Muhammad Ali's Life in Parallel Art


He was born Cassius Clay. Later he became known as Muhammad Ali. He was a three-time heavyweight boxing champion. And, today his life is depicted in art and photography.

The ring violence and the kindness of Ali are depicted in simultaneous displays at the New York Historical Society. With remarkable similarity, LeRoy Neiman's 20 sketches, paintings and posters, and George Kalinsky's 44 photos feature Ali's life in parallel fashion.

Perhaps even more remarkable are the close friendships the artist and photographer had with the outspoken, popular and often controversial public figure for almost 50 years, and with each other.

Exhibit's back story
Louise Mirrer, president and CEO of the historical society, said the twin exhibits happened "by very good fortune." The society was thinking about using Neiman's Ali water sketches and water colors as part of a Vietnam War exhibition planned for Fall 2017. Ali refused to serve in the military and will be forever attached to the Vietnam War era.

Society officials went to Neiman's studio, checked out his Ali collection and decided not to wait until Fall. At the same time they met George Kalinsky. They checked out his folio of Ali photos. Originally they were thinking about a 75th birthday commemoration. Ali was born on January 17, 1942, in Louisville, Kentucky.

Mirrer said, "We decided not to worry about the Vietnam show, but to commemorate Ali and celebrate him by moving ahead with the exhibitions as soon as possible."

In a stately, landmark building, the Ali exhibits are simply displayed in two rooms on the second floor, right off a beautiful, wide, main staircase. The exhibits also will be a celebration of Black History Month in February 2017.

Neiman & Ali
The one thing you get is the sense of how prolific Neiman was, and what a willing subject Ali was.

"Neiman's portraits of Ali provide an intimate, personal look, at someone whose life was so much in the media and the press," said Lily Wong, curator of the Neiman exhibit.

"I think Neiman's sketches really capture Ali in motion. A lot of them were done ringside or on the spot, so you really get a sense of Ali's energy," said Wong.

For Ali's tenure at the top and beyond, Neiman was there.

"He would draw on any materials," added Wong. "He always wanted to be in the thick of things, so you get so many different scenes, before fights and after fights."

Neiman could draw on anything: restaurant menus, sketch books, napkins, fight posters. His style was groundbreaking. Many of Neiman's sketches were mixed media and collage on paper or whatever he had available.

Neiman and Ali had similarities: They loved boxing, they loved the limelight, they often broke with convention and expectations, Ali with his antics and unconventional boxing style, and Neiman drawing sports and leisure life.

What is not known universally is Ali's request to take sketching lessons from Neiman. Ali's sketches were rudimentary, but, according to curator Lily Wong, he enjoyed painting, he even painted and used coloring books, some with military themes.

Friends or Foes?
The question asked about the two combatants, did they really hate each other?

The answer, from photographer George Kalinsky who knew them both, is no! Kalinsky spent thousands of hours with Ali over the 50 years of friendship. Prior to the first Ali-Frazier fight in 1971, he went to Joe Frazier's gym in Philadelphia with Ali.

"There were several things I wanted to accomplish: one was to get them head to head," said Kalinsky, noting, "that was the first time that anyone had them nose to nose."

Ali's Suspension & Reinstatement
Citing religious beliefs and opposition to the Vietnam war, Ali was stripped of his boxing titles in 1967. One of famed photographer George Kalinsky's photos of Ali expressed Ali's feelings about that controversial time. The U.S. Supreme Court overturned his conviction in 1971, almost four years after his last fight.

It is little known that when Ali's suspension ended, he needed a license to box. He had no money. Kalinsky told me he was there when "Joe Frazier went with Ali and paid the licensing fee." Ali and Frazier fought three memorable bouts, Ali winning the last two, regaining his heavyweight crown.

Rope-a-dope
There was another first. It was called "Rope-a-Dope." The 1974 Ali-George Foreman fight in Zaire became famous because of Ali's tactic. It is a classic story of the photographer, Kalinsky, suggesting a defense to wear down the heavily favored George Foreman.

Weeks before the bout, Ali met with Kalinsky in an empty Madison Square Garden. Ali, according to Kalinsky, told him "in one month I will be fighting George Foreman. He's too fast, he's too big, he's too quick, he's too strong, he's too young."

Ali also said, according to Kalinsky, "I can't beat him, I'm afraid I can't beat him." Ali at the time was almost 33 years

Kalinsky told him "do what you do in the gym with sparring partners. You lean against the ropes. You let them hit you and hit you. You don't even punch back. But now I realize you were training for the Foreman bout."

The discussion continued with Kalinsky telling Ali to let Foreman "hit you and hit you, eventually he will tire himself out and you'll knock him out. It's a dope on a rope," according to Kalinsky. Ali responded, "you want me to do the rope-a-dope."

Fight night, Foreman hit him and hit him … and basically knocked himself out. Eighth round … Foreman could not survive the bell.

Outside the Ring
Both Neiman and Kalinsky, because of their friendship with Ali, knew, drew, and photographed many of the private moments that Ali encountered on a regular basis. There was never a child that he couldn't pick up or play with.

In the show there is a Kalinsky photo entitled "Ali and the Kid." Ali is on the canvas and the kid is standing over him with his arms up in victory.

"I love that picture," said Kalinsky, "that's what Ali loved to do. He loved making children happy."

The exhibitions will be open through March 26, 2017.