Ernie Barnes stole the show at Christie’s with his $15.3 million painting. Here are 3 things you might not know about “The Sugar Shack”

The unexpected featured lot at Christie’s 20th Century auction last week was The sugar shack, Ernie Barnes’ most famous painting. The 1976 work cost $15.3 million, 76 times its high estimate of $200,000.

A celebration of black joy, the painting depicts a cheering crowd of men and women with elongated limbs, seemingly carried away by the music as they dance the night away.

“Painting conveys rhythm, so the experience is recreated in the person looking at it,” Barnes, who died in 2009, said in an interview with the Soul Museum. “To show that African Americans use rhythm as a way to resolve physical tension.”

Before the lot opened, auctioneer Adrien Meyer warned there were “22 phones” about to enter the fray, but winning bidder Bill Perkins made a special trip to New York from Houston to make sure he could bid in person.

Perkins won the day after 10 minutes of grueling bidding – “it started and it went crazy”, he told the New York Timesadding that when a rival bidder, identified by value as Dane Jensen of Los Angeles art adviser Gurr Johns, warned that he wouldn’t stop bidding, “I replied, ‘So I’ll make you pay “.”

Bill Perkins and his fiancée, Lara Sebastian, at Christie’s with Ernie Barnes’s The sugar shack (1976). Perkins won the job for $15.3 million after a long bidding war. Photo courtesy of Bill Perkins.

Prior to the auction, the painting was in a private collection, having had only three owners since leaving the artist’s studio.

Christie’s cites a relatively sparse exhibition history, beginning with a group show on black art and film at London’s Whitechapel Gallery in 2004. It has also appeared in exhibitions of the artist’s work at the North Carolina Museum of History in 2018, and in Los Angeles at the California African American Museum (CAAM) in 2019 and UTA Artist Space in 2020.

The painting was last exhibited in New York in October, during a solo exhibition dedicated to Barnes at the Andrew Kreps Gallery.

At CAAM, the artwork was identified as a loan from Jeannie and Jim Epstein, a Los Angeles attorney and his wife, according to Culture Type.

Here are three things you might not know about the painting, which Perkins called “a childhood dream come true” on Instagram.

L'album <em>I Want You</em> by Marvin Gaye with <i>The Sugar Shack</i> by Ernie Barnes (1976).  Tamla album.” width=”1024″ height=”1024″ srcset=”https://news.artnet.com/app/news-upload/2022/05/https://images.genius.com_7b7fe5a48eb1edf36f11a6aaf456e8de.1000x1000x1-1024×1024.jpg 1024w , https://news.artnet.com/app/news-upload/2022/05/https___images.genius.com_7b7fe5a48eb1edf36f11a6aaf456e8de.1000x1000x1-150×150.jpg 150w, https://news.artnet.com/app/news-upload/ 2022/05/https___images.genius.com_7b7fe5a48eb1edf36f11a6aaf456e8de.1000x1000x1-300×300.jpg 300w, https://news.artnet.com/app/news-upload/2022/05/https___images.genius.com_7b7fe5a48eb1edf36f11a6aaf456e8de.1000x1000x1-32×32.jpg 32w, https://news.artnet.com/app/news-upload/2022/05/https___images.genius.com_7b7fe5a48eb1edf36f11a6aaf456e8de.1000x1000x1-50×50.jpg 50w, https://news.artnet.com/app/news-upload/2022 /05/https___images.genius.com_7b7fe5a48eb1edf36f11a6aaf456e8de.1000x1000x1-64×64.jpg 64w, https://news.artnet.com/app/news-upload/2022/05/https___images.genius.com_7b7fe5a48eb1edf36f11a6aaf456e8de.1000x1000x1-96×96.jpg 96w  , https://news.artnet.com/app/news-upload/2022/05/https___images.genius.com_7b7fe5a48eb1edf36f11a6aaf456e8de.1000x1000x1-128×128.jpg 128w, https://news.artnet.com/app/news-upload/ 2022/05/https___images.genius.com_7b7fe5a48eb1edf36f11a6aaf456e8de.1000x1000x1-256×256.jpg 256w, https://news.artnet.com/app/news-upload/2022/05/https___images.genius.com_7b7fe5a48eb1edf36f11a6aaf456e8de.1000x1000x1-434×434.jpg 434w, https://news.artnet.com/app/news-upload/2022/05/https___images.genius.com_7b7fe5a48eb1edf36f11a6aaf456e8de.1000x1000x1.jpg 1150w” sizes=”(max-width: 1024px) 100vw, 1024px”/></p>
<p class=Marvin Gaye’s album I want youstarring Ernie Barnes The sugar shackpublished by Tamla in 1976.

1) The work has serious bona fides in pop culture

“This image has been in my consciousness since I was a child. I have an emotional connection to it,” Perkins told Artnet News. No wonder: the work has high credibility in pop culture. It was commissioned by Motown star Marvin Gaye, whom Barnes met while playing basketball. One day after a game, the singer-songwriter reportedly spotted a painting in Barnes’ car and asked him to paint the cover for his next album.

The result was The sugar shackfeatured on the cover of Gaye’s I want you in 1976. The painting was Barnes’ second version of the composition, which he edited to add a reference to Gaye’s first single on a banner hanging from the rafters of the crowded room.

