In 1973, Marvin Gaye produced one of his most popular albums, Let’s Get It On. The next year, he followed it up with a similar hunk of erotic funk, I Want You. Here is the title song from that album:
The New York Times reported that the cover of the album, a painting entitled The Sugar Shack by Ernie Barnes, has just been sold at auction for $15.3 million dollars to a Houston-based hedge fund guy, Bill Perkins.
Aside from this painting, I am not all that familiar with Ernie Barnes’ work. In addition to its use as the cover of I Want You, it also appeared under the closing credits of Good Times. Dyn-o-mite!
Barnes died in 2009. His obituary was fascinating. Barnes had been a professional football player before becoming an artist. He played for the New York Titans, the San Diego Chargers, and the Denver Broncos in the 1960s.
“One day on the playing field I looked up and the sun was breaking through the clouds, hitting the unmuddied areas on the uniforms, and I said, ‘That’s beautiful!’ ” he wrote on a Web site devoted to his work, sundaysgladiators.com. “I knew then that it was all over being a player. I was more interested in art. So I traded my cleats for canvas, my bruises for brushes, and put all the violence and power I’d felt on the field into my paintings.”
That quote seems a bit self-dramatizing, but I found it quite moving. (And Barnes’ reason for giving up football was a lot more noble than mine. I was in 7th grade, playing for the Memorial Junior High Eagles, when coach Hubble came up to me one day to sign me up to play on the 8th grade team. I told I didn’t want to play because I hated going to practice every day after school. In short, I quit out of laziness. Coach Hubble was crestfallen. “Boyd! You can’t do this!”)
Cristies estimated that the painting would sell for $200,000. So who paid 76.5 times the estimate? Bill Perkins, a Houston-based energy trader. Perkin’s company is called Skylar Energy, and he previously worked for Centaurus Energy, which was John Arnold’s extremely successful energy trading company. Perkins appears to be a fun-loving guy who enjoys playing poker professionally.
How did Perkins get interested in art? I’m always kind of interested in how plutocratic types get into art. Is it always as a Veblen good, a thing that becomes more valuable the more you pay for it? An object that confers “class” onto the person who bought it? In short, because Perkins paid 76.5 times the estimate in vigorous bidding against 22 other bidders means that Barnes’ art is now worth a lot of money. If Perkins had a stash of Barnes paintings to sell, I would call it a pump-and-dump scheme. But as reported, his motives are more interesting.
Perkins said he was educated about art in part by Rick Lowe, the Houston-based artist and community organizer, whose Project Row Houses have become a leading example of social practice art. He said he has some other Barnes works, as well as those by Charles White.
Lowe talked about how “the role of the collector is to send a signal of what is important to museums and the world,” Perkins said. “I took this to heart; OK, I am now the defender of certain things, this is my role — to be a steward of certain pieces of art and also have fun doing it.”
He has collected work by Black artists whose value the world had yet to fully recognize. “I’m not the art historian, I’m not the art genius, but I know markets,” he said. “And I know when something is way, way, way out of whack.”
It feels a little self-serving of Lowe to say this to Perkins, a very wealthy man in a position to buy any number of Rick Lowe paintings. But I prefer to think that Lowe was trying to steer Perkins into buying the right stuff. And so, Bill Perkins, if you are reading this, may I recommend to you the work of Nathaniel Donnett, Jamal Cyrus, and Robert Pruitt?
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