The Metropolitan Museum of Art has a dirty little secret tucked away inside one of its galleries on the nearly impossible-to-find mezzanine level that sits cantilevered above the American Wing’s atrium. All the museum guards I asked for directions soured in speculation of my pursuit. Surely I must be mistaken. Why would I be going there?
Honestly, I sympathized with the guards’ suspicions. Nobody would peg me for a sports fanatic. (Probably because I’m not one.) Nothing about me would indicate a steadfast interest in a niche collection of vintage boxing cards from the late 1800s and beyond. Yet despite these immeasurable odds, I am here today to tell you that On the Ropes: Vintage Boxing Cards from the Jefferson R. Burdick Collection is the sleeper hit of the summer. Far less glamorous or sprawling than the slender Heavenly Bodies dotting the museum’s medieval galleries, On the Ropes excels because of its tight curation and impactful focus on the racial politics that underpin boxing’s centuries of orthodox visual culture.
The history of the United States cannot truly be told without acknowledging the impact of boxing on society. Although the combat sport has its origins in Ancient Greece and West Asia, formalization of its rules and popularization as a pastime occurred in Great Britain and the US over the last three hundred years. And although the mythos of individual boxing champions have almost always foregrounded their ethnicity or race, a dedication to almost vaudevillian levels of storytelling has only occurred in the last hundred years or so.
Connoisseurs of modern art might note how boxing has historically been used by critics to illustrate the putatively masculine qualities of Abstract Expressionism. For example, Harold Rosenberg in 1952 described action painting as the artist’s struggle with the process of creation itself. For painters like Jackson Pollock, said Rosenberg, the canvas was like a boxing ring, “an arena in which to act.”
But don’t come to On the Ropes expecting something as grandiose as Pollock. Instead, the exhibition examines the minutiae of fandom surrounding boxing. The trading cards on display are straightforward, commercial depictions of boxing champions from the 1880s. There are essentially two poses these boxers take: crossed arms or in the guard position. Otherwise, the artist has cropped the illustrated portrait below the collarbones of these oft-mustachioed men.
Nearly a century before these trading cards were produced British caricaturist Thomas Rowlandson created a series of prints called, “Six Stages of Marring a Face” (1792), which combined the visual motifs of a boxing beatdown (bruises, gashes, etc.) with the cartoonishly satirical style of the Georgian period. My personal favorite is another similarly named piece with the subtitle, “Dedicated with respect to the Right Hon-ble Lady Archer” (1792), which is anything but respectful. Created alongside his publisher, Saumel William Fores, Rowlandson substitutes the brutalities of boxing with the preening of a woman’s makeup routine. As Lady Archer squeezes, primps, and plumps, we see gestures strangely akin to the nearby boxer’s. A strange comparison — especially coming in the late 1700s. This satirical mode was also used stateside where political factionalism was characterized as “pugilism,” representing the occasional fistfights that would break out in Congress.
Writing about boxing in 1987, Joyce Carol Oates defined the sport as “America’s tragic theater” and “a sport of crisis.” As On the Ropes illustrates, boxing often details the crisis of race in the White-American consciousness. Is it any great coincidence that the first African-American heavyweight champion, Jack Johnson, was pitted against Jim Jeffries, then called “The Great White Hope” ? In 1912 fear that Johnson’s triumph against a white man would spark race riots was so great that Congress passed a law making it illegal to transport prizefight films across state lines. This sort of narrative echoes through the history of boxing; one can see a similar story in the career of Muhammed Ali, which may have contributed to the boxing champion’s political awakening.
While capitalizing on racial aggression continues today — seen in last year’s blockbuster fight between boxer Floyd Mayweather Jr. and UFC fighter Conor McGregor — there is a larger and broader history of discrimination at hand. In the corner of the Met’s exhibition are three nearly identical portraits from the 1780s, the first of which displays boxing champion Richard Humphreys while the last two showcase Daniel Mendoza. Humphreys was actually something of a mentor to Mendoza, but the two battled in a highly publicized grudge match which Mendoza ultimately won. Promotional materials often referred to Mendoza as “the Jew,” stereotyping the boxer as a representation of his community in order to sell more tickets and encourage the growth of a fan base.
Thirty years later, Théodore Gericault choose his subjects wisely for “Boxers” (1818). Depicting opposing black and white boxers, it is clear that Gericault is foregrounding an aesthetic decision to heighten the monochromatic qualities of his lithograph by exploiting the racial politics of boxing. The darker the lithograph, the more imposing the figure to the left appears. (Note that there’s not a single black person in the crowd of onlookers.) And like all the other figures on display, these two boxers conform to the rigid pose of their sport: fists raised, braced for attack, ready to retaliate.
On the Ropes: Vintage Boxing Cards from the Jefferson R. Burdick Collection continues at The Metropolitan Museum of Art (1000 Fifth Avenue, Upper East Side, Manhattan) through October 21. The exhibition was curated by Allison Rudnick.