Silas Van der Swaagh '12
Although athletics and art are rarely thought of as having much of a relationship, sports have had a presence in visual art since ancient Greece. Recently, the fusion of sports and art has been reconsidered by a small, but thriving, group of “jock artists” who seem to see sports as a metaphor for larger life experiences. These artists have recognized the potential of sports as a subject for their art and, although they go about it in very different fashions, engage similar themes. These themes include masculinity and camaraderie (even to the extent of homoeroticism), the exultation of the victor and deflation of the loser, endurance, working within the constraints of a set of rules, and the very physicality of sports and how it relates to the active process of creating art. This response to what artists have witnessed in sports, both as spectators and active participants, has been expressed in all mediums of the fine arts: painting, sculpture, drawing, photography, video, and performance art.
People have always been drawn to athletics, and the realization of sports’ potential to communicate significant themes is not a recent one. Ancient Greek artists were among the first to demonstrate an interest in sports to communicate ideals and values. Possibly the most recognizable example of Greek, sports-related art is a sculpture by Myron entitled Discobolos
(The Discus Thrower, c. 450 BCE). In this sculpture a discus thrower is caught in the moment before the ascent of his arm to release the discus. In a carefully planned expression, perfectly balanced between tension and release, Myron skillfully executed an example of the idealized, muscular depictions of male nudes that were so common to the art of mid-5th Century (BCE) Greece. Through the perfect order and symmetry of the athlete’s taut body, the well-known Greek philosophy that “man is the measure of all things” is symbolized. Just as the equally famous sculpture, Dying Gaul (3rd century BCE), which expresses the power of Greece by showing its defeated enemy not as a weakling, but as a strong, intimidating foe, Discobolos acts as propaganda for Greek ideals and values. Myron succeeds in using athletic and physical prowess to represent the order and superiority of Greece, thus pioneering the rich relation between sports and art.
After an absence of some 1,600 years, sports reclaimed a presence in Western art in the 17th century through the paintings of the Dutch Golden Age (Hume). Unlike their Greek predecessors, these artists do not dwell on the magnificence or pathos of athletes, but rather depict hearty Dutchmen in their leisure: playing golf, ice skating, and sledding. As Canadian writer and critic Christopher Hume states, there is “not much truth or beauty” found in the Dutch Golden Age sports paintings, “just chubby-cheeked Amsterdamers out for an afternoon's fun on the nearest frozen river” (Hume).
In the 19th century, though, an American artist emerged whose sports-themed paintings and lithographs differed greatly from the Dutch depictions of people at play. George Bellows (1882-1925), whose paintings and lithographs span a variety of subject matter, is perhaps best known for his depictions of boxing. Organized boxing was prohibited at the time that Bellows was painting and the unglamorous, illegal matches that the artist attended are captured in works such as Stag At Sharkey’s (1909) and Both Members Of This Club (1909). These are “gritty and violent” paintings that express the ferocity of two humans in physical competition and, as art historian Mahonri Sharp Young states, deliver “the rush and wallop of the ring” (Morris).
Bellow’s artistic focus on sports was most likely born from his personal experiences in atheletics. In his youth, Bellows displayed passion and talent in both sports and art. During his enrolment at Ohio State University, Bellows illustrated for the school yearbook and played varsity baseball and basketball. After college, Bellows was offered a contract to play baseball with the Cincinnati Reds, which he rejected, choosing instead a career in art (National Gallery of Art). This athletic experience was not left behind and is evident in Bellow’s work. The broad, quick brush strokes of his paintings convey an energy that is felt inside the ring, reflected on the faces of the spectators and passed on to the viewer. One can imagine Bellows in his studio, transferring the violence and exertion he witnessed at dark, illicit matches, to strokes on his canvas – moving his arm with the same intensity as his subject’s arching punch. “The illusion,” claims author Joyce Carol Oates in her examination of boxing and the art of George Bellows, “is that the artist (and by extension the viewer) is physically present at ringside, not coolly detached from the violence but vicariously, voyeuristically participating in it” (Morris). Bellows recreates for his viewers the furious expressions of masculinity and drive for survival that he witnessed in the shadowy, underground matches he often frequented.
