Sports in Art

The concept and portrayal of sport and the athlete in art has been an evolving phenomenon in the art world for as long as their has been art. The spectrum is very broad, ranging from the Ancient Greek Athletic Godlike sculptures, to the realistic boxing match portrayals by George Bellows, himself a star athlete at Ohio State. Additionally, a new counter movement has been gaining steam throughout not only the art community, but popular culture as well. Titled Hard Targets, this travelling exhibiting focuses on the masculinity and war like atmosphere of sports and what the artists feel is wrong with them. This chilling exhibition can be seen at art institutes and colleges across the world. Furthermore, the work of Matthew Barney, a former Yale Quarterback,provides insight to the mind of an athlete and some of the craziness that can be associated with these former athletes. Lastly, the work of Leroy Nieman tributes to the everlasting importance of art in the sporting work. With the appearance of a Dali wanna-be, Nieman has taken to stadiums around the world for the biggest sporting events, and documented them in his art work. Although not shown in textbooks or represented at famous museums, Nieman can be regarded as one of the most popular artists of the last fifty years. Interestingly enough, George Bellows, has been generally well received by the same community which has shot down Nieman's work (Bellows was not solely a sports artist, he did much of his work in the Ashcan style and portraiture), while Matthew Barney has gained a reputation as someone who is a slight bit off his rocker. Regardless of the legacy of certain artists, sports and art have been intertwined basically since their has been art, and even with the increase in technology, they will continue to be intertwined forever.

Greek Athletes:
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Known as the founder of the Olympics, the ancient Greeks viewed athletics as an essential part of their culture, which is evident in their artwork, specifically sculpture throughout all periods of Greek art (Archaic, Classical, Hellenistic). The main focus of sculpture was the human body, which in turn led to a great emphasis on motion and ultimately athletics. One of the most famous Greek sculptures portraying an athlete comes from the end of Severe period (460-450 BCE). The Diskobolus of Myron portrays the idealized athlete about to release his throw. Myron “captures the enduring pattern of athletic energy..” Additionally, in an effort to portray the event, he focuses on the muscular strain and activity while leaving out any facial expressions. The body’s proportions are astounding and this statue is a great example of Rhythmos (harmony and balance). This sculpture has been used throughout time in pop culture, most recently in a Major League Baseball ad against the use of steroids, in which the Greek athlete is associated with pure and wholesomeness. In summary, the Greeks started the trend of portraying athletes in art, but unlike today’s artists, the Greek athletic sculptures tend to be more well recieved and widespread throughout the art community.

George Bellows:
This American realist artist from the early 1920s has a very intriguing backstory. Born in Ohio in the early 1880s, Bellows excelled in athletics from a very young age. He attended The Ohio State University and starred in baseball and basketball while working as an artist for the school yearbook. Bellows was able to parlay his athletic success into a draft selection by the Cincinnati Reds, but his desire to become a full time painter eventually
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outweighed his desire to become a professional athlete. As a result, Bellows left school nearly a week before his graduation and went to work as an artist, becoming associated with Henri's Eight and the Ashcan school. Bellows produced a variety of works ranging from
landscapes to urban life, but he is most well known for his portrayal of boxing matches, in which he uses dark
atmospheres, through which the bright, roughly lain brushstrokes of the human figures vividly strike with a strong sense of motion and direction as seen in Dempsey and Firpo, 1924

LeRoy Neiman:

Born in 1921, and recently passed away in 2012, LeRoy Neiman spent his life among Playmates, Athletes and Stars and his paintings tell all. After attending the St. Paul School of Art, and School of The Art Institute of Chicago on the G.I. Bill, Neiman developed a relationship with the infamous Hugh Hefner and began to do artwork for the magazine. In the 1960s, Neiman began to document sporting events, nightlife and popular culture through his artwork.
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He would go to major events such as the Superbowl, World Cup, Masters, World Series etc and paint what was going on. His shots although very accurate emphasize motion and the aura of the sporting event. The colors throughout the painting further strengthen the feelings one gets while witnessing such events. While Neiman worked all throughout the "camera and TV" period, his artwork has been highly sought after for decades.external image Giants%20Broncos%20Classic.jpg

Matthew Barney:

