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Ernie Barnes, the football star turned artist, makes his big comeback

2 min read  ·  15 Mar 2023

Ernie Barnes The Sugar Shack (1976), courtesy UTA Artist Space and the Ernie Barnes Estate.

Ernie Barnes (1938-2009) was a trailblazing Black American artist who was also a professional football player. A solo show in Los Angeles, coinciding with the Frieze art fair there, has helped propel the late US artist into the top ten of trending artists on HENI News.

Barnes' work has garnered significant media attention and auction sales recently, reflecting in his HENI Score increasing an impressive 106%. To discover more, follow the artist’s HENI Dashboard

The artist's solo show Ernie Barnes: Where Music and Soul Live, at UTA Artist Space Los Angeles (until April 1) makes you want to be "inside his soulful depictions of crowded juke joints and dance halls", wrote the Los Angeles Times.

Barnes’ paintings have sold for impressive amounts at auctions, including The Back Room (1974) which was hammered at Christie's, King Street for $273,000, more than twice the high estimate. Shootin' the Breeze (1974) sold for $403,200, more than five times the high estimate, while The Stroll, a 1982 piece, sold for $394,800, more than twice the high estimate.

Born in Durham, North Carolina, Barnes was a pro football player in the NFL. As well as success as an athlete, Barnes felt a deep passion for art, painting throughout his playing career. But he faced several challenges throughout his career. In the 1960s, he was turned away from galleries due to his race and style of art. However, his perseverance paid off.

Barnes’ painting, The Sugar Shack (1976), famously featured in the closing credits of the groundbreaking 1970s sitcom “Good Times.” Selling for $15.2 million at Christie's, the auction underscored Barnes’ spectacular comeback. It was bought by the Texan hedge funder and Barnes fan Bill Perkins, who won a bidding war at Christie's New York. The actor Eddie Murphy owns another version of the painting, which used to belong to Marvin Gaye.

Filmmaker George Lucas is another fan. His Lucas Museum of Narrative Art, which is under contruction in Los Angeles, has been collecting Barnes' work, such as The Drum Major (2003). Grammy Award-winning singer Kelly Rowland is another. She selected two of Barnes' works for her Sotheby's Contemporary Art Sale.