Art museums don’t show athletes much respect. Yet the world is full of artists—particularly photographers—who have made the stink and sweat of physical exertion their primary subject. So why the snooty ’tude?
The Minneapolis Institute of Arts intends to right this glaring wrong in a big way when it opens The Sports Show, one of the most ambitious sports-centered art exhibits ever mounted, anywhere.
The exhibit features more than 125 photos, artworks, videos, and art installations by some of the greatest photographers and artists of the 20th century. Henri Cartier-Bresson, Andreas Gursky, Richard Avedon, Annie Leibovitz, Gordon Parks, Leni Riefenstahl, Andy Warhol, Frank Lloyd Wright–all have used their talents to capture fleeting moments of sporting genius in the stop-time of history. And though many great and even iconic photos are included, the show itself has a much higher ambition: to examine our collective fascination with athletics of all kinds and, in ways both brainy and entertaining, trace the evolution of sport from its roots as a community-based leisure activity to the vast mega-media circus it is today.
The Sports Show is the brainchild of David Little, the MIA’s new curator of photography and new media. To him, the Super Bowl is no longer a sporting event; it is a “show,” a highly choreographed, branded, packaged entertainment spectacle that combines all the egregious excesses of our time—fame, money, glory, heroism, competition, capitalism, celebrity, brutality—and extends the technological possibilities of the camera lens as far as humanly possible. “Sports are the ideal incubator for spectacle,” says Little—because they are ritualized conflicts that enable people to identify with players and teams in ways no other human activity allows.
Ever since photography was invented in the mid-1800s, sports have been part of the picture, so to speak. As photographic technology evolved through the 20th century, so did the way sports were watched and experienced. Still photography was king until the 1950s and 1960s, when televised sporting events—the Olympics, Wide World of Sports, the Super Bowl—began drawing huge audiences and accelerating the importance of fame and money in sports. Along the way, the camera’s role changed as well. “The camera used to observe from a distance,” says Little. “But now, with instant replays, shot trackers [in tennis and golf], graphic overlays, and other technical advances, the camera is an integral part of the show.”
Over the years, cameras and sports have developed an almost symbiotic relationship, says Little, and have combined to create some of the most memorable moments in American history. Jesse Owens at the 1936 Olympic Games. Muhammad Ali knocking out Sonny Liston. Secretariat winning the Triple Crown. The Miracle on Ice. All of these events conjure indelible images and memories–not because any of us were there, but because someone with a camera was watching it for us.
To chronicle this progression, The Sports Show is divided into six themes: leisure, race, spectacle, icons, politics, and circulation. Though many iconic photos from famous photographers are featured, the exhibit is not a collection of sports photography’s “greatest hits,” a fact Little knows will disappoint some people. “The exhibit is more of a ‘visual essay’ on the evolving relationship between images and athletes,” says Little. He spent nearly two years scouring the nation’s museums, libraries, and private collections for material, discovering firsthand how exhaustively photographers, filmmakers, and videographers have documented virtually every major sporting event in America over the past century. But not many images met his criteria for greatness.
“One of the major themes I wanted to emphasize in this exhibit is that there are cliché photographs that happen over and over in sports: The knockout punch. The slam-dunk. The touchdown catch. The slide into home plate. But really great photographers show a different aspect of the individual, or they show different parts of the game.” These were the photos Little wanted, not the “obvious” ones: “Many of the photos in the exhibit were chosen precisely because they weren’t staged.”
A good example is a shot of Muhammad Ali’s face by former St. Paul resident Gordon Parks, whom Little considers “the most important photographer ever to call Minnesota home.” (Alec Soth, get in line.) We’ve all seen photos of Ali in the boxing ring, sweat glistening off his shoulders as he throws another devastating punch. But Parks’s photo shows Ali at a moment of “contemplation, relaxation, and exhaustion,” notes Little. “It’s after a workout, and he seems to be sitting down in a quiet moment. He’s not putting on the show here. It’s a different kind of picture than you typically see, and that’s why I was drawn to it.”
Likewise, Richard Avedon’s photo of Lew Alcindor was taken when “Sweet Lew” was still in high school, before he changed his name to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and became one of the greatest players in basketball history. “The Alcindor photo doesn’t even have to be of a budding superstar for that to be a great photo,” says Little. “In fact, Avedon only identified him as ‘basketball player.’ When the photo was shot, Alcindor was just a talented kid. No one knew how good he was going to become.” Significantly, the photo is not of Alcindor playing, either–he’s just standing there, all lanky and muscular, holding the ball as if it were an apple.
The Sports Show is not just a photography exhibit, either–it contains a significant amount of film and video, as well as a few interesting media installations. There’s a fascinating TV interview in which Muhammad Ali explains to an unctuous William F. Buckley that he changed his name because Cassius Clay was his “slave name.” Roger Welch’s The O.J. Project goes behind the scenes when O.J. Simpson was “The Juice” and was hyper-concerned about developing and managing his “brand.” (So much for that project.)