One hundred years later, a new league of primarily American “jock artists” has attempted to tackle similar subjects as those of Bellows. American artist Lee Walton (b. 1974), who works within a wide range of media, shows an interest in the rules by which sports are played. His “baseball drawings,” for instance, are similar to the stunning wall drawings of American artist, Sol LeWitt, in both process and composition. Like LeWitt, Walton creates for himself a set of rules that govern how he composes his drawings. These rules are often directly related to the play of a particular baseball, basketball, or football game. For example, “curved lines can stand for base hits; a fly ball out is a straight line…; a double is a
wide stripe running to bottom; a home run is a thick line across the top of the space” (Agee). In a baseball drawing such as The Yankees vs. Mets - 3 Game Series (2007), one can even see Walton’s rules written out in the upper left hand corner. The results are visual score cards that delicately and gracefully record the details of each game.
Australian photographer and filmmaker, Tracey Moffatt (b. 1960), is another contemporary artist who has shown interest in sports. Her series Fourth features twenty-six stills from television coverage of the 2000 Sydney Summer Olympics. Rather than focusing on the winners of the athletic competitions, Moffatt scoured Olympic coverage from all over the world searching for images of the athletes who came in fourth place. These competitors, who just missed the top three medal positions, often display blank, unbelieving faces. Moffatt’s photographs are poignant and express sport’s power to elicit authentic, deeply felt emotions from the players.
Another artist in the forefront of the “jock art” field is American artist, David Rathman. Rathman (birth date unavailable) has always shown an interest in American culture, especially American images of masculinity, such as cowboys, punk music, and car racing. Home and Away (2006), from Rathman’s series of ink and watercolor paintings of high school football, is representative of the artist’s painting style. In this painting we see the back of a stocky football player as he gazes over the vast playing field and, as is typically found in Rathman paintings, expansive sky. Members of the opposing team are huddled together, casting long shadows
across the ground, and on the distant scoreboard one can read, “Home: 20, Guest: 30.” Rathman’s work is dramatic. His grandiose use of negative space, often humorous titles, predominantly monochromatic hues, and frequent use of text within the paintings (in the case of his football paintings, clichéd phrases such as “Time to Deliver the Shiver”) give his work the melodrama of a sports movie or classic American westerns.
Rathman has extended his interest in expressing masculinity to boxing and wrestling as well. In his effort to capture the essential moments of the athletes’ time in the ring, Rathman, unlike Bellows, strips away the violence of the sport and presents his subjects as quiet dancers, elegantly moving around their stage.
Although Rathman addresses macho, American themes, he does so with grace and elegance. His details are always delicate and the perspective presented is never from within the action, but from the viewpoint of a quiet observer. Perhaps the way Rathman treats his violent subjects with such gentleness stems from his own background with sports. The artist explains that as a child, growing up in a small Montana town, he was always interested in football but never played because he was “small” (The Rake: Magazine). In Untitled 7, from Rathman’s football series, we see players huddled together, awaiting the news of an approaching referee. From a removed perspective, Rathman’s ever faceless, always masked subjects lack the bruises and sweat that would most assuredly be present. This fondness for elegance is present even in some of his
most violent images, such as the triptych Into Your Arms (2005), in which Rathman transforms the image of a racecar flipping through the air and crashing back to earth into a delicate abstract against a pure white backdrop.
The sport of wrestling proves to be a subject favored by “jock artists.” For years, American artist Collier Schorr (b. 1963) has photographed high school and collegiate wrestlers during practice and before and after bouts. Schorr’s photographs do not share the same distant perspective as Rathman’s paintings. She talks of the experience of her ducking and weaving among the wrestlers’ bodies as she photographs them grappling with each other (Art:21). This “dancing” among the wrestlers has resulted in very intimate portraits of the young men.
A piece like Catch/Caught (A.C. & S.S.) (2002), demonstrates Schorr’s intention to distort the “extremely macho, extremely masculine” (Art:21) attitudes often associated with sports. In this image, two wrestlers are shown carefully practicing a takedown; one on his knees, holding the leg of his standing partner whose arm gently rests on the kneeling wrestler’s shoulder. The two teenagers look to be in the middle of quiet moment of intimacy, rather than a wrestling practice. When explaining her interest in wrestlers, Schorr asserts that “masculinity has been depicted in very black and white terms…There never seems to be a wide range of emotional definitions of men” (Art:21).
As Schorr explains, “I love…to see two guys throwing some moves and then being careful that they didn’t hurt each other. Pushing as hard as they can but then pulling back, making sure they’re okay. Talking about it, how to do it better, giving each other advice. All that...is a rich part of masculinity” (Art:21). Through images such as Catch/Caught (A.C. & S.S.) and An Image and a Likeness (2003), Schorr attempts to present the full range of emotions that she observes on wrestling teams, moments of determination or toughness as well as those of tenderness.
