Abell Auction Co. Introduces Two Iconic Pieces By The Renowned Ernie Eugene Barnes: Pool Hall and The Comedian

Abell Auction Co. introduces two iconic pieces by the renowned Ernie Eugene Barnes

“Pool Hall” and “The Comedian” are two oil paintings by American artist Ernie Barnes (1938-2009), celebrated for his unique stylized painting style and his innovative portrayal of the African American community. In the two works offered at this auction, Barnes’s kinetic approach to artmaking and his characteristic elongated figures, the latter of which have been described as “neo-mannerist,” are put on full display. While formally trained as an artist, Barnes’s visual language was strongly impacted by his first career as a professional football player. Consequently, Barnes frequently portrayed basketball and football players, runners, and gymnasts. However, as can be seen in these two artworks, the artist also painted everyday and nightlife scenes and often created many variations of the same theme. (Daria Simone Harper, How Ernie Barnes’s Paintings Became Celebratory Emblems of Black Southern Life, Artsy, Aug, 2020, via this link .

In “Pool Hall”, Barnes portrayed a group of people hanging around a billiard table. The scene is full of tension and captures the atmosphere of a smoky pool hall. We can almost hear the sound of the pool balls and see them move as the player, who is leaning on the table holding the cue stick, is about to make his next shot. Here the expressiveness of the painting is granted by the postures and exaggerated body proportions of the five figures represented on the canvas. In Diane K. Shah’s words “… the focus is on the exertion of the body.” (Diane K. Shah, Ernie Barnes an Athletic Artist, The New York Times, May 1984, via this link. Notably, Barnes revisited the pool hall theme in different artworks, many of which have a similar brown color palette and layout in which the pool table, constructed with linear perspective, adds depth to the composition. While following the artist’s distinctive style, the version offered at this auction features an original element through the depiction of a sleeping dog in the foreground and the portrayal of a man that appears to be dozing off with his mouth wide open.


The second painting offered in this auction is the original The Comedian, painted by Barnes as a gift to Norman Lear. The more well-known Comedian is one of the most famous limited-edition lithographs by Barnes. In this painting, the artist uses his innate sensitivity and piercing observation into the heart of the human condition to render a figure that beautifully depicts the duality and inextricable link of comedy and tragedy. This luminous portrait of TV producer Norman Lear bears historical relevance given Lear’s contribution to Barnes’ surge in fame gained through his painting the artworks shown in Lear’s smash hit The Good Times and featuring Barnes’ iconic The Sugar Shack in the closing credits. Barnes is the rare artist whose most popular work is recognized from television. Notably, Lear gave this artwork to writer and actor Lincoln Kibbee, the son of Lear’s esteemed friend who had died. This painting was treasured by Lincoln until he died 1995.


Overall, these two artworks are a testament to Barnes’s ability to paint creative variations of the same theme and to capture the essence of his subjects in an approachable way. “People feel a sense of freedom of expression because they’re felt in his work,” said art scholar and curator Bridget R. Cooks. “He is metabolizing his own understanding of art history, formal and informal, then making it relatable to a culture that is contemporary and racialized. He was able to make work that is accessible.” (Nadja Sayej, Ernie Barnes: the overlooked legacy of the athlete turned celebrity artist, The Guardian, Jun 2019, via this link. Barnes died on April 27, 2009, leaving behind an extensive body of work that is kept in important art collections. Recently, his works have broken auction price records.

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