Ernie Barnes, In Rapture, 2000
Ernie Barnes: In Rapture
Apr 25 – Jun 15, 2024
Ortuzar Projects
New York, USA

Ortuzar Projects is pleased to present Ernie Barnes: In Rapture, the gallery’s first exhibition of the late figurative painter Ernie Barnes (1938-2009) in collaboration with Andrew Kreps Gallery. Spanning five decades of Barnes’ career, this survey features genre paintings of sports, dance, musical performance and the joys of everyday life in his signature “neo-mannerist” style. Tracing the throughlines of elation and bodily movement throughout Barnes’ oeuvre, from early sports paintings to his mutual influence on popular culture, this exhibition pulls its title from the painting In Rapture on the cover of B.B. King’s 2000 album Making Love is Good for You.

In his paintings, Barnes animates the lyricism of the human body in moments of athleticism and play. Barnes’ sinuous figures were inspired by both the Italian Mannerists and twentieth-century American masters, such as Thomas Hart Benton, Andrew Wyeth, Norman Rockwell, George Bellows and Charles White. Born and raised in Durham, North Carolina, at the height of the Jim Crow era, Barnes’ interest in art was cultivated by his mother, the housekeeper for Durham attorney Frank L. Fuller, Jr. Though segregation barred him from visiting museums as a child, Barnes was able to read art books at Fuller’s home before studying painting at North Carolina Central University (formerly North Carolina College) on a full athletic scholarship.

As an undergraduate, Barnes honed his skills in track and football while studying art under the direction of sculptor Ed Wilson, who helped him understand the significance of painting one’s immediate environment. In 1959 Barnes joined the American Football League (AFL) as a lineman for the Baltimore Colts before joining the Titans of New York in 1960 as an offensive guard. In turn, Barnes painted motion-heavy paintings reminiscent of Bellows’ depiction of boxers. Early ’60s paintings, such as We Love Our Team (1966), memorialize these early years, and later works like Fumble in the Line (1970) capture groups of elongated, sinuous players in motion. Barnes left the AFL in 1965 and became a full-time artist. With the support of New York Jets owner, Sonny Werblin, Barnes became the official artist of the AFL a year later and would continue to integrate sports into his painting throughout the ’70s and ’80s. Barnes painted a prolific series of basketball players, such as Protect the Rim (1976) and Slam Before the Storm (1979), which portrayed figures suspended in air to conjure a sense of transcendence in sport and teamwork. After years of painting scenes of football, basketball, polo, hockey, baseball, track and field, and more, Barnes would serve as the official artist of the 1984 Summer Olympic Games in Los Angeles.

[ . . . ]

Throughout the ’70s, Barnes increasingly portrayed individuals and groups enraptured by song and dance. The passion captured in these depictions mirrors that in his sports and fanfare scenes. In his work, Barnes conveys moments of solitary pleasure as well as communal elation amongst families, crowds of fans, groups of friends and faith-based communities. Barnes’ ability to illustrate rhythm and movement inspired collaboration on album covers with musical artists, such as Marvin Gaye, Curtis Mayfield, and B.B. King, as well as music groups, such as The Crusaders and Faith, Hope, and Charity. A continuum of Black joy can be traced from Barnes’ earlier scenes of dance halls, such as Full Boogie (1978) to later paintings from the 1990s, such as Friendly Friendship Baptist Church (1994).

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