Andy Warhol (1928-1987)
The Collection of Richard L. Weisman
Andy Warhol (1928-1987)

Muhammad Ali

Andy Warhol (1928-1987)
Muhammad Ali
signed and dated 'Andy Warhol 1977' (on the overlap); signed by Muhammad Ali (on the reverse)
acrylic and silkscreen ink on canvas
40 x 40 in. (101.6 x 101.6 cm.)
Painted in 1977.
Acquired directly from the artist by the late owner
D. Bourdon, Warhol, New York, 1989, p. 365, pl. 288 (illustrated in color).
P. Shea, ed., Picasso to Pop: The Richard Weisman Collection, New York and Los Angeles, 2003, p. 25 (illustrated in color on the cover; installation view illustrated).
T. Shafrazi, ed., Andy Warhol: Portraits, New York, 2007, p. 161 (illustrated in color).
N. Printz and S. King-Nero, eds., The Andy Warhol Catalogue Raisonné: Paintings 1976-1978, vol. 5A, New York, 2018, pp. 336 and 340, no. 3713 (illustrated in color).
New York, Coe Kerr Gallery, Athletes by Andy Warhol, December 1977-January 1978.
Dallas, University Gallery, Southern Methodist University; Houston, Texas Gallery, Andy Warhol "Athletes", February-April 1978.
London, Institute of Contemporary Arts, Athletes by Andy Warhol, June-July 1978.

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Ana Maria Celis
Ana Maria Celis

Lot Essay

Richard L. Weisman was a prolific, passionate collector—a man whose love for art endeared him to some of the twentieth century’s most influential creative figures. Known for his eclectic taste and signature joie de vivre, Weisman’s prescient eye allowed him to assemble a remarkable collection of masterworks united by a wide-ranging connoisseurship—a grouping that spanned Post-War and Contemporary art, Design, American Illustration, and more. “Richard bought paintings without reassurances or validations of any kind,” recalled friend Amy Fine Collins. “He was there in the beginning at Roy Lichtenstein and Clyfford Still’s exhibitions, not only with the foresight to buy but also with the instinct to select their best canvases.” For Weisman, art represented an opportunity to explore the vast scope of human creativity, free from all constraints. “I personally don’t like to limit the scope of my collecting,” he stated simply. “I just love the art.”

Art and collecting were, in many ways, in Richard Weisman’s blood. “When you are young, you may feel that what you do as a collector has nothing to do with your family,” Weisman told an interviewer, “but my family background must have had some impact on me.” The son of the notable collectors Frederick and Marcia Weisman, Richard Weisman grew up surrounded by art and artists. His parents—famously depicted in David Hockney’s American Collectors, now at the Art Institute of Chicago—were two of California’s most distinguished connoisseurs and supporters of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, and other institutions. Marcia’s brother, Norton Simon, too was a prominent California collector whose collection now resides in his eponymous museum in Pasedena. Richard Weisman’s first acquisition of his own came around his college years, when he purchased a work by the Chilean painter Roberto Matta. Dealer Richard Feigen described how “Richard’s buoyant enthusiasm for art carried from Matta in 1962—to the Ferus Gallery, Irving Blum’s pioneering Los Angeles gallery—to Warhol and Lichtenstein—through to the 1980s.” “He came to art more naturally,” Feigen added, “than anyone I know of his generation.”

During the formative years of Los Angeles’s cultural development, Weisman became a frequent visitor to galleries and artist studios, building the many connections and friendships for which he would become known. “Richard was very much there and always the careful observer,” Irving Blum said of the early years of the Ferus Gallery. “He quickly focused on the emerging Pop style, particularly Warhol and Lichtenstein. He chose carefully and assembled a distinguished collection by moving forward astutely.” In Los Angeles and New York, Weisman steadily assembled not only an exceptional grouping of masterworks—anchored by artists such as Warhol, Rothko, de Kooning, Still, Motherwell, Picasso, and Lichtenstein—but also a remarkable coterie of friends. “Artists, athletes, entertainers of all kinds,” friend Peter Beard observed, “ended up investing with his friendship and guidance.” Weisman became especially renowned for parties and gatherings in which individuals of all stripes came together in a joyous atmosphere infused with creative energy. “Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein, Barnett Newman, Rauschenberg, Rosenquist, Clyfford Still, George Segal, John de Andrea, Arman, Basquiat, Keith Haring, Botero, even de Kooning,” Beard enthused. “We met them all at Richard’s.”

