Houston energy trader says $15.3M was ‘a steal’ for painting

The simple joy of dancing in a North Carolina club maybe inconsequential to some.

But what the late artist Ernie Barnes created in his acclaimed 1976 painting, “The Sugar Shack,” was Black joy. It was born out of the Jim Crow South and brewed from the exuberance of Black life in a tumultuous world.

His piece shows women and men dancing away the social heaviness by celebrating happiness for a night. The elongated figures, which are a Barnes’ signature, appear to sway with graceful rhythm as a band plays in a segregated dance hall. By the stairs is older man in a blue uniform, sitting with a newspaper at his feet.

The painting was featured on the cover of Marvin Gaye’s album, “I Want You” and in the credits of the 1970s TV sitcom “Good Times” as the show’s theme song played,”Ain’t we lucky we got ’em. .” last month, Houston energy trader Bill Perkins purchased it for $15.3 million at Christie’s 20th Century auction, though it was estimated at only $200,000. Perkins has loaned to piece to the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston through Dec. 31.

“The play” by Ernie Barnes

Ronald Cortes

“Welcome to The Sugar Shack. Dancing every Fri., Sat. night featuring Big Daddy Rucker.”

If you’re going to collect American art, Barnes should be at the top of your list, Perkins said.

“There is nothing more American than a Barnes painting about Black joy in the South in a sugar shack,” he said. “He’s just not an artist. He’s like John Biggers, Elizabeth Catlett, Norman Lewis. These are the people, African American people, who I would call first or second generation American art masters. When you look at a Monet and you ask,’ Who are their African American contemporaries?’ They were slaves then. Even after slavery, they had to form communities for food, shelter and clothing, before they could have a paint brush and a canvas to express themselves.”

The Gen Xer who grew up watching “Good Times” and had the Marvin Gaye album cover glued to his bedroom wall, saw the painting as piece of his childhood. Something he’s been wanting for years to add to his varied art collection, which includes works by pop artist Roy Lichtenstein along with several pieces by the late Houston artist Biggers.

Houston energy trader Bill Perkins sent ripples through the art world last week when he purchased Ernie Barnes' most famous painting, “The Sugar Shack” (1976) $15.3 million during Christie's 20th Century auction.

Houston energy trader Bill Perkins sent ripples through the art world last week when he purchased Ernie Barnes’ most famous painting, “The Sugar Shack” (1976) $15.3 million during Christie’s 20th Century auction.

“The Sugar Shack” by Ernie Barnes, from 1976, Christie’s Images Ltd.

Nostalgia fueled Perkins’ urgent need to hop on a plane with fiancé Lara Sebastian to New York to be present for the auction. He didn’t want to risk being out bid by the likes of Oprah Winfrey or someone of similar wealth. It was more than just a win for Perkins, who also is a professional poker player, author and film producer — it was a purchase of history.

That he eagerly paid $15.3 million for Barnes’ painting shocked many in the art world. From his vantage point, though, it was a steal. The painting should have sold for significantly more, but work by African American often is undervalued and artists under appreciated.

“The fact that I’m able to own a masterpiece by a Black artist for nothing is quite ridiculous,” he said.

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He’s been showered with congratulations for his purchase, but he knows his ability as a Black man to purchase Barnes’ work won’t change the biases that plague the world, he said.

“You really want the French or Chinese billionaire or the Russian oligarch to buy the painting. That’s how we get the international community to understand what’s going on and to understand the African American narrative. That’s how we fight the biases. Even some portion of the Black community has this idea that Black art is only for Black people. Then there is this fear that there’s culture appropriation if you buy Black art and you’re not Black. This is all wrong. We have to flip the script on racism,” he said.

At a time when the nation is trying to address race and its implications on society, there appears to be a concerted effort to amplify Black artists, like Barnes, who have not experienced the greatness of their work being in demand by the larger society. A retrospective of his work was featured at the California African American Museum in Los Angeles in 2019.

Bill Perkins purchased the iconic 1976

Bill Perkins purchased the iconic 1976 “The Sugar Shack” painting by Ernie Barnes for $15 million. The painting is on view at the Museum of Fine Arts Houston through Dec. 31.

Karen Warren/Staff photographer

“There has been a widely acknowledged correction in process in the art market in valuing the work of Black artists in recent years,” said Alison de Lima Greene, Isabel Brown Wilson Curator, Modern & Contemporary Art at MFAH. “While this a project is still evolving, the sale of the Barnes is part of a much larger trend,”

“The Sugar Shack” was inspired by Barnes’ childhood when he sneaked into a juke joint as a young teen and watched the men and women dance. Barnes made two versions of the painting. One in the early 1970s that was used for Gaye’s album and is now owned by actor and comedian Eddie Murphy. The second was a special commission. Perkins previously attempted to contact Murphy to buy his Barnes’ painting, but got no response.

Barnes, also a former professional football player, died in 2009.

“Sugar Shack” was featured in the opening credits of “Good Times,” which followed the lives of a poor Black family in a Chicago housing project. Barnes did all the art for the series, which starred Jimmie Walker as oldest son JJ Evans., a talented artist.

“I actually own the painting that JJ painted on the show. I feel a sense of pride, but also a sense of responsibility. Because as a collector, our job is to signal to the art market what is valuable and what future generations should appreciate, study and understand,” Perkins said.

“I want people to be curious and recognize the beauty that Barnes saw in the Black community and the joy.”

joy.sewing@chron.com