UPDATE (05/12/22): “The Sugar Shack” by Ernie Barnes hammered at $13 million, selling for a final price of $15,275,000 fees included, a huge record for the artist, exponentially smashing the his previous auction high mark, which was $550,000. The staggering result marks the first time a work by Barnes has sold for more than $1 million at auction.


AN ODE TO MUSIC AND MOVEMENT, “The Sugar Shack” (1976) by Ernie Barnes (1938-2009) is the artist’s most recognized and iconic painting. Half a century ago, when few African American artists were well known, Barnes’s memorable painting of a sensual and soulful, late night dance gained popular regard. “The Sugar Shack” image was featured on the cover of Marvin Gaye’s 1976 album “I Want You” and regularly appeared during the credits on “Good Times,” the 1970s television sitcom.

Next month, the famous painting is headed to auction for the first time. Christie’s New York will offer “The Sugar Shack” during its 20th Century Evening Auction on May 12. Carrying the highest estimate ever set for a work by Barnes ($150,000-$200,000), the painting is poised to achieve a new artist record at auction.

The current auction record for Barnes’s work was established when “Ballroom Soul” (1978) sold for $550,000 at Christie’s New York last November. The result was almost five times the estimate ($80,000-120,000),


Lot 29C: ERNIE BARNES (1938-2009), “The Sugar Shack,” 1976 (acrylic on canvas, 36 x 48 inches / 91.4 x 121.9 cm.). | Estimate $150,000-200,000. SOLD for $15,275,000 fees included. RECORD


THE INSPIRATION for “The Sugar Shack” was a night of unbridled dancing at the Durham Armory in the artist’s hometown of Durham, N.C. Barnes made the painting based on a childhood memory.

In 1952, at the age of 13, he snuck into the Armory and saw men and women grooving on the dance floor. Recalling the segregation-era scene, Barnes said, “It was the first time my innocence met with the sins of dance.” Two decades later, he made a painting based on what he saw that night.

“The Sugar Shack” possesses a lively juke joint vibe. Barnes depicts a densely packed scene with wood rafters overhead. A single hanging pendant casts a spotlight on the dancers, bathing them in a bright, almost spiritual light.

Invoking his signature style, Barnes portrays the figures with elongated limbs, both lithe and shapely, seemingly in constant motion. Each one has their eyes closed, another Barnes trademark. This last conceit the artist said was intended to make a statement about “how blind we are to one another’s humanity.”

The energy and passion among the dancers is palpable. They are intensely in tune with one another and the rhythm of the music. Lost in the moment, the figures are so expressive the picture is nearly audible. Looking at the painting, you can almost hear the guttural emotion the singer is belting out from the Armory stage, backed by the bluesy soul of the live band, the same transfixing sound Barnes must of heard the night he witnessed the unforgettable scene.

Ernie Barnes snuck into the Armory and saw men and women grooving on the dance floor. Recalling the segregation-era scene, the artist has said, “It was the first time my innocence met with the sins of dance.” Two decades later, he made a painting based on what he saw that night.

BARNES, WHO SPENT most of his five-decade career in Los Angeles, made a wide variety of paintings capturing a spectrum of African American life, experiences and scenes he largely recalled from growing up in North Carolina. He also depicted racially diverse athletes engaged in all manner of sports, including football, which he played professionally before dedicating himself full time to his artistic practice.

He made two versions of “The Sugar Shack.” Dated 1972-76, the first painting was enhanced after Barnes learned Gaye wanted to feature it on his album cover. The artist added a banner celebrating the album—and referring to “I Want You” as a “new hit”—that hangs high above the scene from the rafters.

The second version of the painting, the current lot, has a handwritten inscription on the back that reads: “This painting is an original reproduction of another with the same image and was painted on special commission.” The notation is dated “9/27/76” and signed “Ernie Barnes.”

Displayed publicly on four recent occasions, the painting was featured in exhibitions at the North Carolina Museum of History in Raleigh (“The North Carolina Roots of Artist Ernie Barnes,” 2018-19); California African American Museum (CAAM) in Los Angeles (“Ernie Barnes: A Retrospective,” 2019); UTA Artist Space in Beverly Hills (“Ernie Barnes: Liberating Humanity From Within,” 2020); and Andrew Kreps Gallery in New York, N.Y. (“Ernie Barnes,” 2021).

Christie’s describes the lot as being from an “Important American Collection.” When the painting was on view at CAAM, the promotional materials and exhibition label stated the work was on loan from the collection of Jeannie and Jim Epstein. He is a retired attorney in Los Angeles.

“Being an athlete helped me to formulate an analysis of movement,” Barnes said in an interview for the series “Here’s The Story” on TV Land. “Movement is what I wanted to capture on canvas more than anything else. I can’t stand a static canvas.”

Given this, Barnes must have taken great pride in the phenomenal energy, spirit, and movement he captured, not once, but twice, with “The Sugar Shack.” CT


* Sources: Art Price, Christie’s. Auction results include Buyer’s Premium fees, unless otherwise noted. Estimates do not include fees


FIND MORE about Ernie Barnes on his website

FIND MORE about “Ernie Barnes: A Retrospective” at CAAM and “Ernie Barnes: Liberating Humanity From Within” at UTA Artist Space on Culture Type


FIND MORE The New York Times recently reported on Fairchain, a new tech start-up using digital contracts and certificates of title and authenticity to help artists obtain resale royalties


“From Pads to Palette” (1995) is an autobiographical volume by Ernie Barnes. Alongside his football sketches and paintings, the artist recounts his childhood in Durham, N.C., football experiences including the segregated AFL and early NFL years, and the start of his art career with his first solo exhibition at Grand Central Art Galleries in New York. Two children’s books chronicle the artist’s life, “Between the Lines: How Ernie Barnes Went from the Football Field to the Art Gallery” with illustrations by Bryan Collier and “Pigskins to Paintbrushes: The Story of Football-Playing Artist Ernie Barnes,” written and illustrated by Don Tate. Also consider, “Back in Black: Cinema and the Racial Imaginary” (2005), featuring the Marvin Gaye version of “The Sugar Shack.” The catalog accompanied the landmark exhibition showcasing an international slate of American, British, and Jamaican artists working in the 1960s and 70s, including Barnes, at Whitechapel Gallery in London and The New Art Gallery in Walsall.


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