Andy's Athletes - Muhammad Ali
The stories behind Warhol's encounters with sports stars of the Seventies - as pictured in the Catalogue Raisonné
In the spring of 1977, the American investment banker Richard Weisman commissioned a series of athlete portraits from Andy Warhol. Weisman knew the pop artist was no sports fan. “He didn’t know the difference between a football and a golf ball,” Weisman later claimed.
Nevertheless, Warhol devoted himself to the task, criss-crossing the US from March to November of that year, shooting pictures of such notable stars as Pelé, OJ Simpson, Jack Nicklaus and Willie Shoemaker.
All of them are meticulously documented in the new Andy Warhol Catalogue Raisonné, Paintings 1976-1978 - Volume 5. The two volume set is an essential purchase if you're interested in tracing the incredible arc of Andy's artistic life.
The latest volumes cover three important years, when Warhol was creating pictures of Bella Abzug, Michael Heizer, Hergé et al. Though Warhol was no jock, he got along with a number of his subjects surprisingly well; the New York Rangers ice hockey forward Rod Gilbert struck up a particularly strong rapport with the artist.
However, Andy's encounter with Muhammad Ali proved to be a more testing encounter. Warhol travelled to the boxer’s training camp in rural Pennsylvania with business manager Fred Hughes as well as Weisman and the author and Interview contributor Victor Bockris.
Ali had already found fame far beyond the ring, and was mid-way through a lecture tour when Warhol and his entourage caught up with the boxer. Warhol only intended to shoot Polaroid portraits, yet Ali treated Andy and his fellow travellers to a great deal more.<!--[if gte mso 10]>
Ali found it remarkable that anyone would pay $25,000 for a picture unless it was ‘real fancy’. “Look at me! White people gonna pay twenty-five thousand dollars for my picture!" he exclaimed during the meeting. "This little Negro from Kentucky couldn’t buy a fifteen hundred-dollar motorcycle a few years ago and now they pay twenty-five thousand dollars for my picture!”
Though Ali was a race-rights advocate, he went on to espouse some fairly reactionary views on homosexuality, rape and prostitution (not to mention gravity, meteorites, Israel, Egypt, South Africa, angel-food cake, Jesus and Elvis).
Warhol later commented that he had no idea what Ali had been talking about and that he had had to pluck up the courage to ask him to do some shots where he wasn't talking.
"I don’t know why he picked up on all that all of a sudden. I mean, how can he preach like that? It’s so crazy. I think he’s a male chauvinist pig right? But he was the perfect talker because I didn’t get one word in. The whole time I was there Muhammad was just talking. I think he was torturing us."
According to the Raisonné it was Fred Hughes, his business manager, not Warhol, who “gingerly” asked Muhammad Ali if he would remove his shirt during his portrait sitting; after all, boxers fight bare-chested. In the pose that Warhol selected for eight painted portraits Ali raises his bare fists and targets the camera with his eyes, as if he were in the ring with an opponent. Recognizing Ali’s unique star power, Warhol selected four more Polaroids from the sitting, including a close-up of the boxer’s bare fist and chest, to produce a portfolio edition of four silkscreen prints. In total, Warhol shot fifty-six Polaroids of Ali and two rolls of black-and-white film. It's this level of detail that makes the Andy Warhol Catalogue Raisonné, Paintings 1976-1978 - Volume 5 so essential to those delving into the Warhol treasure trove.
Check out The Andy Warhol Catalogue Raisonné, Paintings 1976-1978 - Volume 5 here and the bundle of five Andy Raisonnés here. And check back soon for more insights into Andy's Athletes series.