The painting was also featured in the opening credits of seasons four through six of the classic sitcom Good time (1974-1979), which follows the life of a poor family in the housing estates of Chicago. The show was the first television series to feature an African-American family and for its willingness to engage in politically charged issues of race and identity.

Barnes actually did all the artwork for the series, which starred Jimmie Walker as eldest son JJ Evans., a talented artist. But while Evans took on-screen credit for Barnes’ work, the artist guest-starred in two episodes of the show, in roles identified as “First Hood” and “First Hoodlum” on IMDB.

The Emmy-winning primetime television special Motown 25: yesterday, today, forever, broadcast on March 25, 1983, paid tribute to The sugar shack with a re-staging of the painting’s dance hall scene. The program was also memorable for another cultural moment: Michael Jackson kicked off his signature “moonwalk” dance.

2) Barnes relied on his study of classical painting, as well as his athletic training

Born in Durham, North Carolina, in 1938 as a child, Barnes studied books on Toulouse-Lautrec, Delacroix, Rubens and Michelangelo at the home of his mother’s employer, but because of segregation he had to years before he could see such masterpieces in museums.

A talented athlete, he attended North Carolina College on a full athletic scholarship and majored in art. There, his instructor, sculptor Ed Wilson, helped Barnes tap into depictions of his own lived experience. “(Wilson) told me to pay attention to how my body felt in motion,” Barnes said. “In this elongation, there is a feeling, an attitude and an expression. I hate to think that if I hadn’t played sports what my job would be like.

Barnes went on to play professional football for the Baltimore Colts, Denver Broncos and other teams, and later found a boss in New York Jets owner Sonny Werblin. (He chronicled his transition from professional athlete to artist in his 1995 autobiography From pads to palette.)

For sugar shackBarnes said he was inspired by childhood memories to paint the canvas, of a crowded dance hall, black men and women growling in abandon to the sound of an R&B band.

“I had the idea of sugar shack thinking back to when I was a kid and not being able to go to a dance I wanted to go to when I was 11,” he told the Oakland Grandstand in 2002.

The evocative image is considered part of the Black Romantic Art Movementwhich was characterized by a deep sense of pride in African-American identity and its roots in pre-colonial African monarchies.

3) This is part of a series of auctions for Barnes

Ernie Barnes, <em>storm dance</em> (1977).  Photo courtesy of Christie’s New York.  “width=”871″ height=”1700″ srcset=”https://news.artnet.com/app/news-upload/2022/05/download-2.png 871w, https://news.artnet.com /app/news-upload/2022/05/download-2-154×300.png 154w, https://news.artnet.com/app/news-upload/2022/05/download-2-525×1024.png 525w, https ://news.artnet.com/app/news-upload/2022/05/download-2-26×50.png 26w” sizes=”(max-width: 871px) 100vw, 871px”/></p>
<p class=Ernie Barnes, storm dance (1977). Courtesy of Christie’s New York.

Barnes had previously hit the $250,000 mark only four times, culminating with the $550,000 sale of ballroom soul (1978), also at Christie’s New York, last November. (The sugar shack went for over 27 times more.)

But the artist’s top 18 auction results have all come in the past two years, according to the Artnet price database, and three of them were in the past week.

On May 10, at Heritage’s American Art Signature Auction in Dallas, Billiard room (circa 1970) sold for $131,250, then the seventh-highest price for Barnes at auction.

The day after the record sugar shack sale, Christie’s sold storm dance (1977) at its Postwar and Contemporary Art sale for $2.34 million on May 13, beating the high estimate of $150,000 by 1,460%. The elongated canvas echoes the subject, a group of lanky black men leaping towards a makeshift basketball hoop, the game frozen in time as a guard tries to stop an opponent from diving.

Ernie Barnes, <em>The Master</em>.  Photo courtesy of Bonhams, ©Ernie Barnes Family Trust, Los Angeles Athletic Club Collection.  “width=”1024″ height=”851″ srcset=”https://news.artnet.com/app/news-upload/2022/05/image-1-1024×851.jpeg 1024w, https://news.artnet .com/app/news-upload/2022/05/image-1-300×249.jpeg 300w, https://news.artnet.com/app/news-upload/2022/05/image-1-50×42.jpeg 50w ” sizes=”(max-width: 1024px) 100vw, 1024px”/></p>
<p class=Ernie Barnes, The conductor. Photo courtesy of Bonhams, © Ernie Barnes Family Trust, Los Angeles Athletic Club Collection.

A glut of works by Barnes have come to the block since June 2020, with 38 in total, or 33% of the artist’s 115 works ever offered at auction.

Prior to this month, a work by Barnes had never fetched more than $47,500, the price set at New York’s Swann Galleries in October 2017 for The conductor (circa 1978).

An earlier painting of the same name, from the collection of the Los Angeles Athletic Club, is set to premiere at Bonhams New York on May 26. The circa 1971 acrylic painting was used by the Crusaders for their 1984 album cover. Ghetto Blasters. At Bonhams, he carries a high estimate of $35,000, but with the way things are going, the final figure could be much, much higher.

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