Andy Warhol's The Complete Athletes Series is a significant series which continues the artist's lifelong fascination with celebrity. Commissioned by the collector Richard Weisman in 1977, the work consists of ten 40 x 40 inch, multi-colored portraits of the most celebrated sport stars of the day. A departure from his usual panoply of movie stars and music celebrities, this series embraces the changing nature of fame in the twentieth century as athletes and sports stars moved up to take center stage in American popular culture. With his usual insightful prophecy, Warhol recognized the growing commercialization of sport and the corresponding increasing influence of the sports stars themselves, and committed these new idols to canvas, as Warhol himself noted, "the sports stars of today are the movie starts of yesterday" (A. Warhol quoted in P. Shea, Picasso to Pop: The Richard Weisman Collection, New York, 2003, p. 28).
Executed in a dazzling array of colorful hues, each individual portrait captures both the glamor and personality of each sports star. From the intensity of Mohammed Ali's stare to the warmth of Pelé's smile and the fresh beauty of Chris Evert and Dorothy Hamill, it is a mark of Warhol artistic ability that he is able to capture the individuality of each personality whilst retaining the unique visual language that is distinctly his own.
Richard Weisman knew Andy Warhol well when he approached him to produce a series of paintings featuring contemporary sports stars. For Wiseman, the connection between art and sport was obvious, "I felt putting the series together was natural, in that two of the most popular leisure activities at the time were sports and art, 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 into galleries, maybe for the first time, and people who liked art would take their first look at a sports superstar" (R. Wiseman quoted in K. Casprowiak, "Warhol's Athlete Series Celebrity Sport Stars", Andy Warhol: The Athlete Series, London, 2007, p. 71).
Once Warhol had agreed to do the series, it was Weisman's job to select the athletes that would be featured. He knew many of the personally, which made the process of getting them to agree to sit for Warhol all the more easier. There were some difficulties however. One basketball player who was approached wanted to receive a complete set of portraits, rather than the single portrait of himself that was being offered. When he refused, they decided to substitute him with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar whom Weisman thought, in retrospect, was a better choice. Once the final list of ten had been decided, Andy Warhol spent two years photographing each of the athletes. Used to mixing with the movie, fashion and music stars that used to inhabit his world, Warhol must have felt slightly out of his depth with the stars of a world he knew nothing about. One encounter, recalled by Richard Weisman, with the golfer Jack Nicklaus, summed up the awkwardness of the situation. "I remember when we travelled to Ohio to do the portrait of Jack Nicklaus. He got really mad at Andy when Andy asked him to move his 'stick' to the left. Jack glared at him and said, 'Excuse me, this is not a stick, this is a club.' Then he looked at me and said, "Does this guy know what he's doing?" (R. Weisman quoted in P. Shea, Picasso to Pop: The Richard Weisman Collection, New York, 2003, p. 24).
Warhol took each of the photographs used in this series himself, using his Polaroid Big Shot camera. He took around sixty images of each person, of which he would then select four to be made into screens. Assistants then pre-painted canvases in two different flesh tones (a slighter lighter tone for the women) onto which Warhol would apply colored areas to signify eyes, lips, hair, jackets, the silkscreen was then applied as the final layer. One of the distinguishing features of The Complete Athletes Series portraits are the added, almost expressionistic flourishes which Warhol added while the paint was still wet. These marks were often made with a palette knife, the back of a paintbrush or even his of own fingers. He first began using his fingers to manipulate the paint directly on the surface of the canvas in the early 1970s and initially he used this method to produce an optical and illusionist effects, helping to create a sense of ephemerality and atmosphere. But starting with his Ladies and Gentlemen series in 1975 he enhanced this technique to become much more a vehicle of contour drawing. With The Complete Athletes Series, Warhol's marks clearly delineate the outline of the important facial features; the head, the eyes, the hands and lips, but also they serve to introduce a physical quality that deviates from traditional portraiture, adding a dramatic sense of dynamism and energy to the work.
The resulting portraits are a demonstration of Warhol's remarkable ability to capture the zeitgeist of the times. When assembled together they portray the energy and remarkable prowess of a generation of athletes who were among the first to take advantage of the endorsements and other monetary benefits that professional sportsmanship offered them. With rapid increase in the commercialization of sport each of these faces was instantly recognizable to the American public. They appeared in magazines and billboards across the nation, promoting everything from sportswear, to cars and breakfast cereals. As such, with The Complete Athletes Series, Warhol is returning to familiar territory, although instead of Campbell's Soup Cans and Coca-Cola bottles, Warhol turns his fascination with consumer culture towards the sports stars of the day. Andy Warhol's portraits are among the most important works of his career. His early portraiture, featuring the likes of Liz Taylor and Marilyn Monroe, did much to reinvigorate a medium which many had regarded as old-fashioned and obsolete. With his works from the 1960s he turned pre-existing publicity photographs and other images into the modern day equivalent of religious icons. The Complete Athletes Series is clearly the direct descendent of these Pop icons of the 1960s, and by using sports stars who harnessed the power of the media to reach the worldwide fame, Warhol brings his examination of contemporary celebrity right up to date.