Friday, May 8, 2009
Ernie Barnes dies at 70; pro football player, successful painter
Ernie Barnes, a former professional football player who became a successful figurative painter, known for depictions of athletes and ordinary people whose muscled, elongated forms express physical and spiritual struggles, died Monday at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles. He was 70. His death was caused by complications of a rare blood disorder, according to his longtime assistant, Luz Rodriguez.
Barnes was a child of the segregated South who transcended racial barriers to play for the Denver Broncos and San Diego Chargers before pursuing his real dream: to be an artist. He became the official artist of the 1984 Olympic Games in Los Angeles, whose insights from his trials on the gridiron resulted in powerful, sometimes haunting portraits of agility, strength and the emotional costs of fierce competition.
His style, which critics have described as neo-Mannerist, became familiar to a prime-time television audience in the mid-1970s when producer Norman Lear hired Barnes to "ghost" the paintings by the Jimmie Walker character "J.J." in the groundbreaking African American sitcom "Good Times." As the backdrop for the show's closing credits, Lear used Barnes' 1971 painting "Sugar Shack,"
his most famous work. Singer Marvin Gaye later adapted the painting as the cover art for his 1976 album, "I Want You." "Sugar Shack" shows a Brueghel-like mass of bodies, writhing and jumping to the rhythms in a black jazz club. There is joy, tension and despair in the canvas, which Barnes once said was inspired by a memory of being barred from attending a dance when he was a child. As in nearly all of his paintings, the subjects' eyes are closed, a reflection of the artist's oft-stated belief that "we are blind to each other's humanity."
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