Looking at Muhammad Ali, one can almost hear the boxer’s famous, defiant statement — “I am the greatest!” Executed in 1977, Warhol’s picture of Muhammad Ali shows the boxer at the height of his fame and talents. At that point he was — for the third time — the World Boxing Association Heavyweight Champion. After more than a decade of professional bouts, he remained able to stun his opponents with his agility, winning fight after fight. Warhol has chosen to portray this giant of boxing, this sporting hero, in a combative pose; the raised fists are the tools of his trade, the attributes, his only necessary paraphernalia — they are the raw materials with which the boxer made his name and reputation. Muhammad Ali is presented here as a Pop icon, a god of the modern age, a contemporary hero.
And significantly, he is presented as a contemporary black hero, marking Warhol’s detached yet significant participation in the race politics of his day. This is one of the first major celebrations of a black hero in American art, and as such in part prefigures the paintings of Warhol’s protegé, Jean-Michel Basquiat, who would become determined to place black heroes at the centre of art, having noticed to what extent they had been neglected or excluded for centuries prior to that. Even the presence of the African-American in art thanks to George Bellows had been relatively fleeting and had occurred over half a century earlier.
The use of red, green and black in Muhammad Ali shows that Warhol’s participation in the dialogue of race within his painting is not incidental: here, he has appropriately used the colours of the Pan-African flag. These are colours that were intrinsically linked with the fight against discrimination. Warhol has presented the boxer here as a form of warrior, dressed in the robes of his revolution. This is Cassius Clay, named after a famous abolitionist and subsequently adopting the religion of Islam, and becoming a prominent member of the Nation of Islam. This is Muhammad Ali, the friend and colleague of Malcolm X. This is Muhammad Ali who, as Victor Bokris recalled, during the photoshoot in the boxing camp in Deerlake, Pennsylvania, lectured Warhol on Islam, race and politics. The boxer’s own realisation of the importance of his entry into the Warholian pantheon is reflected by his reaction to learning that Warhol’s pictures were usually sold for $25,000 at that time: ‘Look at me! White people gonna pay twenty-five thousand dollars for my picture! 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!’ (Ali, quoted in V. Bokris, ‘The Perfect Interview: The Ali-Warhol Tapes’, Gadfly, April 1999). Here, Ali’s sense of humour and of irony is evident in this glee at becoming the subject for an establishment luxury object, the ultimate example of the worm that turned.
It comes as little surprise to find that Warhol was not a sports fan. That said, Muhammad Ali was one sportsman who had long fascinated the artist, partly because of his incredible celebrity status and partly because of the violence of boxing. Warhol’s Diaries reveal this latter aspect of his fascination when he records his reactions to the events surrounding a glamorous bout held a few years after Muhammad Ali was executed: “I couldn’t watch it,” he claimed, then admitting that he was so affected by the tension that, “I ate all my fingers on one side” (A. Warhol, 2 October 1980, quoted in ed Pat Hackett, The Andy Warhol Diaries, New York, 1989, p. 331). On that occasion, Warhol’s evening was further punctuated by violence when on his return home, he and his friends passed the scene of a murder, a strange and bitter coda that rammed home a sense of the grittiness underlying the previous entertainment.
Violence played an important role both in the life and the art of Warhol, himself the victim of a shooting. In Muhammad Ali, the dynamic fighting style of the boxer and the viciousness of the sport are both captured in the slashes of clashing color, the dominant red and flashes of green, especially around the fists, where they act as substitutes for the boxer’s gloves. The materiality of the paint itself, with its clear traces of gestural application, speaks of a violence against the canvas, of movement and spontaneity, of jabs and strikes with the brush. This adds a dynamism to Muhammad Ali that is wholly suited to the theme of the pugilist.
Warhol had long been fascinated by the tension violence invokes, as was clear in his early celebrity pictures of Elvis, which showed the singer aiming a gun at the viewer, and also in his Marlon images, with the Hell’s Angel-style Brando leaning languorously against a motorcycle, amply conveying the threat of the unpredictable bad boy biker. In words, Warhol denied his fascination with violence: “Some people, even intelligent people, say that violence can be beautiful. I can’t understand that, because beautiful is some moments, and for me those moments are never violent” (A. Warhol, quoted in K. Honnef, Andy Warhol 1928-1987 Commerce into Art, Cologne, 2000, p. 58). However, his own diaries show this not to be the case, as do his pictures, be it in his images of the electric chair, the aggressive stance of cowboy Elvis, James Cagney pointing pistols at an anonymous figure with a Tommy gun, the FBI’s most wanted… Violence was glamorized in myriad ways throughout the media, be it in the graphic headlines which Warhol had appropriated during the early 1960s, the pictures of car crashes, the confected combative stance of actors in Westerns and gangster movies or the controlled chaos of a boxing match. In short, violence was a part of the modern culture, and as such was fertile territory for Warhol, whose objective, distant stance did deliberately little to penetrate its mystique or end its strange fetishisation in our consumer culture. There is a coolness to the Warholian perspective on violence that finds a strange echo in Ali’s own matter-of-fact words about boxing: “It’s just a job. Grass grows, birds fly, waves pound the sand. I beat people up” (M. Ali, quoted in New York Times, April 6, 1977).
By the time Warhol created Muhammad Ali, he was himself enough of a celebrity that, rather than rely on the found images that had been his source material earlier in his career, he was able to photograph the boxer in person. Ali was one of the greatest sportsmen in the world, as is proven by his continued status as a revered elder statesman of the boxing ring. Warhol himself recognised the status that, in the age of televised sports coverage, these heroes of pitch, field and ring had attained: “I said that the athletes were better than movie stars and I don’t know what I’m talking about because athletes are the new movie stars” (A. Warhol, quoted in Andy Warhol: The Athlete Series, exh. cat., London, 2007, p. 76). The apotheosis of Muhammad Ali into the realm of Warhol’s gods and heroes marked a further endorsement, as the sports hero was raised, in the grand old tradition of Stubbs and Munnings, onto a pedestal in the world of art.
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