The late Ernie Barnes has been having quite the year. It began when his 1976 work The Sugar Shack shattered expectations during Christie’s 20th-century art evening sale on 13 May where it sold to the Houston-based entrepreneur Bill Perkins for $15.3m (around 75 times is estimated price of $150,000-$200,000).
Then, during Frieze New York, Andrew Kreps Gallery and Ortuzar Projects announced they would co-represent the artist’s estate, a feat that Barnes was never able to accomplish during his lifetime. The announcement came after Kreps, on the fair’s VIP day, hung a 1987 work by the artist in his booth, a slight hint of what was to come. Study for the Assist was priced at $75,000, a far cry from the ultimate selling price of The Sugar Shack, but close enough to that work’s estimate to have curious parties to wonder what was next for Barnes’ market.
Bonhams may have the answer. Another Barnes will be coming up for auction during their 26 May sale of American Art. And while this work may not evoke the sweltering weekend nights of The Sugar Shack, it radiates an equal amount of passion and you can still hear the music bleed through the paint. The Maestro (1971) shows the solitary figure of what is looks like a boy in early teens with his back to the viewer. His arms raised dramatically high and in between the long, delicate fingers of his right hand he holds a conductor’s baton. The only other item in the dimly lit room is an antique radio, the kind that used to run on power tubes, which sits on a high table just big enough to hold it.
Anyone who has ever loved a record more than words will be able to feel what the boy is feeling, the anticipation of a chord about to be struck, of an impending crescendo, the joy of letting your imagination place you exactly where you want to be. There is more to the work than just raw imaginative power. Or rather, the viewers imagination is helped along by the deft use of colour and light in the work. There is only a single light source, an window to the boy’s left, and soft light elegantly floods that side of the room and hints at a possible love of Johanees Vermeer or Vilhelm Hammershøi on Barnes’s part. The brown tones of the desolate room become warmer as one realises this may be the room where the boy is most comfortable, feels most powerful, feels the most like himself.
The picture was acquired by the Los Angeles Athletic club directly from the artist in 1974 and has remained there ever since. Barnes, who his work to remain true to where he came from, often made barn or fence wood frames for his work. This piece still has the original frame that the artist put on himself. Much like The Sugar Shack, The Maestro was also used an artwork for a record, The Crusader’s 1984 album Ghetto Blaster. “The power of these pictures is that they are more than just pretty, they're also very intellectually stimulating,” says Morgan Martin, a specialist at Bonhams, “they're very social pictures. And it's very interesting to think about the subject matter that he was working with, whether sports or something more intimate like The Maestro, and how in the Western canon as we know it, even for contemporary works, you just don't see much work like his. He’s shining a bit of light onto that fact, elevating it, something that I hope continues.”
The Maestro comes with an estimate of $25,000 to $35,000. Not bad given his last result at auction, but interested buyers must remember where The Sugar Shack began price-wise. Is it possible that The Maestro achieves a price leaps-and-bounds above its estimate? Possibly, but who is to say? The only thing for certain is that his work was for years grossly undervalued and, for the time being, is on the tip of everyone’s tongue.
Bonhams American Art Sale, 26 May, starting at 2pm EST.