ERNIE BARNES (1938-2009)
Fragments of Life: Works by Charles White and Ernie Barnes from the Collection of Danny and Donna Arnold
ERNIE BARNES (1938-2009)

The Disco

ERNIE BARNES (1938-2009)
The Disco
signed 'ERNIE BARNES' (lower right)
acrylic on canvas
29 7/8 x 39 ¾ in. (75.9 x 101 cm.)
Painted in 1978.
Acquired directly from the artist
Faith Hope & Charity, Faith Hope & Charity, LP vinyl, Los Angeles, 20th Century Records, 1978 (illustrated on the cover).

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Lot Essay

Doo-wop, skee-bop doo-doo, doo-wop – the irresistible beats spill out of the unseen horns from which they are blared, out across the tables and the drink trays and the tapping feet of those who have come to listen and those who have come to be heard. The night is fresh, yet the air is heavy with the breath of a thousand souls, singers and talkers and players and walkers. They sit and they stand and they dance and they jive, all come to the disco to find or lose a little part of themselves. Their days have been long and short and hard and simple and trying and brilliant, but here their evening begins, their troubles muted by the big band groove, here at the disco. Ernie Barnes paints his The Disco with such ferocity – with such reality – that though a picture cannot speak, faint strains of plucked strings echo off the canvas, while shouted conversations dwindle to murmurs in the distance. A fragment of life, captured and frozen by the hand of one attuned to its capriciousness, The Disco opens the door on a Harlem night or an Atlanta night or a Los Angeles night – places where the artist himself has spent time and seen living done the right way and sometimes the wrong way. Whether faces he knows or novel assemblages of features on faces he has encountered, Barnes’s club-goers are more than carefree neighbors enjoying a night on the town – they instead assume the honorable responsibility of standing in for all those characters so often overlooked, those lives lived in shadow, those existences expunged as quickly as they began. The difference between the disco and The Disco is that one is fleeting and forgotten, while the other is written in paint, forever.

Art was in Ernie Barnes’s (1938-2009) blood from the beginning, encouraged by his parents, fostered by his teachers and given language by respected attorney Frank L. Fuller, Jr., his mother’s employer in 1940s Durham, North Carolina. “Scanning the pages of [Fuller’s] art books made it possible for me to experience and discriminate my own feelings about art. …But the instinctive will to achieve was beset by the ominous hurdle of prejudice” (E. Barnes, quoted in The Beauty of the Ghetto: An Exhibition of Neo-Mannerist Paintings by Ernie Barnes, exh. cat., New York, 1990, p. 11). Barnes’s hurdle appeared at age eighteen, upon a visit to the North Carolina Museum of Art, where his request to view “the paintings by Negro artists” was met with a docent’s chilling words: “Your people don’t express themselves that way” (Ibid., p. 12). Barred from pursuing his creative potential outright, Barnes embraced his physical prowess, using football as a way to graduate Hillside High School adorned with twenty-six athletic scholarships and a full ride into Ed Wilson’s art department at North Carolina College. Painting and sketching before and after scrimmages, Barnes kept his livelihood close and his love closer. When school was over, Barnes took his place in the draft, joining the Baltimore Colts as an offensive lineman. For five seasons, Barnes bounced around the fledgling American Football League, his myriad teams relocating him to San Diego, Denver and New York.

It was there, in Harlem, that Barnes had his first taste of what his hand might be able to achieve beyond protecting his quarterback. It was there, in Harlem, that Barnes encountered the purpose for his practice: “I was browsing through a Harlem bookstore when I came across a portfolio of reproductions of Charles White drawings. I was in awe of such a discovery. My entire being was alive with excitement. Never had I seen such strong expression and power in images which became a symbol of Black people longing for the beauty of human existence. This was what art should be about; expressing the confidence, the pride and hopes of people committed to the struggle for human dignity. Art which conveys to the world that Black Americans are reliable and proven allies in the common struggle for beauty in existence. It was the first time in my life that I had seen images reflecting Black lifestyle and it made a profound impression on me. One that made me commit to one day producing the type of art that would awaken serious reflections about human life” (E. Barnes, From Pads to Palette, Waco, 1995, p. 30). Likely referencing the precursor drawings to White’s now-iconic Images of Dignity portfolio (1967), a decidedly far cry from the work of some fictional, expressionless Black artist envisioned by the docent at the North Carolina Museum of Art, Barnes’s recollection of this pivotal moment followed him into a full-time pursuit of painting, throughout which he considered the inimitable White as one of many mentors. The further away from football Barnes traveled, the more deeply engaged he became in the quest for an image representative of the “joy” and “potential” flowing throughout his upbringing in the “ghetto” (E. Barnes, quoted in The Beauty of the Ghetto: An Exhibition of Neo-Mannerist Paintings by Ernie Barnes, exh. cat., New York, 1990, p. 11).

