What makes professional footballer Ernie Barnes the most expressive sports painter?


Offensive lineman in the American Football League, having played four seasons of football in the 1960s, when Ernie Barnes announced that he would now dedicate his time to art, it was not a complete surprise to his associates. After all, throughout his playing career, Barnes’ sketchbook had been his constant companion. He often turned to it to draw quick lines that documented his observations on the pitch or to freeze the movement of players as an image for posterity. Also in 1965, after a broken right foot, he aspired to become the official artist of a football league. Instead, a Meet with New York Jets owner Sonny Werblin led to a one-year, $14,500 contract and the promise of a solo that, when it opened at New York’s Grand Central Art Galleries in 1966, did not not only received critical acclaim but also a sale.

Last week, when Barnes’ The Sugar Shack sold at Christie’s for a whopping $15.3 million, it far exceeded the higher pre-estimated price of $200,000 and the previous record high of $550,000. $ from the artist established in 2021. Speaking to social media after the acquisition, his Buyer Bill Perkins noted, “My life so far has been blissful nonsense.” The hedge fund manager had flown from Houston to New York to bid in person for the iconic work which has its own fascinating story. Painted in 1976, the crowded club scene, complete with jubilant black dancers, was inspired by Barnes’ childhood memory of sneaking into a party in Durham and seeing adults rocking to the beat. “It was the first time that my innocence encountered the sins of dance,” the artist would have recalled. The vibrant canvas appeared during the end credits of the television series Good Times and on the cover of Marvin Gaye’s I Want You album. It was also one of the most popular exhibitions of the artist’s 2019 retrospective at the California African American Museum.

Growing up during the era of Jim Crow race laws in America, as a chubby, unathletic child, Barnes had sought refuge in art. He was also sketching in his notebook, when masonry teacher and former athlete Tommy Tucker suggested the sport could help improve strength. A young Barnes was to take his words seriously, embarking on a diet that made him captain of his school football team and state shot put champion by senior year. The choice was between 26 athletic scholarship offers when he chose to attend the all-black University of North Carolina at Durham, where he majored in art, and had sculptor Ed Wilson as his instructor. There are important life lessons the sportsman learned here, including Wilson’s advice to ‘draw what you know’. Although in the following years football took precedence over art – with Barnes playing for the Baltimore Colts, New York Titans, San Diego Chargers, Denver Broncos and Saskatchewan Roughriders of the Canadian Football League – when he decided to turn all the time towards art, it seemed transparent and predestined. Nicknamed “Big Rembrandt” by his teammates, in his 1995 autobiography, From Pads to Palette, he wrote: “Throughout my five seasons in the NFL, I have remained at the deepest level of my being as an artist .”

But even when Barnes left the football pads for the palette, rhythm, energy and movement continued to be important aspects for the “neo mannerist”. Painted in his unique elongation style, his works often depict the daily lives of 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) the women were having fun over tea. My Miss America (1970) depicts a muscular woman carrying a load, a metaphor perhaps for physical and mental exertion. In his trademark style, his eyes are closed. As he said in a 2009 interview with CNN, “I tend to paint everyone, almost everyone, with their eyes closed because I feel like we’re blind to humanity. one another. So if we could see the gifts, strengths and potentials of every human being, then our eyes would be opened.

Described by an art critic as “the most expressive sports painter since George Bellows”, Barnes’ sporting career continued behind the canvas, as he painted gymnasts, hockey players, tennis players and basketball players. ball, in addition to steps. Several commissions were also received, including being named Official Artist of the 1984 Olympics and Sports Artist of the Year by the United States Sports Academy in 1985. In 1996, to commemorate his 50th anniversary, the National Basketball Association commissioned Barnes to create a painting on the subject of “Where we were, where we are and where we are going” and in 2004 he was named “Best American Sports Painter” by the American Sport Art Museum & Archives.

When it was early collectors were athletes and former teammates, as his exhibits began to travel, recognition of his skill with the brush grew. With strong ties to the music world, many of his works have appeared on album covers, including jazz trumpeter Donald Byrd’s 1979 album, Donald Byrd and 125th Street, NYC, Curtis Mayfield cover in 1980 for Something to Believe In and the cover of The Crusaders for Ghetto. Blaster in 1984.

There was also an attempt to bring about positive change through art. So, following the Los Angeles riots of 1992, Mayor Tom Bradley used his painting Growth Through Limits – featuring a trio of different ethnic backgrounds surrounding sprouting flowers – on a billboard for inspiration. His 1998 work The Advocate questioned the integrity of the judicial process, and in 2001 he painted In Remembrance in the aftermath of the September 11 attacks.

Although he raked in huge sums for his work during his lifetime and prices continued to rise after his death in 2009, his artistic legacy has long been overlooked. With a focus on a more culturally and racially unbiased rewriting of art history, Barnes, too, now finds his name in these pages. Commercial success, meanwhile, is parallel, and the amount recovered by La Cabane à sucre is only one indicator. Often fined by his Denver coach, Jack Faulkner, when caught drawing at team meetings, some of these works now fetch millions.

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