Menzies Art Brands



When the Prince of Pop met the Louisville Lip in 1977 something special was bound to happen. Andy Warhol was one of the most iconic artists of his time, famous for his serial images of soup cans, coke bottles, actresses and world leaders. Muhammad Ali was at the top of his game, recently proclaimed for the third time World Boxing Association Heavyweight Champion and an influential race-rights advocate. This fortuitous meeting motivated Warhol to produce paintings and prints of Muhammad Ali that were as intriguing as they were important to the history of art.

Andy Warhols Muhammad Ali series of screenprints arose out of a commission initiated by the influential American sports fan and art collector Richard Weisman. Weisman knew Warhol well and approached him with the idea of producing a series of paintings of contemporary sports stars. For Weisman, the connection between art and sport was a no-brainer. He recalled: I felt putting the series together was natural, in that two of the most popular leisure activities at that time were art and sport, yet to my knowledge they had no direct connection. Therefore I thought that having Andy do the series would inspire people who loved sport to come to galleries, maybe for the first time, and people who liked art would take their first look at a sports superstar.1

The Athletes Series, as it came to be known, comprised a painting and set of four limited edition screenprints of each of the ten celebrity athletes. These included the infamous O.J. Simpson, Brazilian soccer legend Pel, golfer Jack Nicklaus, tennis player Chris Evert and of course Muhmmad Ali. Warhol researched and produced these works during 1977-78, travelling around the country to spend time with each person. Luckily the entre had been made easier because they were all known to Weisman and had been purposely selected for the task.

Notwithstanding the advantages of an introduction, Warhol and Muhammad Ali did not immediately connect. Muhammad Ali reputedly didnt know much about Warhol, while the artist was not a sports fan. Contemporary accounts suggest that the first meeting went for hours on end. Ali oscillated between preaching and an air of subdued but dignified indifference according to his manager he shut down in unfamiliar situations. For his part, Warhol recounted that he had difficulty following Alis line of thought.2 The world-famous boxer, now fully evolved as a passionate activist, was by this time well-known for dense dissertations: he had interrupted a lecture tour to take time out for the photo-shoot.

Andy Warhol chose not to sketch his subject but, as was his custom, he took multiple pictures with his trusted Polaroid Big Shot camera, shooting a variety of angles and imposing poses and expressions. This camera was judiciously hung from Warhols neck and taken wherever he went. The choice of using the camera to capture the essence of his subjects significantly impacted upon the tone and style of the resulting works. It was a process entirely consistent with Warhols Pop Art background, with the emphasis on uniformity and repetition and the deadpan aesthetics of marketing and advertising.

Sixty Polaroids were taken of each of the celebrity athletes. The Muhammad Ali pictures give an intriguing insight into the man and his legend. They capture distinctive facial features and reveal a range of poses and moods that ranged from pensive and introspective through to alert, defiant and combative.

Andy Warhol cheekily asked Ali if he would mind taking off his shirt so that he could get a better sense of him in the guise of a boxer. Ali agreed to the request, allowing Warhol to convey how the champion boxer carried himself: as if he was being pictured in the ring. The images show a head in profile, possibly sizing up an opponent on the other side of the ring; a side view of the champ's head tilted downward, as though evading a punch or taking stock at the end of the round; a single upraised forearm and the boxer poised for battle, facing any potential on-comer brave enough to square up.

Although Warhol was not an avid sports fan, he was very interested in the physicality and psychology of boxing. He had a long-held fascination with aggression and violent behaviour. Warhol created four boxing portraits that collectively paint a picture of a determined athlete and a fit-for-purpose warrior.

Warhol gifted the 1978 painting of Muhammad Ali to the boxer and his wife. This coveted work later sold at auction in 2007 for US$9,225,000. It shows Ali front-on, in a combative pose, fists raised to show the tools of his trade. This characteristic image of a fighter was then transposed onto a backdrop rendered in red, green and black, the colours of the Pan-American flag. In this painting Warhol was not only picturing Ali as a world champion boxer but as a proud African-American and a warrior, dressed in the robes of his revolution.3

Warhol has provided a rich seam of anecdotes that reveal how the controlled aggression of boxing was something that repelled but ultimately drew him in. He recorded in his diary his reactions to a bout that featured Ali a few years later: I couldnt watch it, he explained I ate all my fingers on one side.4 That build up and release of tension of the physical and psychological dimension of violence   has been recognised as an important element in his art.

As one art historian has rightly observed, this can be seen in the early celebrity pictures of Elvis, which showed the singer aiming a gun at the viewer, 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 through to the 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 ...5

Sadly, the presence of implied and overt aggression was something that also featured in Warhols personal life. For Warhol this may have mirrored the ways in which violence had come to infiltrate society at every level, from the graphic headlines that festooned streets, gruesome images of death and destruction that were beamed into living rooms on a nightly basis, through to the glamorisation of cartoon and dubious fictional heroes. Andy Warhols unique but cool or detached take on the controlled aggression of boxing and how this reflected the same thing in society is echoed in Muhammad Alis own words: It's just a job. Grass grows, birds fly, waves pound the sand. I beat people up.6

The Muhammad Ali suite of prints is also notable for the merging and crossover between different art mediums and techniques. The prints utilise highly keyed colour contrasts and an exuberant application of ink that has been applied in such a way as to reverse viewer expectations. Warhol merges photo-mechanical approaches with techniques we think of as more painterly. The four screenprints include gestural marks reminiscent of charcoal drawing while small shafts of painted colour are used to highlight areas of light and shade. Conversely, the painting on canvas of Muhammad Ali is rendered in both acrylic paint and printers ink which appears to be transferred directly from a photographic image.

The notion of storytelling is the third most striking element of Muhammad Ali. The four works are most often presented in a continuous row or as a grid. However, the configuration is not strictly arranged in a narrative sequence that evolves from point A to point B. Each image is self-contained in a single frame and there is no obvious connection or direct correlation between what precedes or follows. This important aspect of the current works distinguishes them from other famous multiples in Warhols oeuvre.

We have been conditioned to seeing Warhols iconic images as serial works, such as those of the actress Marilyn Monroe or Chinese leader Mao Tse Tung. Often, he presents multiple images of the same subject with only minor changes or variations apparent from one frame to the next. For Warhol, this approach signified the ubiquitous and repetitive nature of iconic images and the role of mass advertising and consumerism as an integral part of everyday life.

If Pop Art foregrounded a desire to represent the heroes of our time and commandeer common forms of mass reproduction in the service of art, then Muhammad Ali is a mature example of Warhols work that was a successful fusion of both. Popular imagery and high art are combined to present a compelling portrait of an iconic American and celebrity prize-fighter.

The works represent an important milestone in Warhols development as an artist and record his fascination with one of the icons of our age. They are as visually fresh and mentally compelling now as when they were first produced and released in 1978. For the first time, they are offered in Australia as a complete set.


1.  Weisman, R., quoted in K. Casprowiak, Warhols Athlete Series Celebrity Sports Stars, Andy Warhol: The Athlete Series, London, 2007, p.71

2. Warhol, A., The Andy Warhol Diaries, New York, 1989

3. Christies 2007,

4. Warhol, A., 2 October 1980, quoted in The Andy Warhol Diaries, New York, 1989, p.331

5. Christies, op. cit.

6. Ali, M., quoted in New York Times, 6 April 1977


Rodney James BA (Hons.); MA

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