The Disco is nothing if not an image of joy. Unfettered celebration in the company of friends of another week endured inhabits every inch of the present painting, individual catch-ups, heated debates, passionate love all happening before a mass of movers surrendered to the motion of the music. Reminiscent of Barnes’s characteristically Neo-Mannerist style, The Disco finds its roots in The Sugar Shack – a 1976 painting that for Barnes represented the good times never had: “The Sugar Shack is a recall of childhood experience. It was the first time my innocence met with the sins of dance. The painting transmits rhythm so the experience is re-created in the person viewing it to show that African Americans utilize rhythm as a way of resolving physical tension” (E. Barnes, quoted in “Biography,” Artist Ernie Barnes: Official Website). Used as the album cover for soul singers Faith, Hope & Charity’s eponymous 1978 album, The Disco has come to define the very apex of Barnes’s oeuvre in its unique ability to depict all interrelationships at once and each on its own.

A man of character and humility, Barnes did not let the long white-washed history of art deter him from finding precedent in other images of homespun reality. George Bellows, the champion of the Ashcan School, who used his vivid detail to outline the contours of the New York slums during the Great Depression; Thomas Hart Benton, whose recognizable pictures of farm life in middle America bespeak both triumph and pain; Edward Hopper, the author of the great American sadness, painter of an epidemic of loneliness – each of these offered fertile ground in which Barnes could plant his own ideas of a dignified Black America. Further back still, Barnes was seeing and reinterpreting the hidden symbolism unearthed by Hans Holbein, elongated figures drawn by El Greco and keen understanding of the human condition bared by Michelangelo, ever the student of the past: “By his bravura technique, his artistic finesse, his elongations and distortions, his disregard of the confinements of anatomy, his dismissal of classical spatial relationships, Barnes has transformed the everyday happenings of 20th century society into the fierce, elemental and forceful components of a new symbolism, at once barbarously powerful and exquisitely beautiful” (J. D’Arcy, “Preface,” in E. Barnes, From Pads to Palette, Waco, 1995, p. 5). With growing institutional recognition throughout the 1990s and early aughts, including commissions by the city of Los Angeles and Kanye West and the National Basketball Association, the artist’s first retrospective was mounted posthumously at Los Angeles’s California African American Museum in 2019.

Thus, in a career marked by stark departures urged on by fervent advocates, including Los Angeleno Benjamin Horowitz whose Heritage Gallery first showed Charles White, Ernie Barnes found a way towards those images of dignity once marveled over in a Harlem bookstore, becoming the first American professional athlete-turned-painter. In pictures of footballers, basketball players, jockeys, writers, waiters, deli owners, pool hustlers and partiers, the artist rewrote a story too often defined by stereotype and fear: “If half of what the church tells us of God is correct, then the ghetto is God’s home. Here is America’s true heartland, throbbing with people with capacities which they literally ache to turn into abilities” (E. Barnes, quoted in The Beauty of the Ghetto: An Exhibition of Neo-Mannerist Paintings by Ernie Barnes, exh. cat., New York, 1990, pp. 12-13). The Disco is a picture of those people – those people bursting with potential, with ideas, with enthusiasm, with big dreams and small inhibitions. Using the same discipline exercised as a professional athlete in his handling of brushes and pens, Barnes coaxed empathy, acknowledgement and respect out of an audience predisposed against his and his contemporaries’ modes of expression. A long road but a sure one, Barnes walked with steady step, on his way out of the darkest night towards a brighter future, humming along to the ever-changing, joyful noise of the disco: “When the past can be recaptured, the artist must, of necessity, look at it with a changed eye. Just as the present is composed of fragments of the past, so does the present invade the past. Each passing moment gives the images of the past a new aspect and a new meaning” (E. Barnes, From Pads to Palette, Waco, 1995, p. 17).

“I was always glad to have him by my side in the huddle and up front blocking for me on the line of scrimmage, but I am more heartened and encouraged to have his generosity of spirit and compassionate intelligence on our side in the continuing fight against ignorance, despair, hopelessness and bigotry” (J. Kemp, “Foreword,” in E. Barnes, From Pads to Palette, Waco, 1995, p. 4).

About the Collector:

Establishing himself as a well-respected, accomplished Hollywood producer in the mid-20th century, Danny Arnold refined a keen eye for contemporary aesthetics, identifying artists of great talent across the creative disciplines with a prescient vision. Between Arnold and his wife Donna’s own cultural contributions and their personal friendships with both Charles White and Ernie Barnes, the Arnold family’s collection is rooted in a fascinating history of collecting and connoisseurship.

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