Described as ‘truly iconic’ by The New York Times, Andy Warhol’s legendary depiction of Muhammad Ali captures a meeting of giants. Heir to the great portraits of Marilyn Monroe, Elvis Presley and Elizabeth Taylor that powered Warhol’s rise to fame during the 1960s, it speaks of two extraordinary artists – and one visionary collector – at the tops of their games. One of the most venerated sportsmen of all time, nicknamed ‘The Greatest’, Ali became a global sensation for his distinctive style in the boxing ring. Alongside his athletic prowess, he was a charismatic public figure: an anti-war advocate and vocal champion of civil rights. By the 1970s, Warhol himself had achieved similar levels of fame, hailed for his depictions of commodities and celebrities that held a mirror up to contemporary society. With the rise of television broadcasting, the artist surmised that the sports figures of today were the movie icons of yesterday, and that Ali was the world’s biggest star. It was a view shared by the great collector Richard L. Weisman, who commissioned Warhol’s Athletes series and kept a number – including the present – for himself. Here, the boxer emerges from the shadows, confronting the viewer like a religious icon. His fists are bathed in opulent hues of purple and green, punctuated by streaks of red. Exuding power and humanity in equal measure, it is a fitting tribute to Ali’s timeless maxim: ‘float like a butterfly, sting like a bee.’
By the time of the present work, Ali was the reigning world heavyweight champion. In 1974, he had beat George Foreman in the legendary ‘Rumble in the Jungle’: one of the greatest sporting events in history, watched live by 60,000 spectators and broadcast to an estimated television audience of 1 billion. Foreman – at the time undefeated – was knocked out in the eighth round, prompting a wild response from the crowd. ‘The great man has done it!’, exclaimed commentator David Frost. ‘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). The following year, Ali took on Joe Frazier in the similarly historic battle ‘Thrilla in Manila’, defeating him by TKO after fourteen rounds. When Warhol met him in August 1977, he had defended his title an extraordinary nine times. Accompanied by Weisman, the artist travelled to the boxer’s training camp at Deer Lakes, Pennsylvania, where they were given a grand tour. Anxious to get the photographs required for his portrait, Warhol asked tentatively whether he take some snapshots in between talking. The boxer went quiet; ‘I thought he was going to punch me’, recalled the artist. Instead, Ali began to laugh, putting up his fists in a pose. ‘Do I look fearless?’, he quipped. ‘Very fearless. That’s fantastic!’, replied Warhol (A. Warhol and M. Ali, quoted in V. Bockris, Warhol: The Biography, New York 2003, pp. 506-8). In that moment, the work was born.
Years before Jean-Michel Basquiat would include Ali in his line-up of black heroes – a hall of fame that featured Miles Davis, Charlie Parker and Sugar Ray Robinson – Warhol had elevated the boxer to the realm of art. On one hand, his depictions spoke with the same bold, bare-faced confidence as his unabashed reproductions of household brands: Coca-Cola bottles, Brillo Boxes and Campbell’s Soup cans, whose brazen forms showed no remorse at their blatant reproduction. Ali himself spoke with a similar fighting rhetoric: ‘I’m the greatest! I’m a bad man! And I’m pretty!’, he famously claimed. At the same time, however, Warhol succeeded in capturing the human side of his subjects: a treatment to which he famously subjected his own image in his haunting self-portraits. This aspect of his practice was borne out by Ali’s response to the painting, after being presented with a version of it as a gift from Weisman. ‘This is by far the best painting I have ever had of myself’, he enthused. ‘It’s a strong painting’, Weisman acknowledged. ‘I can also see a softness and a compassion’, elaborated the boxer. ‘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). Herein, ultimately, lies the strength of Warhol’s portraiture: even the greatest show their true colours in his enigmatic hall of mirrors.