The collector Richard Weisman knew Andy Warhol well when he approached him to produce a series of paintings featuring contemporary sports stars in 1977. For Weisman, the connection between art and sport was obvious: “I felt putting the series together was natural, in that two of the most popular leisure activities at the time were sports and art, yet to my knowledge they had no direct connection. Therefore I thought that having Andy do the series would inspire people who loved sport to come into galleries, maybe for the first time, and people who liked art would take their first look at a sports superstar.” (R. Weisman quoted in K. Casprowiak, “Warhol’s Athlete Series Celebrity Sports Stars,” Andy Warhol: The Athlete Series, London, 2007, p. 71).
Executed in a dazzling array of colorful hues, each individual portrait captures both the glamor and personality of each sports star. From the intensity of Mohammad Ali’s stare to the warmth of Pelé’s smile and the fresh beauty of Dorothy Hamill, it is a mark of Warhol’s artistic ability that he is able to capture the individuality of each personality whilst retaining the unique visual language that is distinctly his own.
Warhol took each of the photographs using his Polaroid Big Shot camera. He took around 60 images of each person, of which he would then select four to be made into screens. Assistants then pre-painted canvases in different flesh tones, onto which Warhol would apply colored areas to signify eyes, lips, hair, jackets, the silkscreen was then applied as the final layer.
One of the distinguishing features of The Athlete Series portraits are the added, almost expressionistic flourishes which Warhol added while the paint was still wet. These marks were often made with a palette knife, the back of a paintbrush or even his own fingers. He first began using his fingers to manipulate the paint directly on the surface of the canvas in the early 1970s and initially used this method to produce an illusionist effect, helping to create a sense of ephemerality and atmosphere in the work. Warhol’s marks outline the important facial features of his subjects, and serve to introduce a physical quality that deviates from traditional portraiture, adding a sense of dynamism and energy to the work.
The resulting portraits demonstrate Warhol’s remarkable ability to capture the zeitgeist of the times.
American Pastimes: Sports & Politics will run from September 4-11 online at http://www.christies.com/onlineonly.
ANDY WARHOL (1928-1987)
Unique Polaroid print
4¼ x 3 3/8 in. (10.8 x 8.6 cm.)