The work Little sees as the centerpiece of the show isn’t even visual: It’s a sound installation by American artist Paul Pfeiffer called The Saints, which recreates the crowd noise of the legendary 1966 World Cup soccer match between England and West Germany. To create it, Pfeiffer actually hired a theater full of people, gave them a “script” of sorts, and let them yell.
“It’s an extraordinary moment in sports history,” says Little. “And for me it really represents the moment when sports made the great leap to global spectacle. Ninety-three thousand people were at Wembley Stadium to see that game, and 400 million more were watching on television. And they weren’t watching just because it was a soccer game, but because it was a game between two countries that had recently been at war. They hated each other.”
The exhibit cycles through the crowd noise of the game, in all its agony and ecstasy. It’s more compelling than it sounds: You can hear the crowd chanting, praying, and singing such national hymns and anthems as “Rule Britannia,” “Deutschland über alles,” and “When the Saints Go Marching In.”
“Pfeiffer’s piece really gets at the symbolism of the game,” says Little–“its importance politically and culturally. This was Britain’s ‘Miracle on Ice.’” (Britain won the game, 4-2.)
The role of race in sports is another important aspect of the exhibit. “When you think about Jesse Owens, Jackie Robinson, and many others, their participation in sports was what allowed us as a culture to have an important conversation about race,” says Little.
One startling example is a shot of Jesse Owens at the 1936 Olympics, taken by Nazi propagandist Leni Riefenstahl. “Hitler used Jesse Owens’s race against us,” says Little, “by pointing out that when Owens, this ‘hero of democracy,’ returned home, he would not have equal rights with others.”
Things have improved in many ways, but not all. The Super Bowl is the ultimate sports show, after all—the pinnacle of everything there is to be loved and hated about modern sports. Nearly 100 million Americans will watch. Advertising will cost more than $6 million per minute, and each of the winning players will get an $83,000 bonus check, plus a $5,000 ring. After it’s over, make a point of seeing The Sports Show at the MIA. It will explain how sports became what they are today, and what may have been lost along the way.
Fan Fare: Minnesota
Don’t worry, the MIA hasn’t forgotten about the rich heritage of local sports. In fact, there’s an entire companion exhibit called The Sports Show: Minnesota.
Co-curated by local photographer Tom Arndt, this complementary show doesn’t just focus on the Vikings, Twins, and Gophers—it reaches all the way back to the early 1900s and covers even our most regionally peculiar sporting activities: ice fishing, pond hockey, muskie trolling, etc.
“There was 50 years of sports here before the Vikings and the Twins arrived,” says Arndt, who dug through newspaper archives to get vintage shots from Gopher football games, the state hockey tournament, and other great but forgotten moments in local sports lore.
More than 100 photos covering a span of at least that many years will be on display. All the big names are there—Patty Berg, Rod Carew, Harmon Killebrew, Carl Eller, Fran Tarkenton, Bud Grant—and many photos of people “no one will recognize,” says Arndt.
In addition to the deep well of sports journalism in local newspaper archives, such well-known local photographers as Terry Gydesen, John Schott, Wing Young Huie, Mike Dvorak, and many others are represented. Arndt has three photos in the show himself, including a shot of The Claw Master, aka Baron von Raschke, a legendary professional wrestler not quite as well known as Jesse Ventura—but with a better nickname.
Media: The Next Frontier
When the Minneapolis Institute of Arts’s legendary photography curator Ted Hartwell died in 2007, replacing him was no easy matter. Hartwell founded the department and made it his domain for more than 35 years. No one else had ever held the job.
In 2008, MIA director Kaywin Feldman hired David Little, an associate director at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York, to fill the vacant photography post. It was not an obvious choice, because Little’s specialty isn’t just photography: His scholarly work focuses on film, video, multimedia, and artists who incorporate these various media into their work. His title at the MIA—curator of photography and new media—reflects this shift in focus, embracing the evolving realities of digital media and opening the door for exhibits–such as The Sports Showthat combine and contrast still images and other media in new ways.
The Sports Show offers a tantalizing taste of Little’s talents. In addition to iconic photos from some of the world’s finest photographers, the exhibit features film, video, and multimedia installations that address the exhibit’s themes in ways mere photography could never do. Buster Keaton’s 1927 film College is included (in which Keaton plays a nerd who hates sports). Jim McKay’s TV reports from the terrorist-tainted 1972 Olympic Games chillingly foreshadow today’s headlines. And 1970s-era TV interviews with Muhammad Ali and O.J. Simpson showcase the two athletes who epitomize the best and worst of our celebrity-worship society.
Feldman has so much confidence in the team of curators she has assembled that in 2012, for the first time ever, all of the MIA’s major ticketed exhibits will be developed in-house.
The Sports Show is the first such exhibit of the year. The next one will be curator Thomas Rassieur’s Rembrandt in America–the largest collection of Rembrandts in an American museum in decades.
$8, Sunday, February 19, 2012-Sunday, May 13, 2012, Minneapolis Institute of Arts, 2400 3rd Ave. S., Mpls., MN 55404