‘Ernie Barnes: A Retrospective’ opens today at the California African American Museum

‘Ernie Barnes: A Retrospective’ opens today at the California African American Museum
Ernie Barnes, The Sugar Shack (1976). Acrylic on canvas, 36 in. x 48 in. Collection of Jim and Jeannine Epstein.
Leading lights  -   Artists

Today, an exhibition honouring the late artist Ernie Barnes (1938-2009) opens at the California African American Museum (CAAM). ‘Ernie Barnes: A Retrospective’ will offer a survey of the life and work of the iconic African American artist. Running from today through September 8th, the exhibition is curated by Bridget R. Cooks, an associate professor of African American Studies and Art History at the University of California, Irvine and a guest curator to the CAAM.

‘While not widely known within the mainstream art world,’ said Cooks in the exhibition press release, ‘Barnes is revered by a diverse group of collectors and admirers across the country.’ Barnes was born in Durham, North Carolina during the Jim Crow era. Growing up, he was bullied for being shy and more sensitive, but during high school, he got into playing American football, which taught him discipline. All the while, he took solace in drawing. For his prowess in football, he earned a scholarship to university and was later drafted into the National Football League making him one of only 30 African American men drafted in 1960. In 1965, the owner of the New York Jets, Sonny Werblin, paid Barnes an entire season’s pay ‘to paint’ and eventually sponsored Barnes’ first gallery exhibition. Following the show, Barnes retired from the NFL at the age of 28 and moved to Los Angeles to focus on art.


Ernie Barnes, wearing number 61 for the San Diego Chargers in the 1960s. Courtesy Wikimedia Commons.


In 1976, he created one of his most famous paintings called The Sugar Shack which was later used by Marvin Gaye for the cover of his I Want You album. During the 70s, Barnes rose to ‘cult status’ appearing on sitcom, Good Times. Barnes became known for his ‘neo-mannerist’ style and the depictions of what he saw growing up in the segregated south: barbershops, women sitting on porches, sandlot games, pool halls, dancing, singing, and religion.

He also drew inspiration from his athletic past and in addition to extensively depicting athletes in his works, was the official artist of the 1984 Summer Olympic Games in LA. In 2004, he was also awarded the ‘America’s Best Painter of Sports’ award by the American Sport Art Museum & Archives. He was commissioned to create paintings for the US’s National Basketball Association and a number of sports teams including the LA Lakers, Carolina Panthers, and New Orleans Saints, to name a few. The Bench, which Barnes created in 1959 before his rookie season in the NFL, was gifted to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2014, just five years after Barnes died of cancer.

‘We are honored to present the work of Ernie Barnes and to tell the fascinating life story of this artist and athlete,’ said George O. Davis, executive director of CAAM. ‘He was a child of the segregated south who came to call Los Angeles home.’