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“The Greatest”: A Kid Reporter Goes Behind the Scenes of the N-YHS’s exhibition, “Muhammad Ali, LeRoy Neiman, and the Art of Boxing”

Written by N-YHS History Detectives Kid Reporter Riley Neubauer, age 13

The New-York Historical Society’s new exhibit on Muhammad Ali and LeRoy Neiman gives everyone the opportunity to see a different side of Ali. Most people know him as the extraordinary boxer whose refusal to be drafted into the Vietnam War cost him three-and-a-half years of his career. But what many do not know is that Ali had a special bond with a significant 20th-century artist, LeRoy Neiman. The two shared a love for sports, drawing, and humor! This exhibit shows this unlikely friendship through the eyes of LeRoy Neiman.

LeRoy Neiman, Muhammad Ali and Sonny Liston, 1965. Courtesy LeRoy Neiman Foundation.
LeRoy Neiman, Muhammad Ali and Sonny Liston, 1965. Courtesy LeRoy Neiman Foundation.

LeRoy Neiman was a painter known for his colorful depictions of sporting and entertainment events. He painted everyone from world leaders like Fidel Castro and Napoleon to celebrities like Frank Sinatra to athletes like Mike Piazza—and even Olympian Olga Korbut. He also painted the Eiffel Tower, the streets of Harlem, and many other famous sites. Of all the subjects he painted, boxer Muhammad Ali, born Cassius Clay, was one of his favorites.

Before Clay was a boxer, he was just a normal kid. His father gave him a bike for his twelfth birthday and it was immediately stolen. Clay wanted to “whup whoever stole my bike!” He was told that he needed to learn how to fight before he challenged anyone. Thus, Clay began boxing lessons and enjoyed it so much he continued. By the age of 18 he had won the gold medal in the Light Heavyweight Boxing Division at the 1960 Rome Olympics. In 1964 Cassius Clay converted to Islam and changed his name to Muhammad Ali.

In addition to being known as a fighter, Ali is also known for his controversial decision not to fight in the Vietnam War despite being drafted. Ali was stripped of his titles, passport, and boxing license, and the court also gave him a five-year prison sentence. He traveled the country talking about his political position. When he returned to boxing, he fought the undefeated champion Joe Frazier in a fight advertised as “The Fight of the Century.” Sadly, he lost but the bigger win came a few months after the Supreme Court reversed the initial court ruling and Ali was not punished for his refusal to be drafted.

After this ruling, Ali reclaimed his title as heavyweight champion and beat many talented boxers such as Joe Frazier and George Foreman. In 1975 Ali once again faced Frazier in a fight called the “Thrilla in Manila.” After the 14th round, Frazier conceded. In 1981 Ali retired from boxing, and in 1984 he announced that he had Parkinson’s disease. In 2005 Ali was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President George W. Bush, which is quite amazing because he won this award despite being a conscientious objector to the Vietnam War.

As Ali was a significant sports and political figure in our country, it is not surprising that LeRoy Neiman depicted him. What is interesting is not only that Ali was a subject of his art but also that the two became special friends. Neiman would go watch Ali’s matches. and move around the room talking to different people. Sometimes he would draw in a sketchbook and other times on brochures. Most of his work was done at the event, but when Neiman would arrive back in his studio, he would add some color before turning the page and moving to another drawing. This exhibit has many examples of these works.

LeRoy Neiman, The Fight—Frazier vs. Ali, March 8, 1971 sketchbook. Courtesy LeRoy Neiman Foundation.
LeRoy Neiman, The Fight—Frazier vs. Ali, March 8, 1971 sketchbook. Courtesy LeRoy Neiman Foundation.

In addition to being a great subject, Ali was quick-witted, similar to Neiman, and the two enjoyed each other’s personality. Once, while Ali was running in Central Park with all of his trainers, one trainer asked LeRoy to “put down [his] pen and start running with us.” Ali, coming around the bend chimed in, “LeRoy’s nose is already running, he doesn’t need to join in!”

Neiman enjoyed Ali personally, but they also had a special connection because Neiman taught Ali to paint. Neiman began his career teaching at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago after being a student there. He taught Ali how to draw—there is a great photograph of them together and, next to it, the drawing Ali was making.

LeRoy Neiman painted from 1950 to his death in 2012. Neiman carried a sketchbook, markers, pens, pencils, and even crayons wherever he went. On the rare occasion he did not have a sketchbook with him, he would grab anything in front of him and draw on that. The LeRoy Neiman Foundation has many menus, sporting brochures, and programs that Neiman drew on and then took back to his studio. These, along with his 93  sketchbooks (now 92 because one was recently donated to the Art Institute of Chicago), a few thousand drawings, and tens of thousands of posters, prints, and books are held by the LeRoy Neiman Foundation, which is housed in LeRoy Neiman’s old studio in the Hotel des Artistes on New York’s Upper West Side.

The curator of the exhibit at N-YHS, Lily Wong, took me into this studio where we had a chance to speak with Tara Zabor, the LeRoy Neiman Foundation’s director of operations. This workshop is still as it was when Neiman died. There is a table in the middle of the studio for painting, paint splattered all over the floor and walls, a huge wall of paint cans, a giant canvas storage area, and a painting of African soldiers hung on the wall. This space was not only a workspace but also Neiman’s apartment. The bedroom was upstairs, off a balcony overlooking the studio.

Floor of LeRoy Neiman’s studio with author’s feet. Photo by author.
Floor of LeRoy Neiman’s studio with author’s feet. Photo by author.

The LeRoy Neiman Foundation is extremely excited about this exhibit for many reasons. First, their mission is to let people experience Neiman’s work. Second, they are excited for children to see the exhibit. They hope to show children that they can be anywhere to make art; they do not have to be sitting in a studio painting a canvas. Many of Neiman’s special works were on brochures and in sketchbooks, as you can see in this exhibit.

LeRoy Neiman, Round 8, Ali knocks out Joe’s mouthpiece, October 1, 1975. Courtesy LeRoy Neiman Foundation.
LeRoy Neiman, Round 8, Ali knocks out Joe’s mouthpiece, October 1, 1975. Courtesy LeRoy Neiman Foundation.

Finally, not many people have seen Neiman’s work of Ali because he kept it so close to his heart. Now this art is out and visible to the public.

You can see some of Neiman’s works of Ali in the New-York Historical Society’s new exhibition, Muhammad Ali, LeRoy Neiman, and the Art of Boxing, on view through March 26, 2017.

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