An iconic masterwork by renowned African American artist William Edmondson (1874-1951), Boxer is an incredibly sophisticated object. Likely modeled after Joe Louis, it is one of the most important sculptures created in interwar America. With cocked arms and a steady stance, the figure angles towards the viewer, ready to jab at any moment. This forward motion pushes the athlete to the limits of the limestone block from which he emerged, while the seat on the back of the sculpture serves as a counterbalance that grounds the scene and, practically, prevents the work from listing forward. The artist’s great skill with a chisel is evident in the various textures: marks that form the boxer’s hair are finessed to create a mottled surface, while smooth contours render the seams of his outfit, the details of his face and his raised gloves. The figure’s arms and stance transmit harnessed energy; his position transforms the heavy stone to a body in motion. He is strong. He is powerful. And, above all, he represents those attributes within African American society.
One of only two pugilists carved by the artist, Boxer is a reflection of American popular culture of the era and shows Edmondson’s pride in his cultural identity. Kept on a shelf protected by an overhang in Edmondson’s Nashville, Tennessee yard, Boxer was by many accounts one of the artist’s favorite works (personal communication from Mark Schlicher, producer of the forthcoming Edmondson documentary Chipping Away, 16 November 2015). In 1941 famed photographer Edward Weston documented the sculpture and its placement; the picture (fig. 1) is a revealing look at an arrangement of pieces Edmondson held dear.
Before Mohammed Ali, before Mike Tyson, and before mega-million-dollar pay-per-view contracts, boxing was about national identity, and the sport allowed for social mobility of different races and classes in the United States. Edmondson created his Boxer to commemorate a moment when minorities could accomplish great feats that transcended race. In this era two star African American boxers, Jack Johnson (1878-1946) and Joe Louis (1914-1981), achieved heights of success and fame few blacks had previously felt possible. Johnson was Edmondson’s contemporary, and the artist must have grown up hearing of Johnson’s successes in the ring and tribulations outside it. Louis was a rising star in the mid-1930s (when the sculpture was carved), and his image would have been visible to Edmondson in a range of press, media and literature of the time. The two athletes conducted themselves very differently, but they both served as models for African American achievement at times when segregation reigned. In his essay “Tricksters, Martyrs, Black Firsts” in Souls Grown Deep, John W. Roberts discusses the importance of Johnson and Louis as “Black Firsts” in the world of champion boxing. Roberts notes that while Louis was not in fact a “first” in this arena (that honor belongs to Johnson), he is often discussed as such because he was a universally respected figure while Johnson's antics outside the ring made him a divisive character (William Arnett, ed., Souls Grown Deep, vol. 2 (Atlanta, 2001), p. 87).
Born in Galveston, Texas, Johnson was World Heavyweight Champion from 1908 through 1915, and was still boxing exhibition matches well into his 50s. After he won the Championship title in 1908, members of the boxing community sought a match up with a white boxer to re-establish white supremacy both in and out of the ring. On July 4, 1910, James J. Jeffries, an athlete dubbed “The Great White Hope,” came out of retirement to take on the challenge. Johnson won this widely publicized battle, and race riots (instigated by white Americans) broke out across the country. A divisive figure because he pushed social boundaries and norms, Johnson was vilified by white society. He was arrested on multiple occasions, often because he refused to obey race-related restrictions. He was a known womanizer who dated and married white women. He was a strong and defiant character who refused to adhere to segregation laws and social norms, making him a pioneer towards equality albeit with a brusque attitude that was not universally appreciated by the African American community at the time. His image nevertheless appeared in countless newspapers, advertisements, and other print material beginning in the early 1900s.
Alabama-born “Brown Bomber” Louis carefully created a public persona that stood in stark contrast to Johnson’s. Louis was a star athlete who maintained a gentlemanly demeanor in sport and in life. He did not overtly challenge the segregated societal status quo in his lifestyle or attitudes, and as a result earned respect for his fighting skills across racial lines. According to Louis’ son, Joe Louis Jr., “What my father did was enable white America to think of him as an American, not as a black” (Larry Schwartz, “Brown Bomber was a Hero to All,” ESPN.com). This was solidified in 1938 when Louis fought German boxer Max Schmeling: "Schmeling was portrayed by Adolf Hitler as an exemplar of Aryan supremacy...Seventy-thousand packed into Yankee Stadium to see Louis destroy Schmeling in less than a round" (Ben Dirs, "Heavyweight Histrionics," BBC.com, 27 June 2011, accessed online). Louis was thus admired by African American communities for his success and his ability to transcend racial lines, and stood as a beacon of triumph and hope in a very segregated and violent society. He was World Heavyweight Champion from June 1937 through February 1949, and was named AP Athlete of the year in 1935. Through the mid-1930s, Louis was featured in The Ring, Literary Digest and Radio Guide magazines, and was the subject of Joe Louis: The Brown Bomber (Racine, Wisconsin, 1936).
