Ernie Barnes, a one-time professional football player who became one of the nation's foremost African American artists, has died after a brief illness, his personal assistant said Tuesday. He was 70.
Barnes, best known for a unique figurative style of painting exemplified by his celebrated "Sugar Shack" dance scene, died Monday night at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, said longtime personal assistant Luz Rodriguez.
The "Sugar Shack" scene appeared on a Marvin Gaye album and the closing credits of the "Good Times" television show, influencing aspiring artists and giving rise to widespread imitation.
"Ernie Barnes is one of the premier figurative artists of the late 20th and early 21st centuries," said Paul Von Blum, a senior lecturer in African American studies, communication studies and art history at UCLA.
"His richly detailed paintings and drawings chronicling the lives of people have made a profound contribution to the contemporary history of American art."
Von Blum said the works that Barnes produced over 40 years "elevated him to the top rank of African American artists in the United States" and "solidified his stature in the grand tradition of visual art, a reputation that will serve as a model for younger artists for generations to come."
Barnes' work relied on elongation and distortion to create a sense of energy, power, grace, intensity and fluidity. His art also features people with closed eyes, reflecting his sense, as he once expressed it, that "we are blind to one another's humanity."
Ernest Barnes Jr. was born in Durham, N.C., on July 15, 1938, during the Jim Crow era. As a child, he would accompany his mother, Fannie Mae Geer Barnes, to her place of work, where she oversaw a prominent attorney's household staff at a home where he was allowed to peruse an extensive collection of art books. It was then that his love of art began.
As a junior high school student, Barnes was overweight and introverted, spending time drawing in a notebook while hiding from the bullies who constantly taunted him, Rodriguez said.
But a sympathetic teacher put him on a weightlifting program, which enabled him to excel in both football and track and field once he got to high school. When he graduated, he was awarded 26 college scholarships.
Because of segregation, he could not consider the nearby University of North Carolina or Duke University, so he attended North Carolina College -- now NC Central University -- on a football scholarship and majored in art.
He was drafted in 1959 by the Washington Redskins, who, on discovering he was black, traded him to the then-world champion Baltimore Colts, according to Rodriguez. He later became an offensive lineman for the San Diego Chargers and Denver Broncos.
In 1965, New York Jets owner Sonny Werblin recognized Barnes' potential as an artist and paid him his salary of $13,500 for one season but freed him to devote himself exclusively to painting, according to Rodriguez.
One year later, Barnes made his debut in a critically acclaimed solo exhibition at Grand Central Art Galleries in Manhattan and officially retired from football.
"Throughout my five seasons in the arena of professional football, I remained at the deepest level of my being an artist," Barnes wrote in his 1995 autobiography, "From Pads to Palette."
In 1984, Barnes was commissioned by the Los Angeles Olympic Committee to create five paintings for the Games of the XXIII Olympiad. His other notable sports commissions include "A Dream Unfolds" for the National Basketball Association to commemorate its 50th anniversary; "Fastbreak" for Los Angeles Lakers owner Jerry Buss, and paintings for the owners of the New Orleans Saints, Oakland Raiders and Boston Patriots football teams.
One of his teammates on the Baltimore Colts -- Jerry Richardson, now owner of the Carolina Panthers -- commissioned Barnes to create a large painting, "Victory in Overtime," which is on permanent display at the football stadium in Charlotte.
But his work extended beyond the sports world, Rodriguez said, adding that his collectors range from Ethel Kennedy to Kanye West, and from Seton Hall University to the California African American Museum.
She said that plans for a "highly anticipated traveling exhibition" titled "Liberating Humanity From Within," are continuing.
Barnes is survived by his wife, Bernie; brother James of Durham; sons Michael and Sean; and daughters Deidre, Erin and Paige.
Rodriguez said a private memorial is pending. In lieu of flowers, the family requests donations be made in his name to Hillsides Home For Children in Pasadena.