Ernie Barnes - 20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale Hong Kong Wednesday, June 22, 2022 | Phillips

Create your first list.

Select an existing list or create a new list to share and manage lots you follow.

  • “I hate to think had I not played sports what my work would look like.”
    — Ernie Barnes

    Ernie Barnes: Trading Cleats for Canvases


    Executed in the 1970s, Life After Sundown is an arresting example of Ernie Barnes’ expressive canvases. Narrating a scene full of life and movement, this work embodies the artist’s exploration of the Black identity within 20th Century Americana, both as what is means to be an artist of colour and also as subject matter within the artistic canon.


    A widely celebrated painter of his time, Barnes’ journey to becoming an artist was remarkable as he was first renown for being a former NFL player. Having been injured from a sport which defined his life, he looked inward and focused his passion on what was thought to be a forgotten vocation. His love for drawing was thus transformed into a full painterly practice. He once described, 'one day on the playing field, I looked up and the sun was breaking through the clouds, hitting the unmuddied areas on the uniforms, and I said, ‘That’s beautiful!’ I knew then that it was all over being a player. I was more interested in art. So I traded my cleats for canvas, my bruises for brushes, and put all the violence and power I’d felt on the field into my paintings.’ i Little did he know that this would be the start of an exploration into something bigger than himself. As a painter of the minority, he became an advocate for racial justice within an unbalanced socio-political climate.



    Fellow Champions of the Black Body



    Jacob Lawrence, The Brown Angel, 1959 
    Collection of the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston
    © Museum of Fine Arts, Houston / museum purchase funded by the Caroline Wiess Law Foundation, with additional funds provided by the African American Art Advisory Association and ExxonMobil / Bridgeman Images, Artwork: © 2022 The Jacob and Gwendolyn Knight Lawrence Foundation, Seattle / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York


    Comparable to African American painter, Jacob Lawrence, Barnes was intentional in his portrayal of the Black body. Growing up, he only attended racially segregated schools and relied on athletic scholarships to secure his education. At North Carolina College, he majored in art and discovered that there was little to no representation of African Americans within contemporary context amongst the college’s collection. Wanting to change this, he painted with an intensity to champion equality within visual culture. In the present work, Life After Sundown is painted with an overwhelming wash of neutral tones. Similar to Lawrence’s preferred use of black and browns, sections of the canvas are highlighted through isolated use of brighter colours. Although more rounded in shape and form, figures in Barnes’ works are reflective of Lawrence’s style in fluidity, rhythm and social activity. Both The Brown Angel and Life After Sundown manifest a community and an analogous narrative.



    Charles Wilbert White, Card Players, 1939
    Collection of the Saint Louis Art Museum, Missouri
    © Saint Louis Art Museum / Gift of the Federal Works Agency, Work Projects Administration / Bridgeman Images, Artwork: © Charles W. White Archives


    Life After Sundown is also evocative of African American painter, Charles White’s style. White was preoccupied with creating 'images of dignity.' He once expressed, 'I am interested in the social, even the propagandistic angle of painting that will say what I have to say. Paint is the only weapon I have with which to fight what I resent.' ii In both works, figures congregate around the pool table. Whereas Barnes’ figures are each engrossed in their own moment, whether enjoying the last drop of the bottle, mid-motion in strike or lifting a fist in expression, the players in White’s scene is focused on the cards at hand. However, in both paintings, the dim light overcasting the tables create drama and a sense of dynamism.



    Closed Eyes and Lithe Limbs


    “I began to see, observe, how blind we are to one another’s humanity. Blinded by a lot of things that have, perhaps, initiated feelings in that light. We don’t see into the depths of our interconnection. The gifts, the strength and potential within other human beings. We stop at colour quite often.”
    — Ernie Barnes


    A distinct and consistent feature of Barnes’ figures are their closed eyes. The artist recounted of a time where he showed his works to fellow African Americans to gage a reaction. Receiving negativity, he suddenly realised the difficulty in overcoming racial prejudice and how resistance was deeply rooted in the community.iii By painting their eyes closed, Barnes highlights the importance of togetherness without expectation. Another physical aspect to his characters is the movement borrowed from athletes. Drawing inspiration from his days as a football player, he was well aware of how expressive the body can be through elongated and lithe limbs. By staying true to his background as an athlete and using his honed skills as a painter, Barnes was able to tell stories of the Black community and translate them into everyday scenes as deserving unequivocal placement in the history of art.



    Collector’s Digest


    There is a revival of interest in Ernie Barnes’s body of work as The Sugar Shack (1976) achieved unparallel results for the artist at auction in New York’s Spring Season.


    As the darling of the moment, Barnes is  being recognised as an immensely popular figure in the  worlds of sport and art, operating outside the normal parameters for an artist to become an instantly recognizable figure in the American public towards the end of the century – providing the artwork for Marvin Gaye and being the official painter of the 1984 Olympics, and thus paving the way for artists like Daniel Arsham and Takashi Murakami to fuse seemingly divergent industries, and blur the lines between artist, creator and influencer.


    Life After Sundown holds incredible provenance as it has been enjoyed and protected by the same family for decades since it’s conception and execution. The current owner’s grandfather had initially met Barnes in Los Angeles whilst working as a screenwriter in the film industry and had shared a circle of common friends. As a token of friendship, the artist had gifted this painting to the aforementioned screenwriter.


    Barnes’ most recent solo show was with Andrew Kreps Gallery which exhibited from 24 September – 30 October, 2021. Barnes is represented by Andrew Kreps, New York and Ortuzar Projects, New York.



    Ernie Barnes: An American Story



    David G. Oblender, Contemporary Black Biography, Boston, 2000, p. 6

    ii Jeffrey Elliot and Charles White, ‘Charles White: Portrait of an Artist,’ Negro History Bulletin, vol. 3, no. 41, Chicago, 1956

    iii  Ernie Barnes, online

    • Provenance

      Private Collection, Italy (gifted by the artist)
      Thence by descent to the present owner

    • Catalogue Essay

      Please note, this work will be included in the upcoming catalogue raisonné of the artist’s paintings currently being organized by the Ernie Barnes Estate. We wish to thank the Estate for their kind assistance in the cataloguing of this work.


Life After Sundown

signed 'ERNIE BARNES' lower right
acrylic on canvas
90.5 x 120.5 cm. (35 5/8 x 47 1/2 in.)
Painted in 1979.

Full Cataloguing

HK$1,500,000 - 2,500,000 

Sold for HK$6,048,000

Contact Specialist

Charlotte Raybaud
Specialist, Head of Evening Sale
+852 2318 2026

20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale

Hong Kong Auction 22 June 2022