Long ignored by art market elites, Ernie Barnes posthumously had a watershed moment this past May. His seminal 1976 painting, The Sugar Shack, shattered expectations when it sold at Christie’s 20th Century auction for $15.3m USD — nearly 76 times its initial estimate. “For certain segments of America, it’s more famous than the Mona Lisa,” said Bill Perkins, a Houston-based energy trader who placed the winning bid.
Running concurrent to Frieze Los Angeles in February, UTA Artist Space will host a new exhibition entitled Ernie Barnes: Where Music and Soul Live — showcasing 30 of his dynamic paintings, including several pieces belonging to private collections that have never been seen by the public.
Before Barnes pursued art full-time, he was a pro football guard. Having played with several former teams, such as the San Diego Chargers and Denver Broncos, Barnes was repeatedly fined for sketching in-between practices. It would earn him the name “Big Rembrandt” as the artist saw football and art as “one and the same,” according to biographer Don Tate. “Both required rhythm. Both required techniques. Passing, pulling, breaking down the field—that was an art.”
After retiring in 1964, Barnes fully turned to his former passion, where he would recreate the raucous and vibrant scenes he’d regularly experience. Dancehalls, marching bands, homecoming games — dynamic paintings that often depicted Black figures, but which captured “a vision” of what the artist wanted from “our common humanity.”
The forthcoming exhibition will complement an interior space designed by PLAYLAB, which aims to recreate the nightclubs seen in Barnes’ work. “He was an artist of the people,” said UTA Artist Space’s director, Zuzanna Ciolek, in a statement. “The general public was aware of his work and excited about his work before the art world was, and I think that’s something that’s really exciting for us.”
Ernie Barnes: Where Music and Soul Live will go on view at UTA Artist Space LA from February 15 to April 1, 2023.