As would be expected in such a high contact sport, one of the main studies of Schorr’s work is how wrestlers physically interact with each other. Schorr presents camaraderie between teammates that, at times, is almost homoerotic.
The rivalry between God and other gods (2002) depicts two shirtless boys in a strong wrestling embrace. Considering the relentless assertion of machismo that is often linked to “jocks,” these two teenagers appear intimately familiar with each other’s sweaty, muscular bodies. Images such as Lives of performers (G.R.) (2003) and Reaching (H.T.) (2003) further demonstrate Schorr’s skill to alter her subjects, transforming the violent wrestlers into beautiful abstractions sprawled out against the black canvas of the mat.
If any artist has successfully considered all of the themes discussed above—the physicality of sports, self-imposed rules and obstacles, masculinity, and ambiguity of gender—it is Matthew Barney. Barney (b. 1967), heralded by chief art critic for the New York Times, Michael Kimmelman, as “the most important American artist of his generation,”, has received, since his emergence in the art world, a mixture of unadulterated praise as well as unabashed criticism. Overall, though, Barney must be acknowledged as one of the most imaginative, ambitious, and significant artists of his time. Throughout the vast, eccentric collection of sculptures, videos, and performances that Barney has created, there is a constant presence of sports. These recurring athletic references are rooted in Barney’s personal experiences with football and weight training.
Since an early age, Barney has been familiar with locker rooms and gym equipment, weight training, and the physical endurance that athletics demands. In high school, he was the quarterback of his football team. Later, he paid his way through college as a model, part of the time working for J. Crew. Clearly, Mathew Barney is a “jock.” His familiarity with athletic subject matter is very accessible in works such as Transexualis (Decline) (1991), but becomes more abstracted in Barney’s later work, such as his Cremaster Cycle (1994-2002) video series.
One of the most commonly recurring concepts that Barney gleaned from his athletic experiences is the breaking down of muscle tissue in the body in order to encourage its growth (SFMOMA). This theme of enduring a challenging and often destructive process in order to develop is present in much of the artist’s work. Although this drives virtually all of Barney’s art, it is most clear in works such as the Drawing Restraint series, which Barney first began to develop while still in college. In these performances and videos, Barney would impose physical restrictions on himself, which he would then have to overcome in an attempt to create a drawing. It is only after struggling against resistance and enduring severe physical strain that the drawings are created. This theme continued to fuel Barney’s work on his five-part Cremaster Cycle (1994-2002) series of films. The cremaster, the muscle that
regulates the temperature of the male testes, and the embryonic process of sexual development in the human body provided the starting point for this set of cryptic films. The Cremaster films are rife with symbolism and historical references—including Harry Houdini, Gary Gilmore, Freemasonry, and the Mormon Church—that are all connected and significant to Barney in some mystifying, esoteric way. Although the Cremaster films are much different from the Drawing Restraint series, they are inspired by the same concept: a long, challenging process yields development.
Ostensibly, the connections between Barney’s art and his past life as an athlete are much more conceptual than they are visual and, as a consequence, are not always obvious. Although he is greatly influenced by organized sports as is David Rathman and Collier Schorr, Barney’s creations are much different. Beyond obvious images and references, such as the role Bronco Stadium in Boise, Idaho plays as the stage for the synchronized dancing in Cremaster 1, or his gigantic photographs of his high school idol, former Oakland Raiders center, Jim Otto, as well as the use of wrestling mats in his Jim Otto Suite instillations, it can be unclear that Barney’s art has any connection to sports at all (although his still very athletic physique, which is featured in many of his near-naked performances, might hint at his former life.) When Barney addresses “unacknowledged or suppressed sexuality in men’s sports” (Woodward 3), the same subject that has fascinated Rathman and Schorr, he does so, not by delicately portraying violent, macho
images, but by a performance of him pushing around football blocking sled while wearing a cocktail dress. In all of his art, what establishes Barney most as a “jock artist” is his conceptual references to the physicality of sports and how that physicality relates to the physicality of his own process of creating art.
This interest in the physical activity that goes into creating art links Barney to the early process and performance artists of the 60s. A piece such as Splashing (1968) by Richard Serra, who plays a lead role in Cremaster 3 as an architect of whom Barney is the apprentice, is directly quoted as being influential by Barney and is reenacted in Cremaster 3 (although this time, instead of Serra flinging molten lead against the corner between a floor and wall to create a mold, Serra hurls one of Barney’s signature mediums, Vaseline). Similarly, Bruce Nauman was interested in using his body as a medium for his art. Many of his pieces involved him exploring the space of his gallery with his body. A video piece such as Violin Tuned D.E.A.D. (1969) for instance, features Nauman strutting around his while studio droning the open strings of a violin, examining how the sound changed with his movements. Another influential predecessor of Barney was Chris Burden who was made famous for his highly physical, often violent, performances. His gruesome Trans-fixed (1974), in which Burden had himself nailed to the back of a Volkswagen Beetle, certainly exhibited endurance through pain.
