Today, I’m celebrating Super Bowl Sunday my way, by honoring a great Black artist whose career began as a professional football player.
Ernie Barnes was from Durham, North Carolina where he endured Jim Crow segregation and childhood bullying, using football and art to strengthen his body and his resolve. He earned a scholarship to play ball while studying art at the historically Black North Carolina Central University.
In 1959 he was drafted to the Baltimore Colts and later went on to play for the N.Y Titans, the San Diego Chargers, and the Denver Broncos. Injuries eventually sidelined his 5-year football career, but he was also lured away from the game from his first love–his art.
As Barnes recounted, “Throughout my five seasons in the NFL, I remained at the deepest level of my being…an artist.” Playing the sport played a significant role in his figurative style, which is characterized by the intricately painted musculature of his subjects.
In 2019 I was able to see two very different solo exhibitions dedicated to his work, one featuring work that explores his North Carolina roots at the North Carolina Museum of History, while at CAAM in Los Angeles curators focused on paintings that were featured on album covers and the popular TV sitcom Good Times. The two exhibitions together provided a comprehensive overview of the artist’s career that spanned 5 decades.
It comes as no surprise to anyone that football is a brutally punishing sport marred by latent injuries that manifest over decades. You could see Barnes grapple with both the pain of physical injury and the emotional toll of player exploitation in his football paintings that simultaneously capture the beauty of movement in sport. The one work that stood out to me for depicting this dichotomy was in a piece called Climatic Conditions (1995). The ominous, dark hues of the sky on the horizon are broken by steamy white plumes of warm breath that escape behind the masks of four ghostly looking football players. The tension of the moment lurks within the deep shadows of the masks that give way to their faint scowls. One player’s tension is clearly telegraphed through a tightly clenched fist. The scale of the piece looms large and manages to simultaneously render, pain, brutality, and fear beautifully.
For more on some of my favorite works by Barnes, check out the 2019 review of his CAAM show that I wrote for Hyperallergic.