ERNIE BARNES (1938-2009)
ERNIE BARNES (1938-2009)
ERNIE BARNES (1938-2009)
ERNIE BARNES (1938-2009)
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ERNIE BARNES (1938-2009)

Main Street Pool Hall

ERNIE BARNES (1938-2009)
Main Street Pool Hall
signed twice ‘ERNIE BARNES’ (lower right)
oil on canvas
23 3/4 x 48in. (60.3 x 121.9cm.)
Painted in 1978
Acquired directly from the artist by the late owners.
Special notice
This lot has been imported from outside of the UK for sale and placed under the Temporary Admission regime. Import VAT is payable at 5% on the hammer price. VAT at 20% will be added to the buyer’s premium but will not be shown separately on our invoice.
Further details
We would like to thank Luz Rodriguez at the Ernie Barnes Estate for her assistance in cataloguing this work.
Sale room notice
The date of execution for lot 45 should read ‘Painted in 1978’ and not as listed in the printed catalogue.

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Lot Essay

Offered from the outstanding collection of Danny and Donna Arnold, the present work is a thrilling depiction of one of Ernie Barnes’ most significant subjects: the pool hall. Arnold—the celebrated Hollywood producer—and his wife were friends with the artist, and acquired the present work directly from him shortly after its completion. Painted in 1978, two years after Barnes’ iconic The Sugar Shack, the work crackles with expectation. A crowd watches solemnly as a game of pool unfolds beneath a single incandescent lamp. In the centre of a large, airless room, a slender figure in bright red trousers takes aim as nearby spectators lean forward in anticipation of the coming shot. Painted in Barnes’ signature neo-Mannerist style, with its distinctive elongated figures and atmospheric mise-en-scène, the work demonstrates his poignant observations of black communities at a critical point in American history. Combining subtle social commentary with electrifying psychological tension, it is a scintillating snapshot of human experience, frozen in a moment of stillness before the fate of the game is decided.

Recently celebrated in a major retrospective at the California African American Museum, Barnes grew up in Durham, North Carolina during the Jim Crow era. Although he loved art, segregation laws prohibited him from entering the city’s museums. Instead, he pursued his interest through books and, by the time he entered school, he was familiar with artists ranging from Michelangelo to Delacroix and Toulouse-Lautrec. Barnes later attended North Carolina Central University, where he studied art, and continued to pursue painting after embarking a successful career as a footballer. When an injury in 1965 put an end to his sporting days, Barnes turned to art full time, and—with the support of Sonny Werblin, the owner of the New York Jets—opened a sell-out debut exhibition in 1966. By the time of Main Street Pool Hall, Barnes was producing works that would come to define his oeuvre. The Sugar Shack’s sister painting, also created in 1976, became a cultural icon, featuring on the cover of Marvin Gaye’s fourteenth studio album I Want You and subsequently for four years as the backdrop for the credits in the pioneering 1970s African American sitcom Good Times. Other musicians, from The Crusaders to B. B. King, would also feature Barnes’ artworks on their records.

The present work captures the crucial shift that took place in Barnes’ practice after he moved to Los Angeles in the early 1970s. Living in the Fairfax District, a predominantly Jewish neighbourhood, prompted him to reflect upon ideas about community—particularly in relation to his own upbringing. ‘Fairfax enlivened me to everyday life themes,’ he explained, ‘and forced me to look at my life—the way I had grown up, the customs within my community versus the customs in the Jewish community. Theirs were documented, ours were not. Because we were so clueless that our own culture had value and because of the phrase “Black is Beautiful” had just come into fashion, Black people were just starting to appreciate themselves as a people’ (E. Barnes, quoted at In 1972, in response to this realisation, Barnes launched an exhibition of 35 paintings entitled Beauty of the Ghetto, which toured museums across America for the next seven years. His depictions of pool players and dance halls take their place within this context, capturing moments of quotidian congregation imbued with complex layers of narrative and emotion. Interestingly, the posters depicted on the wall of the present work contain nods to Barnes' own autobiography, including the name of his alma mater Hillside High, as well as a tribute to Danny Arnold himself.

Barnes frequently took sports as his subject, painting everything from hockey and gymnastics to basketball and boxing: in 1984 he became the official Sports Artist of the Olympic Games in Los Angeles. While his depictions of pool halls certainly relate to this strand of his practice, the present work is more specifically a social study. Although ostensibly underpinned by a spectator-participant dynamic, a deeper political commentary simmers below its surface, revealing the enduring influence of the Jim Crow era on the artist. Isolated and hidden from view, his pool players disclose much about the nature of exclusion, autonomy and community. Many have their backs turned to the viewer; others are obscured by the screen of rising smoke. For Barnes, this lack of visibility was intentional: ‘I feel that we are blind to one another’s humanity’, he said (E. Barnes, interview with CNN, 1990). Here, collectively poised on the knife-edge between triumph and loss, the figures quietly harbour a story with more to be told.

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