Among his many achievements in collecting, it is Richard Weisman’s close relationship with Andy Warhol for which he is best remembered. “Andy and I really got to be good friends in New York because of the social scene,” Weisman recalled, “and we also had the art world as a connection.” The collector described how the artist would often arrive at his apartment “with a whole bunch of paintings under his arm as presents.” When Weisman began to consider how to connect his seemingly disparate interest in sports and art—“I wanted to do something that would bring these two worlds together,” he said—the collector came to Warhol with a major commission. The Athletes Series, completed between 1977 and 1979, consisted of dozens of works depicting the major sports stars of the age—from Dorothy Hamill and Muhammed Ali to O.J. Simpson and Jack Nicklaus. “I chose the sports stars,” Weisman noted. “Andy didn’t really know the difference between a football and a golf ball.” The influential group of sports stars were justifiably intrigued by the enigmatic Warhol, and the feeling was mutual. “Athletes really do have fat in the right places,” the artist wrote in his diaries, “and they’re young in the right places.” Weisman, who would gift many of the Athlete Series canvases to institutions, looked back fondly at the entire process. “We had quite an adventure,” he said. “It was fun times.”

Richard Weisman’s collection would evolve well into the 21st century, as his curiosity brought him to areas such as American Illustration—an area of the art historical canon he appreciated for its unique narrative ability and aesthetic resonance. “He makes decisions based on a gut level—his first intuitive response or impression,” noted Los Angeles artist Laddie John Dill. “There is eclecticism at work on a very high level with the Rockwell and Warhol…. It’s an interesting mix. I really admire his approach to art. He is very much his own mind.” With Weisman’s passing in December 2018, the art world lost not only one of its most ardent patrons, but one of its most steadfast friends. Across a lifetime of collecting and connoisseurship, he created a legacy in art that continues to resonate. “Richard Weisman has had fun,” Peter Beard declared, “and much, much more.”

Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee, the hands can’t hit what the eyes can’t see.” This enduring articulation of Muhammad Ali’s unique and lyrical boxing style lingers to this day as the definitive characterization of his artistry in the ring. Widely considered to be the most influential sporting figures of the 20th century, Ali was not only a legendary athlete but a vocal champion of civil rights, an anti-war advocate and a charismatic celebrity. When Andy Warhol painted Ali’s portrait in 1977, the artist and the athlete were at the top of their game, both having become worldwide superstars.

In Muhammad Ali, Warhol captures the champion boxer in his most iconic stance. Fists raised, Ali confronts the viewer as he would an opponent in the ring, bathed in a golden—almost religious—aura. The tools of his trade, his clenched fists, are saturated in a rich, vermillion hue, while slanting red brushstrokes evoke the violence of the ring, like a bloody gash or wound. Above all, Ali’s unwavering stare and his larger-than-life, nearly four-foot portrayal drives home the fighter’s famous taunt—“I’m the greatest! I’m a bad man! And I’m pretty!” 

As one of the portraits of “The Greatest” that Richard L. Weisman (who suggested the idea for the Athletes series) kept for his personal collection, the present canvas of Muhammad Ali is an important relic from a unique moment in history. When Warhol finished the series, Weisman presented Ali with one of the portraits as a gift. Taking a good long look, Ali declared, “This is by far the best painting I have ever had of myself.” Weisman acknowledged, “It’s a strong painting,” to which Ali replied, “I can also see a softness and a compassion. As a matter of fact, I can see many moods” (M. Ali, quoted in V. Bockris, Muhammad Ali: In Fighter’s Heaven, New York, 1998, p. 127).   

