Thursday, August 15, 2013

"The Art of Sports" and Andy Warhol's "Athletes:" A Very Interesting Pairing

Until September first, one can visit an entertaining and illuminating pair of shows that the Dayton Art Institute has mounted on the general topic of sports. Andy Warhol's Athletes, his 1978 suite of portraits celebrating sports heroes of the day, is installed in a gallery next to The Art of Sport: Highlights from the Dayton Art Institute Collection. The second show is encyclopedic and well-chosen, dealing with many aspects of sport in society, from games of skill for mental sport, to demonstrations of individual physical strength, and man's domination over nature.
James E. Butterworth, Yacht Race Between Two Small Cutters,
ca. 1850. Oil on academy board.

The Art of Sport includes works from many media, epochs, and cultures to create a lively and engaging show. I found everything in it interesting. Over and over again, I was reminded how many major genres of art exist around sports motifs—and that most of these depictions of sport, until well into the twentieth century, represent upperclass pastimes, like James E. Butterworth's elegant "Yacht Race." 
Caldonyian Boar Hunt: Fragment from a child's sarcophagus. Marble. Italy, 
2nd century AD,

While hunting can land anywhere along the social spectrum, in fine art, its structured or ritualistic pursuits are more likely to be pictured than stalking by men in camp gear with high-powered rifles. In this show we see a painting of the goddess Diana, "queen and huntress," relaxing with her entourage after the hunt, her catch—deer, rabbits—lying bloody at her feet. And though it is only fragmentary, this marble carving of a boar hunt from Roman times is filled with the excitement, the muscularity, and daring of the hunters, and the shocking size, defiance and ferocity of the boar on the right. The hunt is a gripping story, a drama in which man may or may not prevail over formidable Nature.
Utagawa Kuniyoshi, Oniwakamaru Fighting
the Giant Carp,
color woodblock,
ca. 1825-1830.

In another fight against a beast, the eleventh-century Japanese scholar, Oniwakamaru, fights the giant carp that ate his mother when she fell into a pool. The thinking man becomes the fighter. It's a fascinating lens for Westerners to look at fishing, a sport we see as a combination of contemplation (the scholar) and hunting (the scholar wrestling with knife between teeth). The image is not only dynamic, rhythmic, and saturated in color, but it charged with ideas about the nature of sport versus survival, physical and mental effort.

The Art of Sport gives the viewer not only artistic representations of sports in action, but it includes works of art that enhance sports.

Kuba People (top), Kuba/Ngongo People (bottom), Democratic
Republic of Congo, 20th century. Raffia cloth, dye, with
embroidered designs.
The show exhibits two raffia dance skirts from the Democratic Republic of Congo. (Raffia is cloth made from a fibrous palm leaf.) I was happy to see that dance is included in this show's catholic definition of sport, as an enterprise of simple physical prowess. Both skirts are from the Kuba people. They are worn for traditional dances, the notes explain. Presumably, these are non-competitive and focused on the body in motion, performing either abstract or representational figures with costumes enhancing their beauty and meaning.

The work in The Art of Sport that focuses directly on athletes themselves is work that emphasizes their physical effort, their power, their exuberance, their transcendence. Even when athletes are captured at their most heroic, either sweat or exhilaration emanates from their portrayal. "Heroic," too, does not, in this exhibition, mean "famous," for the images of athletes that I found the most impressive were of anonymous individuals whose work defined them, not their well-known bodies or faces.
Ron R. Geibert, Pick-Up, Rodeo, Dayton, Ohio, 1983. Type C color
couple photograph.

The red-eyed horse running right at the camera in Ron R. Geibert's photograph communicates the hazard and fear of the rodeo, and does it from the perspective of the horse that's being pursued. The red eye marks its wildness, which splits our reaction between sympathy for the creature and respect for its power and its potential to do damage to humans. 
Jane Wenger, Weight Lifter, 1978.
Silver print.

The cowboy's job is to subdue the untamed horse, unsentimentally. By framing the image around the horse and giving us only a glancing view of the cowboy, Geibert emphasizes the magnitude of the man's task—the quickness of body and wit he must possess, the physical strength, and the courage it takes to be where he is, controlling his own galloping horse while balancing himself at top speed to capture the other. It's a great athlete portrait.

As is this actual, full-face portrait of a weight lifter, defined by brilliant cropping. Photographer Jane Wenger chose the athlete's face to tell the story of his effort without any reference to the apparatus of weights or the interior of a gym. The definition of the athlete is her/his work and how this work is made visible.

Which brings us to Andy Warhol's Athletes. At the Art Institute, this show actually precedes the general show. In either order, the two provide a tremendous contrast that any viewer will have to respond to as either funny, absurd, unforgivable—or simply as testimony to the nature of contemporary American culture (that is, funny, absurd, unforgivable?)

That DAI is able to show this full set of ten painting-silkscreens is quite wonderful. The series is among Warhol's least known work. He made ten sets of the ten portraits. This set, lent by Richard Weisman, the West Coast investment banker who commissioned the project from Warhol in 1977, seems to be one of the few that remains intact.

