Ernie Barnes - Modern & Contemporary Art Day Sale, Morning Session New York Wednesday, May 15, 2024 | Phillips

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  • In Ernie Barnes’ Human Celebration, an early career work executed in the 1960s, we find ourselves witness to a festivity of thirteen revelers moving in joyous rhythm – their eyes closed, heads thrown back, and mouths open, the group shares in the propulsive beat of unheard melodies. Painted in rich earthy tones with pops of reds, blues and yellows, Human Celebration gives visual testimony to Barnes’ talent for depicting pure, physical, and primal pleasure of dance. Dance halls are one of Barnes' most well-known subjects, and Human Celebration elevates this scene to new heights as it concentrates on the beauty of the human figure through an energetic display of movement.


    The figures in Human Celebration appear to be rejoicing in their bodies – relishing the very human abilities to sing, dance, and express emotions freely. Whether we look to the woman in a red dress, knees bent in a spirited dance move, or the man perched upon a tabletop, crooning into a microphone, each expressive figure in Human Celebration transcends beyond the static canvas and reaches the epitome of jubilation.

    “Being an athlete helped me to formulate an analysis of movement. Movement is what I wanted to capture on canvas more than anything else. I can’t stand a static canvas.”
    —Ernie Barnes
    Barnes’ depictions of dance halls were inspired by his childhood memory of sneaking into a local Black dance club, the Armory, in segregated North Carolina - experiencing what Barnes called the "sins of dance" for the first time.i His dance halls are most famously seen in The Sugar Shack, 1976, which was both selected as the cover art for Marvin Gaye’s album from the same year, “I Want You,” and used in the end credits of the groundbreaking sitcom “Good Times.” Human Celebration captures the same dynamism and sense of soul that makes The Sugar Shack so iconic. As Barnes has described, “The painting transmits rhythm, so the experience is re-created in the person viewing it.”ii The rhythm of Human Celebration can still be felt some sixty years later, inviting the viewer to partake in the festivity as well.


    El Greco, Christ Cleaning the Temple, before 1570, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C. Image: National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., Samuel H. Kress Collection, 1957.14.4

    Barnes played five seasons in the American Football League before concentrating on painting full-time from the mid-1960s onward and the ways in which his practice is deeply informed by his athletic background is visible in his use of sinuous figures and elongated limbs. Rendered in his signature neo-Mannerist style, and drawing upon his firsthand understanding of how the body moves and operates, we see in Barnes’ work echoes of El Greco’s elongated twisted forms, and Thomas Hart Benton’s scenes of everyday life in the United States. Barnes’ sculpted, fluid figures and fascination with familiar American settings such as the football field, pool table, or dance hall, make his works ever relevant and compelling.


    i “Ernie Barnes Interview,” Soul Museum, date accessed April 4, 2024, online.

    ii Ibid.

    • Provenance

      Stephen Blauner (acquired circa 1960s)
      Shirley & Herb Ritts, Los Angeles (acquired from the above in 1967)
      Acquired from the above by the present owner in 2008

Property from a Prominent Private Collection


Human Celebration

signed "ERNIE BARNES" lower right
acrylic on canvas
24 1/8 x 35 7/8 in. (61.3 x 91.1 cm)
Painted circa 1960s.

Human Celebration is included in the forthcoming Ernie Barnes Catalogue Raisonné. We thank Luz Rodriguez for her assistance in cataloguing this work.

Full Cataloguing

$150,000 - 250,000 

Sold for $292,100

Contact Specialist

Annie Dolan
NY Head of Auctions and Specialist, Head of Sale, Morning Session
212 940 1288

Modern & Contemporary Art Day Sale, Morning Session

New York Auction 15 May 2024