The Art of the Champ: Artists Talk About Visually Representing Ali
Muhammad Ali was the inspiration for artists around the world. Several of them talk to us about their pieces.
Comic published by DC Comics
Photos of the art in this article are courtesy of the artists.
Andy Warhol once said that "an artist is somebody who produces things that people don't need to have but that he—for some reason—thinks it would be a good idea to give them."
In August of 1977, Warhol photographed Muhammad Ali at the Champ's training camp in Deer Lake, Penn. A New York businessman had contracted Warhol to do a series of athlete portraits, six copies of each forty-by-forty-inch silk-screened portrait (acrylic on canvas), and five hundred prints of each image. Warhol was to be paid $1 million, while each athlete was to receive $15,000 and one of the six commissioned paintings, valued at $25,000. Each athlete had to allow Warhol to take as many Polaroids as he needed, trying to capture the perfect image for his final work.
Ali had just returned from a two-week European publicity tour and needed to start training for his fight against Ernie Shavers. Victor Brockis, who would write biographies of both Ali and Warhol, was along for the ride. He noted that Ali paid zero attention to Warhol. In the only meeting between the two cultural exemplars, the Greatest wanted nothing to do with Drella, taunting him over the idea that white people would pay such a price for a picture of "the little Negro from Kentucky."
At that point, as Brockis recalls in a 1999 Gadfly piece, Warhol spoke:
Warhol uttered his line of the day: "Could we, uh, do some, uh, pictures where you're not, uh, talking?" he asked, in the brittle, querulous voice he reserved for just such occasions. For a split second, there was a white light of silence in the room. Nobody had ever told the champ to shut his famous mouth in quite such a not-to-be-trifled-with way. Even I was not sure what this turn of events might portend. But then Ali broke into the silence, chuckling quietly to himself, "I'm sorry, I should be doing your job. You paying me." Instantly becoming the professional, he flipped through a series of classic poses.
Warhol's "Muhammad Ali" is one of the seminal renderings of the beloved fighter, a portrait of a boxer in supreme concentration, a man and the fists that enabled him to become the most famous person on the planet. Warhol, however, was far from alone.
Ali has been the subject of countless artistic interpretations, from people who first saw the Olympian Cassius Clay, to those who were born after Parkinson's took Ali from the public eye. VICE Sports caught up with a handful of artists of various ages, from around the globe, working in different mediums, who made the Champ their own. One artist in particular stands out, the rebellious son of a sign painter who dabbled as a church muralist, the G.O.A.T. himself.
Neal Adams, 75, New York City
Superman vs. Muhammad Ali
Were there many black people in comic books when we made Superman vs. Muhammad Ali? Not back then. I wasn't a huge sports fan, but I followed his career. As much as I loved the fights, it was his courage of his convictions that truly moved me, to refuse to go to Vietnam because he didn't believe black people should be killing yellow people. People laughed at Superman vs. Muhammad Ali, but I didn't care. We knew we were going to produce a damn good comic book. We didn't make it because Ali was a hero, we made it because Ali was Ali.
I came up with a synopsis and Dennis O'Neil started writing the script, but for health reasons, he had to leave the project. I took it over and worked with Dick Giordano and Terry Austin, the best inking team at the time, over my pencils. Some people thought the sales were disappointing, but it sold hundreds of thousands of copies. It was published in all the free countries of the world, and perhaps sold even better than in America. I still get wrinkled crinkled copies to sign at every convention I go to. Japanese versions, Italian versions. The world actually believed we were becoming more liberal because of that comic book, little did they know ... It took quite a while to move that horse forward, but in its small way the book helped. It was a good thing, having other countries believe Americans were becoming better people.
The cover was a giant pain in the ass. The damn DC lawyers decided they were going to get permission from all the famous people for their likenesses, which they didn't need to do. I begged, "Jesus, please don't do that." There was 172 people on the cover, a good 70 of whom were famous. The rest were DC employees or in the comic business. Younger people like the Jackson 5, the Osmonds, and the Sweathogs were happy to do it, but John Wayne didn't want to be on the cover. So I just gave him a mustache. To hell with it. I used patches and things like that to hide identities. It took ages and ages. I think I was paid $250 for the entire cover.
Muhammad Ali loved the comic and kept showing it off. We shook hands and celebrated it at a press conference along with the announcement Ali had regained the heavyweight title for the third time, when he beat Leon Spinks. The comic was a minor player, but I got to usher Ali through the reporters. I had my hand on his back, it felt like a brick wall.
I'm proud to have worked on the book. He was a great representative for a third of the human race. We used a lot of Muhammad Ali-isms in the comic.
