African-American painter Ernie Barnes dead at 70

LOS ANGELES (AP) – Ernie Barnes, an African American figurative painter and lineman for the San Diego Chargers and Denver Broncos, has died. He was 70.

Barnes died Monday at a hospital of complications from a rare blood disorder, his longtime assistant and friend Luz Rodriguez said. She would not elaborate on the disorder.

His famous Sugar Shack dance scene appeared on the cover of Marvin Gaye’s I Want You in 1976 and the closing credits of the Good Times television show.

“It was how he recalled the juke joints he saw growing up as a kid,” Rodriguez said. “That’s his experience. He mastered the movement and energy and the spirit of it all. Kids try to copy it and they just don’t hit it, try as they might.”

His paintings are characterized by elongated figures with their eyes closed and many capture the dynamism of sports.

“Ernie Barnes is one of the premier figurative artists of the late 20th and early 21st centuries,” said Paul Von Blum, an art history and African-American studies professor at the University of California, Los Angeles. “His richly detailed paintings and drawings chronicling the lives of people have made a profound contribution to the contemporary history of American art.”

As a boy growing up in Durham, N.C., Barnes followed his mother to work at the home of a local attorney where he admired the lawyer’s art books, Rodriguez said. As a young man, Barnes visited the newly desegregated North
Carolina Museum of Art and asked to see paintings by Negro artists, Rodriguez said.

“He felt his art had to educate and uplift and create a transformative understanding of humanity,” Rodriguez said.

Barnes played football at North Carolina College, a historically black school now called North Carolina Central University. He played from 1960-1964 for the New York Titans, San Diego Chargers and Denver Broncos.

“Throughout my five seasons in the arena of professional football, I remained at the deepest level of my being – an artist,” he wrote in his 1995 autobiography, From Pads to Palette.

In 1965, New York Jets owner Sonny Werblin recognized Barnes’ passion for art and paid him for one season so he could focus on painting, according to Barnes’ biography posted on this Web site. A year later, Barnes had his first solo exhibition at Grand Central Art Galleries in Manhattan and retired from football.

Barnes was commissioned by the 1984 Los Angeles Olympic Committee, the NBA and by entertainment superstars such as Kanye West and Sylvester Stallone.

He is survived by his wife, Bernie; a brother, two sons and three daughters.

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