05.01.09 5:52 AM ET
A Black Picasso
Ernie Barnes, who passed away from a blood disorder on Monday at 70, was famous for accessible paintings showing ordinary black people in everyday situations—walking down an empty country road, skipping rope, dancing at a party. But he imbued his figures with great dignity, beauty, and a heroic air, and he made work that people who didn’t go to museums could quickly grasp. Where so many paintings seem like elaborate intellectual games or puzzles that dare you to unlock them, his work was direct. In a Barnes painting black people were in motion, elongated, and elastic, looking like athletes or dancers or even superheroes in plain clothes, comfortable in their skin and in their world. His work was affirming to black viewers, telling them they’re dignified, beautiful, and heroic even as they move through their own mundanities.
“The painting transmits rhythm,” Barnes once said of Sugar Shack, “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.”
In the 1970s, when Barnes’s painting Sugar Shack was featured on the cover of Marvin Gaye’s album I Want You and in the credits for Good Times, he became a household name in the black community. In my parents’ house while I grew up, there were three artists on the walls: Picasso, Romare Bearden, and Barnes. Someone engaged in the art world might see a disparity there because while Picasso and Bearden are considered among the greatest painters of all time, Barnes was not judged by the art cognoscenti to be on that level. But he was a hero in black eyes because of his vibrant and accessible paintings.
Sugar Shack, Barnes’s best-known painting, a print of which still hangs in my parents’ house, features a roomful of exuberant black people moving and grooving as if at the ecstatic zenith of a transcendent night of music, dance, drink, sweat, and lust. You can almost hear the funky rhythm of the song they’re dancing to. “The painting transmits rhythm,” Barnes once said of Sugar Shack, “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.” Thelma Golden, director and chief curator of The Studio Museum in Harlem, put on a show called Black Romantics that was inspired by Barnes’ influence in 2004. “He was engaged in documenting the life of black people,” she said. “His work had long, attenuated forms that are always about motion. In Sugar Shack, it’s not just individual figures, it’s a room that’s literally moving to the rhythm that we imagine. And it’s a work that gets to what I think is at the heart of his work—this idea of the humanity of black people. And that’s a humanity that is not perfect, it is not an ideal, it’s the reality of black life and he depicted that and I think that’s why people love his work. They see themselves in it.”
Touré is the host of BET’s The Black Carpet and the host of Treasure HD’s I’ll Try Anything Once. He is the author of Never Drank the Kool-Aid, Soul City, and The Portable Promised Land. He was a contributing editor at Rolling Stone, was CNN’s first pop culture correspondent, and was the host of MTV2's Spoke N Heard. His writing has appeared in The New Yorker and The New York Times.