A former Division 1 Ivy League Quarterback, Barney gained notoriety as a teen on the field. After gruaduating from Yale, he worked as a male model for J. Crew, which allowed him
to finance his artistic endeavors. In his seemingly crazy video
productions and installations, Barney utilizes objects from
sports throughout all of them. As opposed to using his familiarity
with sport as the primary subject in his artworks, Barney takes
different pieces from sports such as footballs, bikes, bats etcgoodyearchorus.jpg and by placing them out of their "natural" environment, he can attest to the homosocial-complex surronding them. In his
Creamaster series (supposed to symbolize the creating of
the world), one can see the outline of a football stadium with
cheerleaders and goodyear blimps, the blimps transform into
male body parts, emphasizing the idea of masculinity, before
promptly disappearing Within his oeuvre, we will see that Barney
relegates sports to the level of the symbolic quotation, the linguistic
metaphor/sign: for example, he takes objects that are associated with
sports and changes them remaking them out of new materials: weights,workout benches or other sports objects are remade out of silicone gels, tapioca or Vaseline, kept refrigerated, but not kept from their natural decay. Additionally, what appears to be a film about sports eventually becomes asociated with women in traditional feminine roles (stewardesses) prancing around stadiums, which prevails to the idea of ambiguity throughout the world. When asked about the role of sports in this work, Keith Seward, a writer for Packett Magazine stated that, “He creates an aesthetic of athleticism and an athleticism of aesthetics. Athletic means have aesthetic ends…” Barney's work is recieved as extremely odd and outlandish, but there is a method to his madness. Barney's use of the aforementioned elements can be interpreted as an attack on society's emphasis on athletics and the importance around them. By using them almost as an "extra" in his work, Barney could be emphasising that there are other things besides athletics, but they wtill play a role in society.

Hard Targets Exhibition:

This travelling exhibition going against the current beliefs about sports has had an astounding impact across the world. Based off the ideas behind athletics, male masculinity, and war like practices, the works of art ranger from the heroic portrayal of a football team as they prepare for "battle" to an epic racing harmonious event to the chilling photo-shopped Nike branded head and chest. The exhibition has been throughout the world including Haverford College, where I first heard about it. The main goal of Hard Targets is to revise and complicate our time-honored stereotypes of male athletes and athleticism (as aggressive, heterosexual, hypercompetitive, and remote) by presenting alternative, possibly more democratic, interpretations of subjects frequently revealed to us only in authorized and frankly commercial images. The exhibit goes inside locker rooms, stadiums, and advertising to investigate sports and masculine identity through topics ranging from biology and business to celebrity power. The artists present include: Doug Aitken, Matthew Barney, Mark Bradford, Harun Farocki, Andreas Gursky, Douglas Gordon, David Hammons, Brian Jungen, Byron Kim, Jeff Koons, Cary Leibowitz, Glenn Ligon, Kori Newkirk, Catherine Opie, Philippe Parreno, Paul Pfeiffer, Collier Schorr, Joe Sola, Sam Taylor-Wood, Hank Willis Thomas, and Jonas Wood. Some of the most impacting works are Scarred Chest, which shows a very muscular man with numerous Nike signs branded on his pectoral muscles. This is a chilling, but revealing experience because while playing to the idea of the idealized athlete, the work offers an observation that today’s athletes become branded as cattle would have and slaves to their respective sports. Furthermore, Catherine Opie’s work titled Josh is part of a series of high school football players photographed in traditional football poses, but highlighted because of their individuality. In other words, Opie went against both the movement and counter-movement by highlighting not only their athletic prowess, but their individual differences. Finally, the image of the basketball player trying to jump up in the air, but he is chained down can be likened back to Higher Goals by David Hammons. While Hammons was alluding to the belief that black city boys should be shooting for dreams as a lawyer or doctor as opposed to just a basketball player, this work analyzed the issue of athletics and their increasingly burdensome role in the young athlete’s life. Overall, the exhibit offers a very interesting and new perspective into the relationship between athletics and the outside world.


Since the early Greek sculptures, sports and art have been intertwined. In the years since, there have been many artists who emphasize the repationship between the two such as Leroy Nieman and George Bellows. Nonetheless, there have been many who have gone agaisnt the crowd and have tried to point out the injustices in the games we love and their relationship with society. Regardless of perspective, the relationship between sports and art is a very important and complex relationship which will remain consistent for years to come.

Works Cited
"Hard Targets." Wexner Center for the Arts. N.p., n.d. Web. June 2013. <>.
"Haverford College." News. N.p., Winter 2012-13. Web. May 2013. <>.
"The Official LeRoy Neiman Website - Limited Edition Serigraphs, Plate Signed Serigraphs, Posters and Books." The Official LeRoy Neiman Website - Limited Edition Serigraphs, Plate Signed Serigraphs, Posters and Books. LeRoy Nieman, n.d. Web. May 2013. <>.
"Seattle Arts and Culture." Seattle Arts and Culture. N.p., n.d. Web. May-June 2013. <>.
Ziemba, Christine N. "Catherine Opie Tackles High School Football in LACMA Photo Exhibit." 24700. N.p., 26 July 2010. Web. May-June 2013. <>.