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Fleming Museum presents Andy Warhol’s Athletes

Fleming Museum presents Andy Warhol’s Athletes an exhibition on view March 19 – May 19, 2013.

Muhammad AliAndy Warhol’s Athletes is a group of ten canvases by Andy Warhol, entitled the Athletes Series, commissioned in 1977 by Richard Weisman, a banker and friend of Warhol’s. Weisman was a fan of both the arts and sports and had often noted that although both were popular leisure-time activities, they rarely crossed paths in any way. Weisman and Warhol agreed that Weisman would select the athletes himself, because, as he noted, Andy “didn’t know the difference between a football and a golf ball.” The process began, as always, with Warhol photographing his subjects. In some cases, he traveled to photograph them in their homes, in other cases, they met him in his New York studio, usually with Weisman in tow.

Some of the athletes, such as pitcher Tom Seaver and hockey player Rod Gilbert, were honored to be immortalized by Warhol, while others were puzzled by his eccentricities. Wiesman recalled, for example, that Jack Nicklaus became frustrated by Warhol referring to his gold club as a “stick.” In fact, this subject matter was a departure from those that Warhol naturally gravitated to, as well as from the social circles from which most of his commissions came. Christopher Makos, a photographer and close friend of Warhol’s, remarked of the series, “The Richard project was more macho [than most]. Andy thought the sports stars were cute, so handsome — he just hoped they would have lunch with him the next day.”

The series features some of the most famous athletes of the day, including, in addition to those mentioned above, boxer Muhammad Ali, football’s O.J. Simpson, ice skater Dorothy Hamill, basketball’s Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, tennis player Chris Evert, jockey Willie Shoemaker, and soccer’s Pelé. While not among Warhol’s best-known work, this series presents an interesting digression from his usual society portraits, while at the same time, marking the period in which top athletes first became viewed as sports stars, and began to inhabit the world of celebrity.