Ernie Barnes - 20th Century & Contemporary Art Day Sale, Morning Session New York Wednesday, November 16, 2022 | Phillips

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  • Introducing Richard Roundtree


    Richard Roundtree as Shaft, 1970. Image: Moviestore Collection Ltd / Alamy Stock Photo
    Richard Roundtree as Shaft, 1970. Image: Moviestore Collection Ltd / Alamy Stock Photo

    Ernie Barnes’ My Man comes from the collection of Richard Roundtree—the iconic actor best known for his role as private detective John Shaft in the Shaft movie franchise. His breakout performance in the first Shaft film—a 1971 classic that defined the "Blaxploitation" genre—earned him a Golden Globe nomination.
    Roundtree was born in 1942 in New Rochelle, New York, and began his career as a model, having been discovered by Eunice W. Johnson, of the Johnson Publishing Company, which published Ebony and Jet magazines. Over his five decades as an actor, he has appeared in some 160 film and television projects—sharing the screen with actors including Clint Eastwood, Peter O’Toole, Laurence Olivier, Samuel L. Jackson, and Brad Pitt—and received numerous awards, such as an MTV Lifetime Achievement Award, a Peabody Award, and a Black Theater Alliance Lifetime Achievement Award.


    Roundtree was familiar with Barnes’ football career in the 1960s and learned of his artistic practice when Sammy Davis Jr. and Charlton Heston purchased his works. He discovered that Barnes lived just four blocks away from him in Los Angeles and walked to his home to meet with him. He purchased My Man—as well as another Barnes painting that Phillips is offering this season, Slam Before the Storm—directly from the artist in 1981.

    Ernie Barnes: “This is My Man.” 

    Richard Roundtree: "No, that is my man named Worm. That picture looks just like my friend Worm; I want it."In My Man, painted in 1980, Ernie Barnes offers a close-up view of a stylish man in profile on a cream-colored ground. The subject’s tilted cap, afro, and white t-shirt convey his effortless cool, as do the brushstrokes that swirl around him, echoing his contours, as though he directs the way the winds blow.
    The painting features several Barnes hallmarks, including his Mannerist-style figuration, in which bodies are rendered with elongated limbs and features. Barnes wrote that this formal distortion expresses an internal conflict: “the hero’s firm roots in this earthly life and his simultaneous dissatisfaction with it; his worldly interests and ambitions on one hand, and his otherworldly and metaphysical aspirations on the other.”i
    In the present work, the figure’s evocative facial expression also conveys this duality. Barnes said he depicted his figures with closed eyes to represent “our blindness to one another’s humanity.”ii Indeed, the shut-off expression of the man in My Man suggests a degree of solipsism—a condition that, of course, frequently plagues the hip. His modish hat covers the eye that’s turned away from us, so that even when his eyes are open, he’s partially blinded by fashion. And yet, his expression communicates more than mere egotism. He looks introspective and thoughtful.
    "Tragedy became a dramatic element in the age of mannerism . . . because moods of humans are governed by life’s insoluble conflicts."
    —Ernie Barnes
    My Man recalls works by portrait painter Barkley L. Hendricks, who likewise depicted stylish Black subjects against monochrome backgrounds. Hendricks, however, rendered his subjects realistically; from a distance, so that they and their outfits are represented in their full glory; and with head-on gazes that project unapologetic confidence. While Hendricks’ powerful images are just as sympathetic to their subjects as My Man is, they come from a different perspective than Barnes’ more nuanced portraits do.

    Purvis Young, Untitled (MM 11311), 1989. 
    Purvis Young, Untitled (MM 11311), 1989. © Estate of Purvis Young / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

    The artist’s frame on My Man represents another characteristic Barnes feature. Such frames for Barnes, with their weathered wood and chipped paint, alluded to the white picket fence that had surrounded his family home in Durham, North Carolina, and fallen into disrepair before his father’s death.iii They also connect Barnes’ work with the vernacular styles of many of his fellow Southern Black artists, including Lonnie Holley, Beverly Buchanan, and Purvis Young.
    The title My Man suggests Barnes’ brotherly feeling towards the subject in the painting. Similar feelings prompted Richard Roundtree to buy the work from the artist. When Barnes showed him the painting and said, “This is My Man,” Roundtree replied that it was actually his man, since the figure looked just like his close friend Worm. (In fact, he still affectionately refers to the painting as Worm.) Barnes’ ability to create pictures with which viewers so strongly identify was one of his greatest gifts and is a reason his works are enjoying such a renaissance today.
    i Ernie Barnes, From Pads to Palette, Waco, 1995, p. 53.
    ii Ernie Barnies, interviewed by Dave Price for the TV Land series “Here’s the Story,” online
    iii Barnes’ frames are discussed in the biography on the artist’s website, online

    • Provenance

      Acquired directly from the artist by the present owner in 1981

Property of Richard Roundtree


My Man

signed “Ernie Barnes” lower right; inscribed "MY MAN WORM Where I'm coming from" on the stretcher
acrylic on canvas, in artist’s frame
canvas 15 x 30 in. (38.1 x 76.2 cm)
framed 20 x 35 in. (50.8 x 88.9 cm)

Painted in 1980.

Please note, My Man is 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

$150,000 - 200,000 

Sold for $151,200

Contact Specialist

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

20th Century & Contemporary Art Day Sale, Morning Session

New York Auction 16 November 2022