The lineage of this fascination with the physical process of art can be traced through the drip paintings of Jackson Pollock (1912-1956). Descriptions of Pollock working on a painting in his studio, as well as the famous documentation by photographer Hans Namuth, depict the artist dancing around a giant, outspread canvas on the floor, flinging paint. This physical energy and movement is abundantly clear in paintings such as One: Number 31, 1950 (1950), an emblematic Pollock painting. To extend the lineage further, author Joyce Carol Oates argues Pollock’s “action painting” (a term coined by American critic, Harold Rosenberg) is anticipated by the quick and energetic brushstrokes of George Bellows whose paintings exhibit a “rush of skilled activity" that evidences the fact that Bellows certainly wasn’t standing perfectly still as he created his art. Barney’s artistic ancestors are clear: a family of artists who are fiercely interested in the way the physical movements of the body create, and sometimes are, works of art.
The relationship between physicality and art appears to be what unites the team of jock artists. Sports and the creating of art are both highly physical acts. As Schorr dances around her wrestlers and Matthew Barney struggles against a harness to try to complete a drawing, or, by contrast, Rathman delicately details his paintings, they are all responding to the potency of sports, even if that response is, as Rathman’s art presents, a gentle one. Through such artists two seemingly disparate disciplines are brought together.
Jock artists, regardless of whether or not they themselves play sports, have realized the power of sports to affect people. They see athletics as analogous to life, even more, as a microcosm of life. Through sports, humans are pushed to mental and emotional extremes. They compete in a drive for survival and victory that could be compared to the experience of fighting a battle; and when they fail, their grief is deeply felt. The sometimes painful, often blank, faces of Moffat’s subjects are not the just faces of defeated athletes, but human beings who have battled and lost; their pathos is recognizable to everyone. Even Matthew Barney’s concept of development being achieved through endurance, is not one exclusive to sports; consider, for example, all the unpleasant experiences that have been justified by parents to their children as “character building.” Collier Schorr, too, believes there is universality to the characters her photographs presents when she states, “I think a lot of people see their own struggles as teenagers in the pictures. They see that transition from adolescent to grownup to adult” (Art:21).
Athletics has proven to be a resilient resource for artists. From Myron to Matthew Barney, jocks have had their place in the art world and sports’ ability to evoke authentic, deeply felt, and recognizable emotions in both the subject and the viewer, has been acknowledged for centuries. This power coupled with the image of sweaty young men grappling together in an effort to force each other into submission, renders sports a subject that is understandably too enticing for artists to ignore.
Agee, William C. “Lee Walton: Drawing and Baseball.” LeeWalton.com. 2005. 15 October, 2008 http://www.leewalton.com/biography/William_C_Agee_Essay.html
Art:21. “Wrestlers Love America.” Art:21. <http://www.pbs.org/art21/artists/schorr/clip2.html>
Clementine Gallery. “David Rathman.” <http://www.clementinegallery.com/rathman2004.html>
Hume, Christopher. “Athletic heroes once art staple.” Toronto Star 1 July 2001 Sunday Ontario
Edition: SPORTS 08- . Lexis Nexis Academic. CUNY Hunter College, New York, NY. 6 Nov. 2008 <http://academic.lexisnexis.com/online-services/academic-overview.aspx>
Matthew Barney discusses his influences. SFMOMA, 2000
Morris, Daniel. "Figuring and disfiguring: Joyce Carol Oates on boxing and the paintings of
George Bellows." Mosaic (Winnipeg). 31.4 (Dec. 1998): p135. Literature Resources from Gale. Gale. HUNTER COLLEGE. 28 Nov. 2008
National Gallery of Art. “George Bellows – Biography.” <http://www.nga.gov/cgi-
The Rake: Magazine. “David Rathman.” The Rake: Magazine 29 Jan. 2007
Woodward, Richard B. “Home Team Advantage.” The New York Times 15 Feb. 2004: Section
2; Column 1; Arts and Leisure Desk; Pg. 17.
 Although it may not be the first time it was used, the term “jock art” was found in the New York Times article “Home Team Advantage” by Richard B. Woodward.
 Only a Roman copy of the Greek original remains.
 Examples can be seen in images 17 and 18