Three years earlier, Ali had defeated George Foreman in one of the most historic sporting events of all time, the ‘Rumble in the Jungle,’ which took place in a packed stadium of 60,000 fans in Kinshasa, Zaire. It is estimated that a further 1 billion fans watched the televised fight on TV sets around the world. At the time, Foreman was the undefeated world heavyweight champion, and Ali’s victory was a major upset. He won by knocking out Foreman in the eighth round. As the crowd went wild, TV personality David Frost cried out, “The great man has done it! This is the most joyous scene ever seen in the history of boxing!” (D. Frost, quoted in N. Mailer, The Fight, New York, 1975, p. 210). That match was followed by the equally historic 1975 battle between Ali and Joe Frazier known as the ‘Thrilla in Manilla.’ After a grueling fourteen rounds, Frazier’s trainer conceded defeat, and Ali won by TKO. He later said that was the closest he had ever come to dying in the ring. 

By the time that Warhol met Muhammad Ali in at his training camp in Deer Lakes, Pennsylvania, in August of 1977, Ali was the reigning world heavyweight champion, having defended his title an astonishing nine times. The slender, bespectacled artist and the handsome fighter could not have been more different. Sharply-dressed in a black dress shirt and coordinating slacks, Ali was the epitome of cool, having just flown in from London on the Concorde. By contrast, Warhol was approaching fifty years old, looking gaunt in his pair of oversized glasses and rumpled seersucker suit. He was accompanied by a small entourage that included Weisman, Fred Hughes and the author Victor Bockris. 

As Ali led the group around his compound, showing off his state-of-the-art gymnasium and training facility, Warhol gradually worked up the nerve to ask, “Could we, uh, do some, uh, pictures where you’re not, uh, talking?” That caused Ali to quiet, unnerving everyone in the group. Warhol would later recall, “I guess I really had told the Champ to shut up…I thought he was going to punch me.” Gradually Ali began to quietly chuckle to himself, loosening up and going through a series of poses. Putting up his fists, he asked Andy, “Do I look fearless?” To which Warhol replied, “Very fearless. That’s fantastic!” (A. Warhol & M. Ali, quoted in V. Bockris, Warhol: The Biography, New York, 2003, pp. 506-8)

Embracing the changing nature of fame as athletes and sports stars rose to take center stage in American popular culture, Richard L. Weisman recognized the growing commercialization of sports and the corresponding increase in influence of the sports stars themselves. “I’ve been really interested in both sports and art for some time,” Weisman said, “and it occurred to me that the two areas which are probably the most popular leisure-time activities around have never been connected at the upper level...Quite frankly, I believe that the athlete today is like the movie star of the past. These are the new movie stars” (R. Weisman, quoted in S. King-Nero and N. Printz, (eds.), The Andy Warhol Catalogue Raisonné of Paintings and Sculpture 1976-1978, vol. 05, New York, 2018, p. 291). 

The Athletes series proved to be a timely one, because in the 1970s, massive developments in television sports broadcasting and product sponsorship allowed for a huge fan base to flourish and grow. National and international viewers could now support players and teams from the comfort of their own homes. Warhol was quick to recognize that sports heroes had replaced the religious figures of his childhood. These were the new idols that the population at large had come to worship. Like his early Coca-Cola bottles and Campbell’s Soup Cans, Warhol also came to see the pantheon of sports celebrities as American “commodities,” and he staged them as such. Furthermore, Ali’s status as a beloved sports icon also harmonized with Warhol’s idea of the American dream. Just as “a Coke was a Coke” any person regardless of race, gender, or social stature had the opportunity to rise to the upper echelons of
their sport. 

“While some of the works were beautifully painted, by far the standout [of the Athletes series] is the portrait of Muhammad Ali. ‘It’s truly iconic,’” The New York Times reported in 2009 (C. Vogel and S. Moore, New York Times, September 12, 2009, p. A30). Many years before Jean-Michel Basquiat would include Ali in his pantheon of Black heroes, Warhol recognized the sports celebrity’s star power. This was no doubt due to Ali’s charisma and Warhol’s particularly shrewd and insightful skill as a portraitist. Muhammad Ali captures the essence of the larger-than-life personality, whilst also hinting at the real man beneath the fighter’s swagger. “They just seen a little boxing!” Ali told Bockris in the 1970s. “They ain’t seen the real Muhammad Ali!” (M. Ali, quoted in V. Bockris, op. cit. 1998, p. 13).

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