The FLAG Art Foundation and The Church are pleased to co-present Strike Fast, Dance Lightly: Artists on Boxing, an expansive, two-venue group exhibition that centers on the sport, psychology, ethos, and spectacle of boxing. Given the wealth of depictions of boxers throughout art history, the exhibition will include ancient, modern, and contemporary artworks, as well as newly commissioned pieces and boxing-related ephemera.
Artists on view at FLAG include John Ahearn, Benny Andrews, Alvin Armstrong, George Bellows, Amoako Boafo, Andrea Bowers, Katherine Bradford, Amy Bravo, William K. L. Dickson and Wilhelm Heise, Rosalyn Drexler, Angela Dufresne, Jeffrey Gibson, Chase Hall, Curran Hatleberg, Reggie Burrows Hodges, Thomas Hoepker, Dana Hoey, Edward Hopper, Justine Kurland, Kresiah Mukwazhi, Christian Marclay, Wardell Milan, Eadweard Muybridge, Paul Pfeiffer, Cheryl Pope, Elliot Purse, Caleb Hahne Quintana, Ed Ruscha, Malick Sidibé, Vincent Valdez, Carrie Mae Weems, and Yvonne Wells.
Equal parts athlete, warrior, and performer, the boxer has become a cultural symbol of agility, endurance, and physical strength. Depictions of boxing date back to antiquity, first appearing in Sumerian relief carvings in the third millennium BCE. The origins of the sport can be traced to Nubia (modern-day Ethiopia) in sixth millennium BCE, which then extended into ancient Egypt via military conquests and trade routes, onto Mesopotamia, Greece, and eventually Rome. Introduced into the Olympic games in 688 BCE, boxing, or pugilism, would shapeshift into a more violent blood sport and spectator event in ancient Rome amphitheaters, wherein fighters wore leather-encased bronze gloves (“caestus”) embellished with metal rivets and spikes. Two ancient Roman objects are featured in the exhibition—a bronze dwarf pugilist from the Early Imperial Period, and a terracotta oil lamp incised with a raised image of a boxer—are both depicted wearing the caestus. Following the fall of the Roman Empire and the rise of Christianity, boxing all but disappeared until the seventeenth-century, when illegal, bare-knuckle boxing reestablished itself as a popular betting sport in Britain and its North American colonies.
Boxing’s popularity waxed and waned over its long history, but the drama of watching fights, bearing witness to feats of endurance and strength, and the cultivation of boxing as a historically masculine pinnacle have made the sport an enduring presence in American culture. Some of the earliest, silent motions pictures focused on the physicality of boxing, and were produced by Thomas Edison with his invention of the kinetoscope, a forerunner of the motion-picture film projector, which allowed viewers to watch short bursts of moving images through a peephole lens. The most famous and absurd film is The boxing cats (Prof. Welton’s), 1894, which utilized trained circus cats to celebrate and critique the physical fitness culture of the time. The pioneering photographer Eadweard Muybridge did the reverse through his groundbreaking exploration of motion. In five collotypes on view, grids of freeze-framed bare-knuckle and gloved boxers isolate the fighters’ gestures and postures, previously indiscernible to the human eye, to create cinematic-inspired portraits of the sport.
Physicality is front and center in two lithographs by George Bellows: Stag at Sharkey’s (A Stag at Sharkeys), 1917, and Dempsey-Firpo Fight (Dempsey and Firpo), 1924. Created in a high contrast mannerist style, Bellows underscores the drama appropriate of the sport, wherein contorted bodies in mid-fight achieve heroic form while encircled by a frenzied crowd. Though Bellows was an athlete in his youth, like many artists depicting the sport, he stated, “I don’t know anything about boxing. I am just painting two men trying to kill each other.” In contrast, Edward Hopper’s Study of a Boxer, 1899–1906, features a pristine fighter whose head is bowed, hands clenched together, in wary anticipation of a fight yet to occur.
Contemporary artworks at FLAG span painting, photography, sculpture, and video installation, and address a complexity of issues surrounding the sport. Jeffrey Gibson’s beaded and embellished Everlast punching bags, Homma, 2013, and Gimme–Gimme, Shake–Shake, 2014, meld his practice and Choctaw and Cherokee lineages, bringing together intertribal aesthetics of traditional powwow garments with pressing themes of race, class, and queer identity. Cultural identity is additionally explored in Curran Hatleberg’s photographs of childhood boxing pageantry in the American south while Malick Sidibe’s boxing ring portraits capture Mali’s postcolonial youth culture. Portraying individuals from the diaspora and beyond, Amoako Boafo invites a reflection on Black subjectivity, diversity, and complexity with his portrait, King, 2021, featuring a solo boxer painted in the artist’s signature bold colors and patterns.