One of my favorite moments in the comic is when Jimmy Olsen is talking about the beginning of the fight and says people are asking, "Why is Superman is wearing his outfit in the ring? Because outside certain shades of color, people can't tell one Earth man from another." I especially like the point where Ali beats the shit out of Superman, leaving him on a stretcher with a black eye.
Loreen Williamson, 52, Central New Jersey
Sting Like A Bee
Prior to the virtual Museum of Uncut Funk we own now, my business partner Pamela Thomas, 54, and I owned an art gallery in Summit, NJ. An Australian art dealer contacted us in the early 2000s with four 1979 pieces by Muhammad Ali. The one I loved the most was Sting Like A Bee, the only lithograph to feature boxing. As a child of the 1970s, I was a huge Ali fan, so we purchased it for maybe a thousand dollars? Prior to his passing, it could have been listed for upwards of $10,000 I suppose. Who knows where it goes from here? Usually celebrity artwork is publicized, but I had no idea he was a painter. So cool.
The Museum of Uncut Funk is our collection of 1970s African-American pop culture—our Funky Turns 40 exhibition is touring the country—so clearly Ali is one of our heroes. We have an Ali section with signed boxing gloves, stamps, a rare animation cel from the I Am the Greatest! cartoon, and multiple copies of the DC comic Superman vs. Muhammad Ali. Our overall collection is our love, passion, and obsession with the years following the civil rights era, when positive representations of black people were finally a reality. Ali was everywhere. He occupied such a big place, his very being changed people's hearts. Sting Like A Bee has his autograph on it. We treasure the painting. It's not for sale.
Andrew Edwards, 52, Stoke-on-Trent, Staffordshire, England
The original scale model of Muhammad Ali was the very first thing I ever sculpted when learning my craft, which included a very happy period working in the studios of Madame Tussauds in London. In 2009, I re-sculpted a new 18" version of that same twenty-year old piece. I cast it in bronze as a gift to Mr. and Mrs. Ali, who visited my hometown that August. It was an overwhelming honor to meet Muhammad, who took my statuette, specially enameled with the trademark white shorts and boots, back to Louisville. In October 2010, I began sculpting an eight-foot tall clay enlargement in Liverpool, a multi-cultural city with a history of hard times and a reputation as one of toughest areas in Britain. The bronze half-ton one-and-a-quarter-times-life-size statue currently on exhibition at London's O2 Arena has been on quite a tour since my friends and I at Castle Fine Art Foundry cast it with our own funds. It's been shown in Africa and—knowing Ali is as vital a uniting hero across the Islamic world as he is in the West—Qatar. We will only cast five total to represent the Olympic rings and what they, and Ali, stand for: Passion, Faith, Victory, Work Ethic, and Sportsmanship.
My Ali sculpture is, of course, based on the famous Neil Leifer photo from the second Liston fight in 1965, which marks the moment that changed both men's lives forever. One went on to heroic status, the other to tragedy. It was the first photo I ever saw of Ali, and that, along with the look on my Dad's face in describing the man, told me everything I needed to know. The photo was perhaps the most beautiful piece of visual poetry I ever saw. I love to believe that it triggered my quest to become an artist. I saw an incredible duality. Ferocity and tranquility, rage and peace, two sides of life running down the mighty boxer's stance. I saw a giant, towering like the tallest building. I felt the heat and the energy through the veins and recoiled muscles. I also saw a moving calmness. One side of the athlete's body, in stark contrast to the other, floated gently, smooth down the arm, the chest and the leg, appearing utterly relaxed. Before Ali lay the reason, another giant. The left side of Ali did not beckon like the right but instead, just as forcefully offered concern and compassion, connecting to the figure on the floor through an invisible cord.
Kevin A. "WAK" Williams, 50, Atlanta, Georgia
The Greatest of All Time
Initially, I started painting Muhammad Ali because his anatomy made him a great subject. I'm self-taught and have been painting, since I was sixteen, a full-time artist ever since. There was always enough money to buy supplies, reinvest, eat a little bit here and there, anything to keep it going. It was hard to get people in my environment to understand there's a financial value to art. It's something you pay for, not a magic trick, so it's been a long educational process. As I grew, I understood the importance of having my own identity. It's easy to the do the norm, but I knew I'd make it further if I just do me, which Ali reiterated by the way he lived his life. I tried to mirror Ali in my pursuit, the focus and confidence you need. Mine is inner, I'd be terrified to speak out loud, but in building my name, I felt like the Champ inside—Why not me? It could happen. I learned to have an appreciation for my isolation.
