stance, shielded by the halo and completely unbothered by the viewer’s gaze.
Barnes moved to Los Angeles’s Fairfax district in the 1970s, where he drew inspiration for many of his paintings. There, he found an affinity between the simple moments of everyday life among his Jewish neighbors in Los Angeles and those of his friends and family that he grew up with in Durham. The exhibition features a small selection of sketches and paintings created by the artist during this era.
In “A Day on Fairfax” (1973), a woman in a slip dress stands with her hands perched on her hips in judgment, looking beyond the frame. A close read of the text written on the sketch next to the woman refers to her as the “Willard St. Lady” and simply observes: “There is not much difference between Willard St. and Fairfax.” Willard Street is where Barnes grew up in Durham, and this subtle, yet unexplained detail offers insight into the artist’s connections between the two cities.
CAAM’s retrospective also highlights over 15 sports paintings, including selections from the series he created as the official sports artist for the 1984 Olympic Games in Los Angeles. Barnes continued to live in the city until his death in 2009.
Other works containing unique features that conjure the nostalgia of Barnes’s youth and reflect his close ties to North Carolina. In “Hoop Dreams” (1978), a lone child practices his layups into a basketball hoop fashioned from a peach basket, while in “The Maestro”(1982), a young man stands upright with his arms outstretched, gently holding a baton as he assumes a perfect conductor’s stance in front of a vintage Cathedral radio. Barnes framed the two paintings in reclaimed wood taken from his childhood home in Durham; the detail became a loving tribute to his father, who passed away shortly before his first solo show in New York in 1966. While CAAM’s exhibition left some of these sentimental touches underdeveloped, his emotional bonds to North Carolina governed many of the subjects Barnes brought to the canvas.
While it’s hard to resist centering Barnes’s work within a pop culture frame, this focus overlooks the importance of his Southern roots and how he used them to draw connections between diverse communities. On Barnes’s website, the late artist quoted a television interview he conducted in the 1970s, in which he tackled our collective capacity for connectivity, empathy, and relatability: “We don’t see into the depths of our interconnection. The gifts, the strength and potential within other human beings. We stop at color quite often. So one of the things we have to be aware of is who we are in order to have the capacity to like others.”
Barnes’s self-awareness reveals itself in paintings that reconcile the pain and beauty pulled from his experiences playing football and growing up as a Black man in the American South. He was able to reframe those experiences and translate them into simple, relatable moments that build a bridge toward understanding ourselves and those around us.
Ernie Barnes: A Retrospective is on view through September 8 at CAAM (600 State Dr, Los Angeles, CA). The exhibition was curated by Bridget R. Cooks, Associate Professor of African American Studies and Art History at the University of California at Irvine, with assistance from Vida L. Brown, Visual Arts Curator and Program Manager.