The mythos, machismo, glamour, and horror of boxing are themes explored by Rosalyn Drexler, who, for a time, wrestled professionally under the name “Rosa Carla, the Mexican Spitfire” and also authored the novel adaptation of Rocky under the pseudonym Julia Sorel. Drexler’s neon green and fuchsia drawing In Going Down, 1991, presents famed boxers Jake LaMotta (the “Bronx Bull”) and Sugar Ray Robinson (the “Prince of Harlem”) in a 1951 bout known as the “St. Valentine’s Day Massacre.” The inevitable toll on the body is illustrated in Paul Pfeiffer’s Caryatid series, 2004, in which the artist digitally removes one boxer from a bout and slows the video. Creating a surreal scenario of invisible blows pummeling a lone boxer and bringing attention to the pain and violence afflicted on the body in the ring. Focusing on endurance, exhaustion, and sustained physical activity, Dana Hoey’s four channel video installation Fighters, 2014-15, showcases two female boxers in a pared-down boxing match. Devoid of a cheering audience, actions and sounds of the boxer are amplified, refracted, and further visualized in Christian Marclay’s onomatopoeia paintings SMAASH, 1989, ZZZTTT CRUMBLL, 1989, and SKRINCH, 2007. Ed Ruscha’s I TOLD YOU NOBODY OUGHT NEVER TO FIGHT HIM (painting for John Steinbeck), 2003, represents the bombastic commentary associated with the sport using what Ruscha refers to as “Okie jargon,” which uses double negatives that were “incorrect, but had a punch to them.”
Few athletes attain the level of fame and cultural influence as Muhammad Ali, who’s impact on American society, the civil rights movement, and popular culture is reflected in Vincent Valdez’s series Dream Baby Dream, 2017–18. Valdez’s paintings memorialize Ali, as witnessed by the range of mourners eulogizing “the greatest of all time” at his televised funeral service on June 3, 2016. Thomas Hoepker’s black and white photograph captures a 24-year-old Ali at the beginning of his professional boxing career; the accomplishments and setbacks of the next fifty years are unbeknownst to this wide-eyed athlete just about to take flight.
Several portraits in the exhibition focus on the boxer over the action, including Andrea Bowers’s delicate drawing of a woman prepped for self-defense, and John Ahearn’s brightly colored resin wall works, in which adolescent boxers are posed, gloves up, but removed of any aggression. Katherine Bradford gifts the sport and its fighters with an unexpected tenderness in her painting of two boxers in an embrace, almost melting into one another under blaring stadium lights. Folk artist and quilter Yvonne Wells, brings a humorous and surreal touch to the show in her multi-panel fabric work depicting two gloved dogs about to duke it out.
Artworks by 33 artists in Strike Fast, Dance Lightly investigate the boxer as an icon and metaphor for excellence, physical power, perseverance, achievement, and perhaps humanity itself, representing its wins and losses, regiment and fluidity, violence and artistry, etc.
Strike Fast, Dance Lightly: Artists on Boxing at The FLAG Art Foundation is curated by Jonathan Rider, Director, with Caroline Cassidy, Director of Exhibitions; at The Church (Sag Harbor, NY) by Co-Founder Eric Fischl and Sara Cochran, Chief Curator; at the Norton Museum of Art (West Palm Beach, FL), by Arden Sherman, the Glenn W. and Cornelia T. Bailey Senior Curator of Contemporary Art.
For its presentation, FLAG would like to recognize the generous support of the participating artists, galleries, and private and institutional lenders, including the Addison Gallery of American Art, Andover, MA, and the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, NY.
The exhibition’s title is borrowed from Gabriele Tinti’s poem “The Boxer (Part I),” inspired by the Seated Boxer, “The Terme Boxer,” 300-200 BCE. A reading of the poem by actor Vincent Piazza will take place at FLAG on Tuesday, July 18, 6-8 PM.
Strike Fast, Dance Lightly: Artists on Boxing will be presented at the Norton Museum of Art in Fall 2024-Spring 2025.
to know more about the exhibition: Strike Fast, Dance Lightly: Artists on Boxing, The FLAG Art Foundation, New York