WHEN THE PASADENA MUSEUM of California Art (PMCA) unexpectedly closed last October, after 16 years, there were three final exhibitions on view, including “Grafton Tyler Brown: Exploring California,” a small survey of Pacific Northwest landscape paintings and commercial lithographs. A pioneer, Grafton Tyler Brown (1841-1918) was the state’s first African American contractor and is also considered the first African American professional artist in California. The Brown exhibition was guest-curated by Bridget R. Cooks, a professor of African American studies and art history at the University of California, Irvine.

Cooks was scheduled to curate another exhibition at PMCA. She was organizing a retrospective of Ernie Barnes (1938-2009), another black male artist, closely associated with California, who deserves to be recognized more widely. Slated for fall 2018, the Barnes show was among the casualties when the museum closed its doors. With PMCA shuttered, Cooks sought a new venue for the exhibition and found the California African American Museum (CAAM) receptive to showcasing his work.

“Ernie Barnes: A Retrospective” opened a few months ago at the Los Angeles museum and remains on view through Sept. 8. The exhibition features more than 40 paintings made between 1962 and 2007.

Barnes is celebrated for narrative depictions of the African American community and his attention to the human body—both its form and movement. These attributes are on full display in his best known work, “The Sugar Shack” (1976). The iconic painting is presented in the exhibition along with images of athletes, community gatherings, and radiant women.

Growing up in segregated Durham, N.C., Barnes began drawing at a young age. He went on to play professional football for five years before pursuing his art career in Los Angeles. These key chapters in his life are reflected in the retrospective. Through art, personal objects, and ephemera, the exhibition provides a rare overview of his career and highlights the presence of his work in popular culture.

“I would like people to understand how influential Barnes’ style has been on generations of artists who followed him.” — Bridget R. Cooks

In advance of the show’s debut, I asked Cooks about the Barnes exhibition at CAAM. She shared some brief insights about the artist and the origins of the project. Cooks responded via email and said she hoped people come away from the show with an appreciation for his intergenerational influence and the exceptional storytelling evident in his many paintings:

CULTURE TYPE: How did the exhibition come about?
BRIDGET R. COOKS: The exhibition was conceived by Sarah Mitchell, director of exhibitions at the Pasadena Museum of California Art (PMCA). Sarah contacted me to see if I’d be interested in curating the exhibition for the PMCA and I happily agreed. The exhibition was originally planned to open at the PMCA last fall, but the museum unexpectedly closed its doors. Naima J. Keith, former deputy director and chief curator at CAAM, was receptive to my request to bring the exhibition CAAM.

What do you hope people learn about Barnes and understand about his work?
I would like people to understand how influential Barnes’ style has been on generations of artists who followed him. I’d like people to know that he was a professional football player, playing for the several teams including the Los Angeles and San Diego Chargers, before he became a full-time professional artist. He maintained his love for athletics throughout his life which is evident in his art.

Many people know of him because of the appearance of his painting “The Sugar Shack” (1976) on the television show “Good Times” and Marvin Gaye’s album “I Want You” released the same year. He was one of the first Black artists to show his work on television. It’s something we see today on shows like “Empire.” Television is a way to reach more people than visit a gallery or museum. I’d like viewers consider the influence that art can have through a TV audience. I hope seeing art on TV encourages them to learn more about artists and have an experience with art in person.

Did you uncover any new scholarship about Barnes and his practice in the course of organizing the show?
I haven’t uncovered any new scholarship, but speaking with his collectors, I have uncovered many personal stories about Barnes’ generosity of spirit. He touched many people through the emotional expression in his art, love of sports, the female form, and life in Los Angeles. His collectors were his friends and his admirers. Many of them are songwriters and musicians. I think they felt a kinship with Barnes’ skill as a storyteller through his art. CT


Curated by Bridget R. Cooks with assistance from Vida L Brown, visual arts curator and program manager at CAAM, “Ernie Barnes: A Retrospective” will be on view at the California African American Museum, Los Angeles, May 8-Sept. 8, 2019


TOP IMAGE: ERNIE BARNES, “Pool Hall,” circa 1970 (oil on canvas, 24 in. x 36 inches). | Collection of California African American Museum, © Ernie Barnes Family Trust


“Pads to Palette,” is an autobiographical volume by Ernie Barnes. Alongside illustrations of his work, the artist recounts his childhood in Durham, N.C., football experiences including the segregated AFL and early NFL years, and the start of his art career with his first gallery exhibition. Published in 2007, “A Tribute to Artist and NFL Alumni Ernie Barnes: His Art & Inspiration” commemorates a New York City exhibition hosted by Time Warner and the National Football League. A children’s book, “Between the Lines: How Ernie Barnes Went from the Football Field to the Art Gallery,” was published last year. Also, Shades of Color recently released a 2020 wall calendar featuring “the iconic art” of Barnes, published in collaboration with the artist’s estate.


From left, Ernie Barnes pictured in his first self portrait (1968) and the artist in 2001. | Photos © Ernie Barnes Family Trust


ERNIE BARNES, “Miss America,” 1970 (oil on canvas, 49 in. x 37 inches). | Collection of California African American Museum, © Ernie Barnes Family Trust


ERNIE BARNES, “The Sugar Shack,” 1976 (acrylic on canvas, 36 in. x 48 inches). | Collection of Jim and Jeannine Epstein, © Ernie Barnes Family Trust


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