The New-York Historical Society will celebrate the late, great boxing legend Muhammad Ali (1942-2016) and explore his relationship with artist LeRoy Neiman (1921-2012) and photographer George Kalinsky in two special exhibitions this winter. Muhammad Ali, LeRoy Neiman, and the Art of Boxing will highlight 21 vivid watercolors and on-the-spot sketches by Neiman that captured “The Champ’s” unique energy. “I Am King of the World”: Photographs of Muhammad Ali by George Kalinsky features 45 intimate photographs of Ali in and out of the ring by Madison Square Garden’s award-winning house photographer. On view concurrently on the second floor of the Museum from December 16, 2016 through March 12, 2017, the complementary exhibitions offer an insider’s perspective on major moments in Ali’s career, such as his legendary bouts with Sonny Liston and Joe Frazier, as well as behind-the-scenes views of his personal life.
“Muhammad Ali was an American legend, a celebrity whose remarkable work ethic, athletic prowess, and courage to stand up for his beliefs awe and inspire” said Louise Mirrer, president and CEO of the New-York Historical Society. “We are proud to present these two exhibitions, which offer a deeper understanding of “The Champ” through the eyes of two artists who knew him well and experienced his greatness first-hand.”
Muhammad Ali, LeRoy Neiman, and the Art of Boxing
In 1962, artist LeRoy Neiman met Olympic gold medalist Cassius Clay (Ali’s given name) at the start of Ali’s career and began a decades-long friendship with the boxer. Renowned for documenting American sports and leisure life, Neiman and his vibrant style were well-suited to capturing Ali’s dramatic performances in and out of the ring. With works on loan from the LeRoy Neiman Foundation and curated by Lily Wong, research associate at the New-York Historical Society, Muhammad Ali, LeRoy Neiman, and the Art of Boxing will include portraits of Ali and his opponents and action-packed scenes from critical matches as well as quieter moments in Ali’s life.
Many of Neiman’s works on view are impromptu sketches, created during Ali’s pre-bout activities or the main event. Swiftly drawn on promotional posters and collaged with tickets or scorecards, Neiman’s energetic images capture Ali’s passion. In a head-to-head portrait of Ali and Liston, sketched on the bright red fight program for the 1964 world heavyweight championship, one can almost hear Ali’s signature style. Neiman often scrawled Ali’s comments on his sketches, such as when he insulted Liston during the weigh-in: “You’re no champ – you’re a chump!”
The exhibition also addresses Ali’s political and religious life, including his conversion to Islam after becoming heavyweight champion in 1964 and taking the name Muhammad Ali, as well as his 1967 refusal to be drafted to fight in the Vietnam War as a conscientious objector. Though Ali was vocal during these intense times for both himself and the country, Neiman captured the quieter moments of Ali’s spirituality, such as in a portrait of him at prayer.
Neiman captured major moments from Ali’s comeback, such as his loss in the 1971 “Fight of the Century” against Joe Frazier at Madison Square Garden, his victory in 1974 “Rumble in the Jungle” against George Foreman in Zaire when he reclaimed his heavyweight title, and his win in the brutal 1975 “Thrilla in Manila” match against Frazier. Neiman’s images document Ali and his opponents’ powerful jabs and hooks, giving the viewer ringside seats to the explosive action.
Support for Muhammad Ali, LeRoy Neiman, and the Art of Boxing is provided by the LeRoy Neiman Foundation and the Blanche and Irving Laurie Foundation. Exhibitions at the New-York Historical Society are made possible by Dr. Agnes Hsu-Tang and Oscar Tang, the Saunders Trust for American History, and the New York State Council on the Arts with the support of Governor Andrew Cuomo and the New York State Legislature.
“I Am King of the World”: Photographs of Muhammad Ali by George Kalinsky
For more than 50 years, George Kalinsky has captured iconic moments in sports as Madison Square Garden’s house photographer—a job he landed, in part, after bluffing his way into Muhammad Ali’s workout session in December 1965. Their encounter launched a longtime friendship and offered Kalinsky inside access to document the many sides of Ali, which are showcased in “I Am King of the World”: Photographs of Muhammad Ali by George Kalinsky, curated by Marilyn Kushner, curator and head of the Department of Prints, Photographs, and Architectural Collections at the New-York Historical Society.
Kalinsky photographed Ali’s fights at the Garden and joined him at Deer Lake training camp and other facilities where the boxer prepared for bouts, but they also shared calmer moments, walking the streets of New York City together. Kalinsky once remarked that Ali always thought of himself as an entertainer, a salesman, and a fighter, and Kalinsky recorded it all both in the ring and out of it. Kalinsky saw Ali win and he saw him lose. But the photographer also saw a side of Ali that the boxer referred to in his memoir as “the soul of a butterfly,” that is, one with delicate beauty and grace as well as a wonder of nature.
Highlights on view in the exhibition include one of Kalinsky’s earliest images of Ali, taken on their first meeting in 1965 as the Champ jumped rope at the 5th Street Gym in Miami. An intense 1971 head-to-head shot of Ali and Frazier shows the opponents staring each other down. Kalinsky also captured Ali’s sense of humor as he pretended to be bested in the ring by a young fan as well as softer moments such as when he laid in bed, drawing in a coloring book.
“He was a boxer,” Kalinsky said, “yet the greatest peacemaker ever. Till the very end, he was an inspiration to millions to live in peace and believe in themselves.”