The analogy with Ali aligned, positive frame-of-mind, the quiet mental work, counter-punch, get back up when you're knocked down ... The Ali work I did periodically throughout my career was a constant reminder of his ideals. I wouldn't say I was fully established until my early 30s, when my work hit nationally and the reproductions became popular. I have an urban line that still sells to this day. As my wife said recently, "You got thirty-five years in the art game, I think you'll be alright."
I've done ten Ali paintings, with a couple more I'm working on. With Ali's passing, there's going to be a million images out there. I'm not an opportunistic artist, so those two may sit in the studio for a while to see how I feel about them. I've done private Ali paintings, I made one for Bernie Mac. He commissioned me to an eight-foot piece to go in the Muhammad Ali room in his basement. I've always painted Ali, sometimes his boxing career, other times his politics, or humanitarianism. My work is figurative storytelling, so with Ali, I try to capture the various dimensions and nuances to his life. It's not like a monthly thing, now I have to paint Ali, these pieces come along and happen. There's a different energy when you're just doin' it versus an opportunity. The emotion is trapped in the art. Ali is in all my paintings, even the ones where you can't see him. The influence is pure.
Paul Oz, 40, Cheltenham, Gloucestershire, England
I'm a lifelong sportsman, it's the energy behind my art. After creating two portraits in 2011, I was asked by Ali Enterprises to create one for his 70th birthday. My day job is basically to capture the character and celebrate the biggest icons this planet has ever seen. Few stories battling adversity are as inspirational as Ali's
The piece is oil on board, three-centimeters thick in paint on a three-foot square. I chose this close-up to show the man behind the bluster. It's all in the eyes, the window to our soul. My immediate thoughts upon learning of his death were, "Wow. What a life. What a legacy." They just don't make 'em like Muhammad Ali anymore.
Ahmed Albahrani, 50, Doha, Qatar
Ali Against War
I was born in Babylon, Iraq and lived there until I was 26. Growing up, Muhammad Ali was an icon of humanity. He stood against the hate between the white and black community, and the war. I have great memories of the late nights my friends and I stayed up to watch him in the boxing ring. He was an inspiration during the course of my life. Ali was an idol. He was a man who developed himself into a strong individual and never let anything push him down. My way of life is very similar to Ali's. I am also a strong individual and don't rely on anyone.
The bronze Ali Against War statue is eleven-feet tall, part of the War to War collection, which also includes Mother Teresa, Nelson Mandela, Michael Jackson, and Gandhi. In placing large-scale sculptures of historical, religious, political and other significant icons with all kinds of munitions, I made a demonstration of what no one could expect. What if all the great people that had a major impact in our history turned out to be belligerent and unkind? All these strong, loving, independent personalities changed our lives and, dead or alive, we look up to them. They are our heroes. The thought of hurting innocent people was something they never had in mind, but what if? The collection is an unusual glance over society's shared interest in war. The Iraq War had a great influence on every person around the globe. In the end, art is an international humanitarian language. My work carries a message against war, my hatred towards it. I want to bring peace and strength, which is what Ali represented.
Ali's death was a sad day for me. It was great loss for us all. May he rest in peace.
Zeph Farmby, 37, New Haven Connecticut
I started off doing graffiti in Chicago, so all of my earliest works were illegal, but I never got picked up. It was close. My friends in our graffiti crew got caught, we still laugh about how I guess the police thought I looked like I wouldn't do anything wrong. Through graffiti, I developed a style, which led to jobs painting building walls, and later companies hired me for projects. I work in different mediums—oil, acrylic, Chinese ink, spray paint, large-scale murals—and I try to tie-in two different worlds, pop culture and a strong message. That's why I've always been drawn to Muhammad Ali, going back to pencil drawings as a kid alongside Martin and Malcolm, even if I wasn't alive in his prime. From a boxing standpoint, I'm a Mike Tyson fan. But my Pops was an activist, to what degree I don't know, but he used to watch interviews with Ali and have friends over to discuss the issues of the day. He passed away when I was only thirteen, but Pops planted the seeds. Ali was his guy. I know what it's like to lose a strong father, so I pray for his family.
I've made a dozen professional Ali pictures over the years. For the first one, I recreated the famous Esquire cover on wood, using large nails instead of arrows, and surrounding Ali with his own quotations. This painting is part of the Colored Me Bad collection that recently ran in Brooklyn's Bishop Gallery. It's a 5-feet x 5-feet acrylic-and-oil canvas painting of the photo of Ali's mouth duct-taped shut. Behind the Champ are images from the Superman vs. Muhammad Ali comic. I want substance in my work, not just something that looks nice. Most of the time it means some people will be uncomfortable while others will rally behind the message and support it. Here, it's Ali fighting Superman, fighting the powers-that-be. You might not even know there's an actual comic book, but if you know anything about Ali's history, you get it. I was inspired on that painting. Finished it in three days. I love the images of Ali kicking some Superman ass.
