From Gridiron to Motown: Ernie Barnes’s Celebration of Black Cultural Achievement

From Gridiron to Motown: Ernie Barnes’s Celebration of Black Cultural Achievement

Declared “the most expressive painter of sports since George Bellows,” Ernie Barnes also depicted musicians and dance halls, sparking a friendship with Berry Gordy of Motown Records.
Declared “the most expressive painter of sports since George Bellows,” Ernie Barnes also depicted musicians and dance halls, sparking a friendship with Berry Gordy of Motown Records.

E rnie Barnes was born in racially segregated Durham, North Carolina, in 1938. As a child, his mother took him to a white attorney’s home, where she was employed doing domestic housework. Although the attorney, who was also a member of the school board, let Barnes look through his art books and taught him about art history, he also voted against desegregating the white schools that Barnes could have attended.

This contradictory experience inspired Barnes to draw as a child, but it was his athleticism as a football player that earned him a four-year scholarship to North Carolina College (now North Carolina Central University). There, he pursued his interest in studio art and earned a bachelor’s degree. In his work, he fused his physical knowledge of human form and contact, which he understood from playing football, with an academic education in figurative drawing and painting. Barnes’s subjects are rendered in a distinctly mannerist style that accentuates the poetic qualities of their elongated forms and befits the flailing limbs and contorted bodies of the athletes he painted.

Ernie Barnes, AKA Punch from the Heavens (c. 1977). Oil on canvas, 24 1/8 x 36 in. Estimate: $200,000–300,000

After graduating, Barnes was drafted by the Baltimore Colts and played professional football for six years. His ambition to become an artist never ceased. When he retired from the NFL in 1965, Barnes faced financial setbacks while figuring out his next career move. Undeterred, he pitched himself as the football league’s official artist during an owners’ meeting in Houston.

Sonny Werblin, the owner of the New York Jets, was so impressed by Barnes’s work that he arranged for it to be evaluated by three art critics. They declared him “the most expressive painter of sports since George Bellows.” With Werblin’s financial support, Barnes held his first solo show at Grand Central Art Galleries in 1966, and his unique depictions of football were met with acclaim, solidifying the foundation for his artistic career.

Images from left to right: Ernie Barnes (No. 62) with the Denver Broncos in the 1963–64 Season. Image by The Ernie Barnes Family Trust via Wikimedia Commons. THE ARTIST AT HIS EXHIBITION IN GRAND CENTRAL ART GALLERY IN NEW YORK, 1966. IMAGE © AP PHOTO / JOHN ROONEY. ART © 2022 ERNIE BARNES FAMILY TRUST.

Barnes’s didn’t just paint athletes. During his college studies, he took inspiration directly from his life, and music was another major subject in his oeuvre. In The Tunesmith (1978), Barnes depicts a solitary Black figure seated in the corner of a room, his back arched in front of a baby grand piano. Totally engrossed, he sits so close to the instrument that he almost becomes a part of it. The musician has his left hand at the keys, and with his right he annotates his composition. His suspended dynamic pose creates a moment of calm in an otherwise fervent session of creativity in motion. The painting is likely inspired by Barnes’s childhood memories of watching his father play the piano after working long days as a shipping clerk.

Barnes gifted The Tunesmith to Berry Gordy, the legendary founder of Motown Records, cementing the artist’s close affiliation with Black music. Barnes’s painting Sugar Shack (1976), which portrays an effervescent dance hall in Durham, appeared on the cover of Marvin Gaye’s album “I Want You,” and multiple album covers by artists from the Crusaders to Curtis Mayfield followed suit. Music was not only vital as a subject matter for Barnes; it also ingrained him into popular culture.

Marvin Gaye’s album “I Want You” (1976) features Ernie Barnes’s painting Sugar Shack (1976).

While Barnes’s influential paintings were integral to twentieth-century African American culture, it should not be overlooked that the artist’s success as a painter, pursued under the duress of a discriminatory art world, was an accomplishment in its own right. When Barnes, then an undergraduate, once asked a white museum docent where to find paintings by Black artists, he was told: “I’m afraid your people don’t express yourself in that way.” Barnes sought out the art of seminal African American artists, such as Archibald Motley and Hale Woodruff, from his professor Ed Wilson, whose arresting work also influenced the painter.

Ernie Barnes’s career not only reflects a celebration of African American cultural achievements, it also reveals his unwavering resilience – whether playing football as an offensive lineman, one of the most physically grueling positions, or his championing of Black figuration and community within a prejudiced art world. The personal conviction of Barnes’s work stems from a creative vision that was, in his words: “Destiny born in my childhood stick drawings in the damp earth of North Carolina.”

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