ERNIE BARNES (1938 - 2009)
ERNIE BARNES (1938 - 2009)
ERNIE BARNES (1938 - 2009)
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ERNIE BARNES (1938 - 2009)
4 More
On occasion, Christie's has a direct financial int… Read more Property of an Important American Collection
ERNIE BARNES (1938 - 2009)

The Sugar Shack

ERNIE BARNES (1938 - 2009)
The Sugar Shack
signed ‘ERNIE BARNES’ (lower right); signed again, inscribed and dated 9⁄27/76 Ernie Barnes' (on the reverse)
acrylic on canvas
36 x 48 in. (91.4 x 121.9 cm.)
Painted in 1976.
Private collection, Los Angeles, acquired directly from the artist
Private collection, Los Angeles, 1986
Acquired from the above by the present owner
London, Whitechapel Gallery, Back to Black: Art, Cinema and the Racial Imaginary, June 2004-September 2005.
North Carolina Museum of History, The North Carolina Roots of Artist Ernie Barnes, June 2018-May 2019.
Los Angeles, California African American Museum, Ernie Barnes: A Retrospective, May-September 2019.
Beverly Hills, UTA Artist Space, Ernie Barnes: Liberating Humanity From Within, November-December 2020.
New York, Andrew Kreps Gallery, Ernie Barnes, September-October 2021.
Special notice
On occasion, Christie's has a direct financial interest in the outcome of the sale of certain lots consigned for sale. This will usually be where it has guaranteed to the Seller that whatever the outcome of the auction, the Seller will receive a minimum sale price for the work. This is known as a minimum price guarantee. This is such a lot.

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Emily Kaplan
Emily Kaplan Senior Vice President, Senior Specialist, Co-Head of 20th Century Evening Sale

Lot Essay

The Sugar Shack, 1976, by legendary American artist Ernie Barnes stands as a revelatory celebration of the joys to be felt in losing oneself to dance. An upbeat visual rhythm dictates the sway of angled limbs and flapping fabrics, one that synchronizes with the phantom tune radiating from the canvas. The visages of the depicted figures emanate pure, unadulterated bliss, a joy that perhaps echoes that of worshippers caught in the throes of religious ecstasy. With the visualization of such passion, Barnes artfully infuses the painting with both a core of gravity and an embrace of the carefree. The unique enchantment of this work can be located in its ability to envelope the viewer wholly into the heat, song, and energy of the scene it illustrates. To stand before The Sugar Shack is to be transported back in time and across space to the Durham Armory in 1952, an iconic dance hall in segregated North Carolina. The artist snuck into the Armory at age thirteen, engendering a memory of music and movement that would inspire the creation of The Sugar Shack twenty-four years later. On this transformative adolescent experience, Barnes remarked, “It was the first time my innocence met with the sins of dance.”

In The Sugar Shack II, Barnes epitomizes the rapture that can result from the power of music and image. As such, it is fitting that the work’s sister painting has become a cultural icon in the music and entertainment industries. Barnes made the first The Sugar Shack for titan of American soul, Marvin Gaye who chose to feature the image as the cover art for his fourteenth studio album, “I Want You.” Barnes then made the present lot in 1976, a duplicate of Gaye’s The Sugar Shack. When Barnes’s subject matter of dancing Black men and women from the 1950s is paired with the Prince of Motown’s unforgettable sound, the cultural contributions of the African-American community to music history are rightfully recognized and honored.

Similarly, the 1970s sitcom “Good Times” also featured The Sugar Shack’s sister painting. This show was the first sitcom to center on an African-American two-parent family, and frequently engaged with questions of politics surrounding race and identity. In this pairing, the work’s sociopolitical undertones emerge, as the painting provides a glorious portrayal of unabashed Black joy. In the time of the segregated South, any expression of Black triumph and jubilation was a radical act. As a former professional football player who faced pointed racism even at the status of NFL offensive guard, Barnes was painfully familiar with the violence embedded in the experience of being Black in America. Notably, the eyes of the figures in the painting are all sealed shut; this artistic choice stems from a recognition of the discord amongst humankind when confronted with diversity of appearance or ability. Barnes once said in a 1990 CNN interview, “I tend to paint everyone, most everyone, with their eyes closed because I feel that we are blind to one another’s humanity so if we could see the gifts, strengths, and potentials within every human being, then our eyes would open.” The Sugar Shack does not ignore the harsh realities of segregated American life in the 1950s, however it highlights a moment of beauty to emerge from such circumstances, that of the exuberant grace of dancing in a space created by and for the Black community.

Although a cursory glance at The Sugar Shack may yield the impression of a mass of taut limbs and upturned, rapturous faces, a closer look reveals the artful order at the foundation of the work. Barnes’s technique is strikingly similar to Neo-Classical master, Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres. Both artists excel at arranging large numbers of bodies in a small pictorial plane, while still maintaining a path for the eye to travel. One might draw comparisons between The Sugar Shack and Ingres’s The Turkish Bath (1863), as both paintings feature bodies elongated past reality, yet in the service of leading the eye throughout the work. In the present lot, Barnes guides the viewer’s gaze through the painting via fluid lines of lengthened arms and twisted torsos, each outstretched hand encouraging the eye to traverse across the canvas. The work also channels the principles structuring chaotic scenes of dance that have stood through centuries. Pieter Brueghel the Elder’s work The Wedding Dance (c. 1566) features a strikingly similar method of perspective that Barnes has employed in The Sugar Shack. Both paintings focus on a central row of characters in the foreground, while still stacking figures in slightly exaggerated foreshortening in the background, leading to a slight optical illusion of higher density in the space. The visual implication of this technique is a packed room in which bodies are closely pressed against each other in the thrill of dance. Overall, The Sugar Shack serves as a prime example of Barnes’s skill at capturing the full range of tension and vivacity in everyday life. In the present lot, he elevates an experience as mundane as a community dance to an almost spiritual state of grace.

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