Movement and Presence
Words by Essence Harden
In 2022 Ernie Barnes, the celebrated neo-mannerist painter and former professional footballer, set a personal record. His 1976 iconic work, The Sugar Shack, garnered 15.3 million dollars at Christie's auction signaling Barnes as a key figure within American figurative art. Originally commissioned by Marvin Gaye for his seminal album “I Want You” and later recreated with slight variations as a singular wall work the acrylic painting depicts an interior hall, with a mass of stretched, curved, and winding dancing Black people extending their arms towards each others bodies and the rafters above while their legs pivot and grind into the wooden deck below. The scene is vibrant in hue and composition; Barnes saturates the canvas in deep crimsons and marigolds amongst a sea of browns capturing the movement of skin, fabric, and banners and the kinetic tension between them. The attendees—dancers, musicians, observers—are all depicted with closed eyes (another signature marker of Barnes's works), framing presence and pleasure as corporeal. The Sugar Shack was based on a childhood memory describing it as “the first time my innocence met with the sins of dance.” For Barnes, “the painting transmits rhythm so the experience is re-created in the person viewing it. To show that African Americans utilize rhythm as a way of resolving physical tension.” The Sugar Shack would also appear in the opening credits for the television series Good Times, along with other Barnes paintings cementing him in the broader Black American stratosphere as the aesthetic of the 1970s.
The Sugar Shack tells the story of Barnes, his career, and the value—culturally and monetarily—of his work. Barnes, who hails from Durham, NC pursued art and football in college at North Carolina College ultimately playing for the NFLwhile maintaining an art practice. When Barnes retired from football in 1965 he turned to painting full time creating a visual vernacular steeped in athleticism, memory, and a Black liberatory figuration. Barnes, sinewy and extended figures, the scenes and positioning of subjects within the canvas frame, in particular his insistence on closing the eyes, and Barnes use of deep and warm tones become the ethos of his work. Barnes noted the essential role sports played in works, noting the advice from his professor the sculptor Ed Wilson who reminded him to “pay attention to what my body felt like in movement...within that elongation, there’s a feeling, an attitude and expression. I hate to think had I not played sports what my work would look like.” Barnes' painterly gestures, attention to movement, and surrealist compositions of the human body has been dubbed neo-mannerist. Neo-mannerist Barnes' relationship to the elongation, asymmetry and compositional tension within his portraits and his interest in depicting Black subjects. As Bridgette R Cooks, art historian and curator of Ernie Barnes: A Retrospective noted “It’s not about trying to hide the curves of your body or the facial features that you have. It’s about showing them, even exaggerating them and making it not even just OK but something to really be celebrated.” Within this framework Barnes was widely collected amongst professional athletes and Black celebrities and was also the official artist of the Los Angeles summer olympics in 1984.
However it was in 2019, ten years after his death, that Barnes had his first museum exhibition in California and his work entered into its record breaking epoch. Ernie Barnes: A Retrospective, at the California African American Museum was curated by Cooks and presented over forty works made between 1962 - 2007 most of which were held in private collections and had not been on view. A canonizing moment in the career of Barnes the retrospective signaled the zeal of Barnes work in the border art world with UTA Artist Space curating two exhibitions, Ernie Barnes: Liberating Humanity from Within and Ernie Barnes: Where Music and Soul Lives, in 2020 and 2023 respectively. In a recent interview Cooks noted that while museums were not a part of his career while he was alive, Barnes very much belonged to the Black popular culture and the Black art world which valorized his particular approach to art making and held his work as priceless. Ernie Barnes: A Retrospective highlighted his decades long career, allowing for not only a larger footprint in twenty first century contemporary art history but declared Barnes as part of the vanguard in portraiture.
In the four works for auction Barnes characteristic marks, elongated limbs, composition, and subjects are present. Saxophone Study #1 (1993) and Study For Brother To Brother (1994) are two graphite toned studies of figures enraptured in sound and the embrace of each other, respectively. In Holding Court (1986) and Mentors (2008) Barnes paints a seated intimate gathering of three women and a more densely populated scene of suited men in a huddle with kneeled faceless children dawning blue jeans and white t- shirts in the background. Barnes interest in intra community moments, the vibrations of music, and intimacy are all signaled in the closed eyes of his subjects. As he noted, “I began to see, observe, how blind we are to one another's humanity. Blinded by a lot of things that have, perhaps, initiated feelings in that light. We don't see into the depths of our interconnection. The gifts, the strength and potential within other human beings.” Here then is the potential of work to carry from its earliest iterations (the two studies) to fully fledged presentations gesturing towards the many ways connection is made, sustained, and most importantly felt.