Skip to main content
Original Issue


"My style is like the way I talk," says artist-athlete Ernie Barnes, "but in paint." That is not exactly true. Barnes is an exceedingly soft-spoken conversationalist, but his paintings seem to have very loud lives of their own.

Say "sports art" and you think of the exploding pizzas of LeRoy Neiman. Barnes's work is equally bold and theatrical, but his athletes are caricatured with highly attenuated bodies, like pulled taffy. His acrylics are big, jive and jangly; not quite the stuff your grandmother once hung over the living room sofa.

Barnes is the official sports artist of the Olympics. "Americans respect titles," says Barnes. "That's why I wanted that one." He beat out 16 other painters, including David Hockney and Robert Rauschenberg, and was commissioned by the Los Angeles Olympic Organizing Committee to do five paintings that are now available as posters. "I attempted," he says somewhat mystically, "to depict the Olympics of the mind."

Big and bearlike, Barnes greets you at the door of his rambling Mediterranean-style house in Studio City, Calif. in white loafers, Playboy shades and a shirt that looks as if it had been cut from an early Cubist canvas. A dead cigar is jammed in his mouth. All 253 pounds of him sort of sag to the floor. He has just come from his outdoor swimming pool.

"All the arts are basically harmonic," he says. The dead cigar wiggles in his mouth. "They're based on rhythm. Art lends itself towards the force of sports." He's being quite serious about his art, which is fairly hard to do in such a noisy setting, surrounded as he is by a clutter of paintings, tribal art and an oil of the Barnes bubble gum card that was made when he was with the Denver Broncos.

Barnes, 45, was an offensive lineman during a modest six-year pro career that took him from the NFL to the AFL to the CFL. Teammates called him "Big Rembrandt." His Night Watch is a dance hall scene titled The Sugar Shack. It was owned by the late Marvin Gaye.

"I became an artist," he says, "because I survived the hazards of creativity." Barnes grew up in Durham, N.C., a fat kid who began to paint to get away from the skinny kids who taunted him. When that didn't work, he took up football. "But I never stopped drawing," he says. "Sometimes I'd go to the bathroom, sit in a stall and sketch. At the time, football validated me in a way that art couldn't."

Influences? He fuses his eyebrows until they form a single smudge across his forehead. "My greatest influence," says Barnes, "is Ernie Barnes."

When Barnes left the pros he was bitter and disillusioned. His subsequent canvases were full of grotesque images of players in death masks, fangs and Nazi helmets. "The beauty of being an athlete erodes at the pro level," he says. "I was reaching for the absurdity of what men can be turned into with football as an excuse."

Barnes tried unsuccessfully to become the official artist of the AFL, but in 1966 he did find a patron in New York Jets owner Sonny Werblin, who paid him $15,500—$1,000 more than his last pro salary—so he could develop his talent. Barnes had made his first sale in 1958, to the Boston Celtics' Sam Jones, who paid $90 for Dance Night at Durham Armory. Nowadays a Barnes painting sells for as much as $30,000. In Hollywood, owning one is as obligatory as having his-and-her Mercedes. Burt Reynolds owns four, Jack Palance 18 and Elizabeth Montgomery nine.

The people in Barnes's works always have their eyes closed. "I paint them that way," he says, "because we are basically blind to each other's humanity."


The Finish is one of the five posters.