I think the biggest influence Muhammad Ali had one me was to stand up for something.
STENZSKULL, 33, Morro Bay, California
The gist of my work is multi-layered stencils and spray paint. I got into it because I was inspired by street art. Sometimes I would look online for a picture of a musician I liked, couldn't find it, so I started making my own. People started asking me to do pictures for them, so I got into portraits. Some jobs are a labor of love, some are for pay, some are just for fun. What's interesting about Clay is that although I don't have any deep connection to boxing, I had the legend of Muhammad Ali in my head. You can't deny the champions. I've turned down stuff if it didn't interest me, but I was totally stoked on rendering Ali.
I usually try to use a less famous image in my work, but in this case, the iconic photo was the perfect shot. A close second was the shot of him training underwater, but Sonny Liston with his arms down had to be the one. At 5-feet x 4-feet, it's the biggest panel I ever built. I've done paintings this size on actual walls, like a cover of the Clash's London Calling for a local bar, but not a piece on plywood. Clay probably had seven layers of stencils, all hand-cut, and all told, took forty hours. The painting was the best part. I use a lot of gray tones, works best for shading. I wanted the red boxing gloves to really pop. On the fly, I thought it would be cool to have a splattering effect, give it a kick and show the violence inherent to the sport. Ali knocked Liston out less than two minutes into the first round, he was a monster that night.
Michael Kalish, 43, Los Angeles, California
I played college baseball at Kennesaw State while studying art. One game, I was in centerfield, dove for a ball, crashed into the fence, and got knocked out. I broke my back, cracked the L3 vertebra. That was that. I'm fine now, but when school ended in 1996, I decided to plant my flag in the ground and become an artist. I wanted to invent a medium to give myself a better opportunity at a career. I've always loved Americana, and taking things out of context, so I came up with the idea to make contemporary sculptures out of license plates. I went on this epic road trip collecting old plates and turning them into maps, flags, a Native American headdress, and portraits of famous people like Elvis. People took to them. I was in galleries, large exhibitions, even did an installation at the Atlanta Braves Stadium, Turner Field. It took on a life of its own and CBS Sunday Morning did a piece on me, which highlighted a Muhammad Ali I'd made for a private collector. The next day I got an email saying something to the effect of, 'We were lying in bed, and saw your work. My husband and I would love for you to make a piece for us. Yolanda Ali.'
As a huge fan of iconography, and as a sculptor and painter who portrays icons, there are few human beings on the planet who transcended their profession more than Muhammad Ali. I'm selective on who I want to portray, and he was at the top of the list. For twenty years, I'd been making sculptures and drawings of Ali just for myself. I'm from L.A., and I've been fortunate to have worked with high-profile athletes and entertainers, even Nancy and Ronald Reagan, so I'm not starstruck. Ali will be the only person who I was ever star-stricken by. We connected. I spent a year, collecting license plates from all over the globe, wherever he fought, and cut them up to make a portrait. It's actually hanging in their house. It started a nice friendship.
Later, I met with Yolanda and vividly remember asking, 'Where's the monument to Muhammad Ali? He belongs on Mount Rushmore.' I told her I'm not the guy to carve a 50-foot sculpture, but I would like to propose an idea that came to me in the middle of the night. I want to build an abstracted, engaging, interactive, piece made of out of thousands of dangling boxing bags that you can walk through, but that also lines up to create a photo-realistic face. I wanted it to be something both my father, and my three-year-old at the time, could relate to, the biggest Ali monument that's ever existed. I had no clue how to do it.
I'm an idea guy, so I partnered with Oyler Wu Collaborative, an incredible experimental architectural firm in L.A. We spent two months in front of computers programming how these bags and pixels could form a face in a 35-foot square. I combed through thousands of images and settled on this one because it appears Ali is looking into the future while ground in the present. I had to fly to England to track down the photographer Michael Brennan who owned it. We became friends. I flew Brennan in for the opening, another great connection to the Ali legacy.
It took seven months to build, and more than a week to install outside the Staples Center. We ended up using 1,300 boxing bags of three different sizes and two different colors, and five miles of stainless steel cable, all housed in a beautiful aluminum structure. Like it's namesake, ReALIze was bigger than boxing itself. It was art, beauty, politics, religion, sports, illusion ... all these things. It was a massive undertaking, but we kept it a free exhibit to honor Ali's legacy. People responded to it like they respond to him. It was profound.
I'm heading to the memorial in Louisville this weekend, going to be a fly-on-the-wall soaking in all the stories. I'm honored to have been invited by the Ali family to pay my respects. The art world is humbling. It will be unbelievable to witness this moment in history.