By Emily Frost December 13, 2016
UPPER WEST SIDE — A pair of exhibits focusing on Muhammad Ali tell the story of the larger-than-life boxer’s victories and trials, as well as the quieter moments in between.
“Muhammad Ali, LeRoy Neiman, and the Art of Boxing” and “‘I Am King of the World’: Photographs of Muhammad Ali by George Kalinsky” at the New-York Historical Society display the work of two artists who became close friends with Ali and earned unparalleled access to the athlete and activist.
LeRoy Neiman, a late American artist known for depicting sporting events, and George Kalinsky, the official photographer for Madison Square Garden, both got to know Ali in the early ’60s, when the exhibits start.
Neiman’s artworks — including watercolors, sketches and paintings — largely focus on Ali in the ring. Neiman “captures [Ali’s] energy very well and a sense of action,” curator Lily Wong said.
In an adjoining hall of the museum, Kalinksy’s photographs show many of Ali’s intimate moments — from sleeping and making a phone call to taking a break from training.
The photo exhibit spans 20 years of their 50-year relationship, with a selection of 45 photos from Kalinsky’s collection, including four enlarged to span from floor to ceiling.
Meanwhile, Neiman’s drawings are not unlike photographs in the way they sought to capture moments in time, Wong said. He did them in an “improvisational” way, carrying his sketchbook with him everywhere and “sometimes add[ing] things when he was back in his studio,” she added.
Neiman drew on top of fliers for Ali’s fights, taped ticket stubs onto them and penciled in quotes.
“He wanted to be an eyewitness to what was happening,” the curator noted of Neiman’s approach.
“[The drawings are] all finished, but they have that feeling of informality and I think that’s refreshing,” she said.
The Neiman exhibit highlights key turning points for Ali: his 1964 fight against Sonny Liston to win the heavyweight championship, his conversion to Islam and his pardoning for draft evasion, among others.
A rare early self-portrait, done with the encouragement of Neiman, shows “a different side of Ali,” offering a glimpse into his view of himself as “a poet and an artist,” Wong explained.
And fans can also view a pair of Ali’s robe and a pair of boxing gloves displayed next to Neiman’s art, a gift from the fighter that made it into the exhibit.
Both exhibits have wide appeal beyond his biggest fans, because “everybody has an Ali story,” Wong said. “Everybody had their own angle” into his life.