by Linda Sheridan
Now on display at the New-York Historical Society are two revealing new exhibits—Muhammad Ali, LeRoy Neiman, and the Art of Boxing and “I Am The King of the World”—Photographs of Muhammad Ali by George Kalinsky. The complementary exhibits, one by a watercolor painter/sketch artist and one by a Madison Square Garden photographer, offer an intimate perspective of the heavyweight boxing champion’s trailblazing career. Both shows come from a place of deep respect and trust; they chronicle highlights and low points, as well as capturing Ali’s sometimes quieter, more thoughtful interior life.
Sports commentator Howard Cosell and Muhammad Ali, photographed at the 5th Street Gym in Miami, Dec. 1965, by George Kalinsky, during their first meeting.
Neiman and Kalinsky “became friends of Ali, and friends with each other. Their work captured Ali’s unorthodox style…fleeting moments [in his career, but also captured how] Ali was a political, spiritual, humanitarian inspiration,” says Louise Mirrer, president of N-YHS. “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.”
Kalinsky’s decades-long friendship with Muhammad Ali began in December, 1965, when he bravely followed sports commentator Howard Cosell and Ali into the 5th Street Gym in Miami. When Kalinsky was stopped at the entrance, he told them he was Madison Square Garden’s official photographer (although he wasn’t—yet.) “It just came out of my mouth,” recalls Kalinsky. He was granted access and shot his first roll of film as Ali practiced. Photos from their first meeting are showcased in this exhibit. Kalinsky was contacted a week later, asked to send along his first roll of film, and, if he could continue to demonstrate that kind of “chutzpah,” as Ali called it, could actually have the job as the official MSG photographer.
“I was in the right place at the right time,” says Kalinsky, “and I owe much of my career to Muhammad Ali.” Kalinsky still works as a MSG photographer today.
George Frazier vs. Muhammad Ali, Round 11, 1971. It’s the first of the famous ‘heat to head’ boxer shots. Photo by George Kalinsky.
In addition to documenting the trajectory of Ali’s career, including punishing matches with Joe Frazier and George Foreman, Kalinsky also captured images of Ali in repose, as the fighter did more soul searching, changing religious faiths and becoming deeply involved in civil rights. In 1967, Ali refused to be drafted into the US Army. The refusal cost him a $10,000 fine, a threat of jail time (it was overturned), and a ban on boxing for three years. “He was a boxer, yet the greatest peacemaker ever. ‘Til the very end, he was an inspiration to millions to live in peace and believe in themselves,” says Kalinsky.
Muhammad Ali with a coloring book of military officers, 1967. Photo by George Kalinsky.
Other photos reveal Ali in gentle, playful moments with young children, who looked up to him as a role model.
Muhammad Ali training at Madison Square Garden, 1967. Photo by George Kalinsky.
LeRoy Neiman, a vibrant watercolor and sketch artist, met Muhammad Ali (then Cassius Clay) at the beginning of Ali’s career, in 1962 at the former St. Nicholas Arena in New York City (an ice skating/boxing rink). The two struck up a lifelong friendship. Some artworks in the exhibit, created from ringside impromptu sketches, are collaged with Neiman’s tickets or scorecards, all capturing Ali’s energy. Sometimes Ali even added his own quotes.
LeRoy Neiman’s portrait of Muhammad Ali beating Sonny Liston, 1965.
In one (above), Neiman captured Ali beating Sonny Liston in 1965. Neiman captured Ali in 1974 regaining his championship form against George Foreman in the “Rumble in the Jungle” match in Zaire.
LeRoy Neiman captures Ali beats Joe Frazier, Oct. 1, 1975.
He was also there for Ali’s return to beat Frazier in 1975, dubbed the “Thrilla in Manila” (above). “It will be a killer and a chiller, and a thrilla, when I get the gorilla, in Manilla,” Ali rhymed.
LeRoy Neiman’s portrait of Muhammad Ali on a prayer rug, 1967.
Neiman’s exhibit is curated by Lily Wong, research associate at N-YHS. Kalinsky’s exhibit is curated by Marilyn Kushner, curator and head of Department of Prints, Photographs, and Architectural Collections at the museum. The two exhibits will remain on display at N-YHS through March 26, 2017. For more information, visit nyhistory.org.