The other documented boxer in Edmondson’s oeuvre, now in the collection of the Newark Museum, was acquired by sculptor Jack Kershaw via the Work Projects Administration in 1940 or 1941. Kershaw recalled that Edmondson named the piece “Jack Johnson” (Angela Wibking, “Carving a Name,” Nashville Scene, 27 January 2000), though this attribution may have been as much for his audience as about his sculpting inspiration, since Kershaw was a supporter of segregation and white supremacy who would have seen the irony in acquiring a sculpture depicting an outspoken and defiant African American talent. However, the hair and pose of the present Boxer are particularly reminiscent of Joe Louis, seen here in a 1936 photograph (fig 2). The Boxer’s stance is in keeping with the athlete’s posture in the multiple, frequent depictions of Louis circulating widely at that time. Edmondson also preserves the athlete’s swooping neckline and style of shorts in his limestone interpretation.
Regardless, Boxer is more than an image of Louis or any individual athlete. When considered alongside Edmondson’s larger body of work, he also represents boxers as a symbol of modern day African American triumph. Much in the way Edmondson’s sculptures of schoolteachers, church ladies and mothers are icons of black empowerment and faith, his Boxer is a representation and icon of cultural strength. The sculpture may be composed from images of Louis or be named after Johnson, but Edmondson’s modernist, sophisticated carving technique distills the form to a figure that stands for all boxers, and that represents the hope, energy and strength embodied by the two great black boxers of Edmondson’s lifetime.
Born to former slaves on a farm near Nashville, Tennessee, Edmondson moved with his family to Nashville proper around 1890 when urban expansion obliterated his childhood farm. He held two jobs for much of his adult life: from 1900 to 1907 he worked for the Nashville, Chattanooga and St. Louis Railway, and from around 1907 to 1931 he served as a janitor at the Nashville Woman’s Hospital. While he did not come to artmaking until his late fifties, Edmondson had long dabbled with stonemasonry. His first foray possibly occurred in the late 1890s, when he likely worked on the construction of stone fences at Whitland Farm in present-day southwest Nashville. He was employed again as a stonemason during the early years of the Great Depression (Ann Percy with Cara Zimmerman, Great and Mighty Things: Outsider Art from the Jill and Sheldon Bonovitz Collection (Philadelphia, 2013), pp. 67-68). After losing his job at the Woman’s Hospital in the early 1930s, Edmondson established a stonecutting business next to his home to create tombstones for his community. Over time, he also began to carve freestanding sculptures of religious figures, famous and local people, and various animals. Edmondson carved from blocks of locally gathered discarded building limestone and, on occasion, purchased stone from local suppliers.
Edmondson’s yard quickly attracted attention from art lovers. In 1936 Vanderbilt University affiliate Sidney Hirsch came across Edmondson’s yard, and he introduced his friends Alfred and Elisabeth Starr to the artist. The Starrs in turn brought Harper’s Bazaar photographer Louise Dahl-Wolfe to the yard, and she photographed the artist and his work multiple times in 1936 and/or 1937. The two boxers can be dated to 1937 or earlier, as they appear in her images. After seeing the Dahl-Wolfe photographs, Alfred H. Barr, Jr., then-director of the Museum of Modern Art, New York, authorized a 1937 exhibition of works by the sculptor, making Edmondson the first African American to have a solo exhibition at MoMA. Throughout the 1930s and 1940s Edmondson’s home remained a destination, drawing visitors such as famed photographer Weston. The artist also received support from the Work Projects Administration during this time; he worked for the organization from 20 November 1939 to 6 July 1940 (under the supervision of Kershaw), and from 11 November 1940 to 26 June 1941 (Cheekwood Museum of Art, The Art of William Edmondson (Nashville and Jackson, Mississippi, 1999), p. 43).
In 1949 the New Jersey-based Denton family visited Edmondson’s yard. As the artist showed the family around, they noticed Boxer standing on his protected ledge. Edmondson was reportedly reluctant to part with the sculpture, but Ruth Denton, who adored the object, convinced him to sell her the piece. Boxer remained with Mrs. Denton’s descendants until its inclusion in this sale.