A FIGURATIVE PAINTER with a singular style, Ernie Barnes (1938-2009) had a reverence for Black women. They were a popular subject for the artist who depicted them possessed with dignity, passion, and joy. Barnes made paintings of Black women playing sports, DJing, dancing, attending church, showing strength in the face of adversity, and socializing with one another.

In 1976, Barnes painted a scene with six women standing together, engaged, and animated. A few have their hands on their hips. One woman folds her arms across her chest. The group has gathered to gossip, get the scoop, spread the word, and spill the tea. Barnes called the painting “The Grape Vine.”

Lot 69: ERNIE BARNES (American, 1938-2009), “The Grape Vine,” circa 1976 (oil on canvas, 24 x 36 inches. | Estimate $20,000-$30,000. Sold for (hammer price $60,000) $75,000 fees included. RECORD


Mavis Staples, the legendary gospel and soul singer, purchased the painting the same year Barnes made it. She lived with “The Grape Vine” for more than four decades before offering it for sale last month at Hindman, the Chicago auction house. The painting sold for $75,000 at the Post-War and Contemporary Art sale on May 4, setting a new auction record for Barnes.

The result was more than twice the high estimate ($20,000-$30,000), besting his previous record, recently established when “Two-on-Two” (n.d.), a basketball painting by Barnes, sold for $69,300 at Sotheby’s New York in December.

Staples sold a second painting at the Hindman sale. “Singer” (1976) captures a performer, eyes closed, belting out a song in a space that has seen better days. The stage is dimly lit with a single bulb hanging from the cracked ceiling. Dressed to the nines in tails and a necktie, his vest is pulled tight across his rounded stomach. “Singer” sold for $34,375, against an estimate of ($15,000-$25,000).

CULTURE TYPE REACHED OUT to Staples to learn more about the paintings. Through Adam Ayers, her manager, Staples said she selected the paintings because she felt a personal connection to them. She said she “saw herself” in the gathering of women in “The Grape Vine,” Ayers wrote by email. “Singer” reminded her of a singer she knew named Chicago Joe. Eventually, she nicknamed the painting “Gospel Joe,” Ayers said.

Staples, 81, purchased the paintings directly from Barnes. Hindman’s lot note for “Singer” states: “Ms. Staples met Barnes around 1976 at a Staple Singers’ show in San Francisco. After the show, he went backstage to introduce himself, invited them to his studio on that Sunday, and on Monday the family picked out which paintings they wanted to buy. That would be their only meeting.” The same description is provided for “The Grape Vine,” although initially misstating the year as “1966.” *

The lot information was supplied to Hindman when Staples consigned the paintings for sale. Her recollection of the encounter with Barnes differs now with regard to one key detail. Ayers said she believes they were introduced backstage after a Staples Singers concert in Los Angeles, not San Francisco. This version of their meeting makes sense, given Barnes lived and worked in Los Angeles and she visited the artist’s studio in the days immediately following, ultimately purchasing the two paintings.

“Mavis Staples said she selected the paintings because she felt a personal connection to them. She said she ‘saw herself’ in the gathering of women in ‘The Grapevine.'”

Lot 68: ERNIE BARNES (American, 1938-2009), “Singer,” circa 1976 (oil on canvas, 24 x 20 inches). | Estimate $15,000-$25,000. Sold for (hammer price $27,500) $34,375 including fees


Uncertain about the price she paid for “Singer,” Staples said “The Grape Vine” cost $1,500. She made payments to Barnes to complete the purchase. “She didn’t have the money at the time,” Ayers said, “so he held them until she could pay them off, and he sent them to her.”

Luz Rodriguez, who manages the Ernie Barnes Family Trust, confirmed “The Grape Vine” was purchased over time. The estate’s records include three handwritten notes from Staples about payments for the painting dated July 6, 1976; Sept. 20, 1976; and April 13, 1977. The September correspondence is penned on stationery from the Hotel St. Moritz On-The-Park at 50 Central Park Avenue in New York City.

Barnes wrote the name of the painting on the back of the frame as “The Grape Vine,” which is how Hindman lists it. The artist’s invoicing records for the work, however, use the standard one-word format for the gossip term. According to the estate, the correct title of the painting is “The Grapevine.” The estate was unable to locate documentation for the sale of “Singer.”

BARNES PAINTED FROM EXPERIENCE and was particularly inspired by music and African American life in the segregated South, where he grew up in Durham, N.C. His work comes from a personal place and at the same time has universal appeal. Staples can attest to this.

In her observation over the years, everyone loved and connected with Barnes’s work. Staples prominently displayed his paintings in her home on the South Side of Chicago. “Singer” welcomed visitors in the foyer and “The Grapevine” hung in the dining room. “Everybody who came over to her house, who saw the paintings, they would see one of their neighbors or family in the pictures,” Ayers said.

Staples continues to tour internationally as a solo act. After living with the paintings for most of her career, she decided to put them up for auction because she was moving. “She didn’t think there would be room on the walls,” Ayers said, “and didn’t want to put them in storage.” CT


* UPDATE (06/09/21): After this article was published and more than a month after the auction closed, Hindman informed Culture Type that the date for “The Grapevine” was corrected in the lot summary on the auction house’s website and now reads “1976,” rather than 1966.


ABOUT RESULTS Final sale prices include fees. Estimates and hammer prices do not include fees.


READ MORE Writing in The Art Newspaper, Maxwell Anderson explains Why American artists should benefit from the resale of their works


“From 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 chronicling the artist’s life, “Between the Lines: How Ernie Barnes Went from the Football Field to the Art Gallery,” was published in 2018. Another book for children, “Pigskins to Paintbrushes: The Story of Football-Playing Artist Ernie Barnes,” is forthcoming in August.


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