Andy Warhol, American (1928-1987), MUHAMMAD ALI, 1978.
Synthetic polymer and silkscreen ink on canvas, 40 x 40 inches
(101.6 x 101.6 cm.). Collection of Richard Weisman
© 2013 The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Inc.
 / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Weisman is a major art collector and a lover of sport. This was the basis for his commission and for his selection of subjects, all of whom he visited with Warhol. These were: Muhammad Ali, O. J. Simpson, Chris Evert, Tom Seaver, Kareem Abdul Jabbar, Pele, Rod Gilbert, Willie Shoemaker (jockey), Dorothy Hamill, and Jack Nicklaus.The artist took hundreds of Polaroid photos of each and had long conversations with them. He apparently left Jack Nicklaus deeply puzzled and Kareem Abdul Jabbar fascinated. Warhol had no prior idea of who his subjects were: he was entirely ignorant of and indifferent to sport.

The images of Warhol's Athletes that I include here are, alas, not the same as the ones in Weisman's collection, which hangs now in Dayton. Matters of reproduction rights allow the Art Institute to release only these versions, which are from other sets. While I regret being unable to comment on some extraordinary aspects of the Weisman collection—which I think is overall deeper and subtler than these pictures—still, certain things are clear. 

Warhol's portraits bear scant relation to the world of sport we strolled through, above. In all his work, the face of the athlete is front and center. In each, there is some trapping symbolic of her or his game, but sweat there is not. This portrait of Muhammad Ali is as close as he comes to any subject looking athletic: Was Ali capable of looking otherwise? The face, though, is beautifully realized while the hands—one bare, one gloved?—are more hastily rendered. A boxer's assets, his hands, are secondary here to the smooth face, the cocked brow and the direct gaze. It's a face that could be surrounded by anything glamorous, like an Armani suit for sale. It's a pose, and poses are what models and actors assume.

Andy Warhol, American (1928-1987), CHRIS EVERT, 1978. 
Synthetic polymer and silkscreen ink on canvas, 40 x 40 inches 
(101.6 x 101.6 cm.). Collection of Richard Weisman.
 © 2013 The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Inc.
 / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Chris Evert, too, is pictured as a girl's girl, with emphasis placed on her Cupid lips, the hint of well-shaped brows, and lovely lashes that bring attention to her eyes. She looks like Chloe Sevigny, perfectly made up, in an advertising campaign. For what? Does it matter? Although Warhol has included Evert's tennis racket, what he's really included is its shape: the stringing is barely hinted at. Anyone with as little knowledge of sport and sport figures as the artist could interpret this as a beauty shot—a young woman in contemplation while she holds a hand mirror. The picture takes the viewer not into a world of a ferocious competitor (125-match winning streak on clay courts; a Grand Slam victory in each of thirteen years), but into the reverie of a fairy-tale princess. Glamour is the lens through which Warhol looked. Which is not to suggest, either that he saw what wasn't there.

The Evert portrait in Weisman's collection is, to my eye, more intriguing than the one pictured here, for its palette is entirely pinks and yellows. It is radiantly feminine. While it emphasizes the "girly" face of this sports heroine, it suggests the goddess too, luminous.

Andy Warhol, American (1928-1987), KAREEM ABDUL-JABBAR, 1978.
 Synthetic polymer and silkscreen ink on canvas, 40 x 40 inches (101.6 x 101.6 cm.).
 Collection of Richard Weisman. © 2013 The Andy Warhol Foundation for the 
Visual Arts, Inc. / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York
The officially released image Kareem Abdul Jabbar that I reproduce here is the one in this set most like what hangs in Dayton's show. I find amusing and intriguing the huge blue blob where one assumes a basketball is held. What if the viewer has no more idea than Warhol what the subject's job is? How would that area read—flattened out by the paint strokes that lie on the surface?

Kareem's bright eyes pop forward from the graphite gray background and the dark circle of his hair and beard. The application of paint that flattens the mysterious purple circle can, seen another way, seem almost reflective. It could be a sorcerer's magical globe, some source of power--like a basketball to a pro athlete, perhaps? Indeed, I am enchanted by this work. Its mystery and zaniness both appeal to me. Whoever else Abdul Jabbar may be, I'm convinced by this portrait. Warhol got something big right.

Clearly, Warhol's portraits of athletes have precious little to do with their professions. They are portraits of celebrities whose faces outshine any props, who are figured for their appearances and whatever has transpired between them in discussion. Warhol believes in the superficial: Looks are in themselves sufficient accomplishment. He could have surrounded Willie Shoemaker's sly, inviting face with any costume other than a jockey's cap and colors and the man depicted would remain special.

None of this detracts at all from Athletes. His portraits are eye-openers. It is to these that many observers date the current epoch in which athletes have become celebrities and media figures, purveyors of luxury watches and personal products. We easily see all of this foreshadowed in these paintings. 

But there are no brands, red carpets, or potentially compromising actions in these. Maybe they discovered some truths revealed in their ten portraits—or even some wishes fulfilled. What happens to people in the process of sitting for a hundred photos and having ten portraits made by an eccentric artist? Everyone is looking for insight, for interpretation, for the accidental illumination that untangles an unspoken inner tangle or repairs a shredded ego. 

Celebrity advertising has come to stay and sports heroes move with Hollywood stars. While Warhol may have tripped big changes in the culture with this series, he also made us see what he saw. Was he looking at these people in terms of a cultural phenomenon, or as a man with his particular eyes and his own definitions and responses to beauty?
Photographs of The Art of Sport by the author. Some works photographed are under glass.

No comments:

Post a Comment