Ernie Barnes - 20th Century & Contemporary Art Day Sale, Morning Session New York Tuesday, May 16, 2023 | Phillips

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  • Ernie Barnes’s Hustlers from 1969 is a masterful example of the artist’s signature style, depicting elongated figures engaging in a game of pool. Coming of age in North Carolina during the Jim Crow era, much of Barnes’s creative output reflects his experience as a young football player turned artist.

    “Being an athlete helped me to formulate an analysis of movement, and movement is what I wanted to capture on canvas more than anything else. I can’t stand a static canvas.”
    —Ernie Barnes 

    From the Field to the Canvas 


    Attending college on a football scholarship and later playing in the NFL, Barnes's experiences on the field informed his painterly practice. Having become well acquainted with the “bones and muscles, the synapses and ganglia of the nervous system and how they regulate movement” in sport, he began to experiment “with the limits imposed by the body’s musculature” in his art.i This is evident especially in the present work, using elongated forms and the interplays of light and shadow to accentuate the nuances of movement within the human body. In this way, Hustlers reflects a deep connection to and understanding of anatomy that Barnes became so well-known for. This detailed, elongated style, which the artist self-referred to as “Neo-Mannerist,” became a hallmark of Barnes’s paintings and a defining characteristic of his works.


    “Blind to Each Other's Humanity”


    Special care is also paid to the figures’ expressions. Though most of the right man’s face is covered by his hat, we can tell that he is intensely concentrating in the moment right before the cue ball is hit and the outcome of the game is determined. Barnes consistently depicted his characters with their eyes either obstructed or closed, highlighting the ways in which we close ourselves off to one another, emphasizing the artist’s belief that “we’re blind to each other’s humanity.”ii The left figure’s eyes are rendered closed, focused not on the game, but on his own presence in the scene at large. As if on the other side of the pool table, we as the viewer are too positioned within the scene, allowing us to witness the action firsthand, in turn encouraging a deeper connection to Barnes’s players.


    Detail of the present work

    Celebrations of Representation


    Barnes chose to paint everyday people doing everyday things, highlighting the beauty and excitement in the mundane. Rejecting the “cold” abstraction prevalent in art at the time, Barnes’s Neo-Mannerist style takes inspiration from the artists he studied in school while also challenging the ways in which Black bodies were historically represented in art. Though unable to enter museums growing up, Barnes was familiar with artists such as Michelangelo, Titian, and Correggio, influenced by their depictures of heroic figures as evident in the present work. Choosing to paint his own peers, Barnes at once responds to and challenges art history in works like Hustlers, depicting men taking part in a seemingly mundane activity and celebrating it.


    Titian, Christ Crowned with Thorns, 1542-1543, Louvre, Paris. Image: © RMN-Grand Palais / Adrien Didierjean / Art Resource, NY


     i Joan D’Arcy, From Pads to Palette, Waco, 1995, p. 5.

    ii Ernie Barnes, quoted in Daria Simone Harper, “How Ernie Barnes’s Paintings Became Celebratory Emblems of Black Southern Life,” Artsy, August 7, 2020, online.

    • Provenance

      Private Collection (acquired directly from the artist in 1969)
      Private Collection (acquired from the above in 1983)
      Thence by descent to the present owner



signed "ERNIE BARNES" lower right; titled and dated "Hustlers 1969" on the stretcher
acrylic on canvas, in artist's frame
28 x 32 5/8 in. (71.1 x 82.9 cm)
Painted in 1969.

Please note, Hustlers will be included in the upcoming Ernie Barnes Catalogue Raisonné by the artist’s estate. We wish to thank the Ernie Barnes Estate for their kind assistance with this work.

Full Cataloguing

$70,000 - 100,000 

Sold for $254,000

Contact Specialist

Annie Dolan

Specialist, Head of Sale, Morning Session
+1 212 940 1288

20th Century & Contemporary Art Day Sale, Morning Session

New York Auction 16 May 2023