Triumph and tragedy : two sides of Muhammad Ali (1942-2016)

Muhammad Ali as depicted by Guy Peellaert in Caesars Palace (1985) from the Las Vegas, The Big Room series (1976-1986)

The recent passing of boxing legend Muhammad Ali provides an opportunity to look back on two important works by Guy Peellaert, set apart by over twenty years and wildly different themes and techniques.

One of the most influential athletes of all time and a near mythical hero of the American experience, the three-time world Heavyweight champion seemed an obvious subject for Peellaert, an artist with a lifelong fascination with boxing—the precarious rags-to-riches aspirations, the desperation and the sheer cruelty of the sports—and a peculiar approach that used the collective imagination associated with public figures in order to tell stories and direct emotion via carefully constructed, one-image "movies". Ali was depicted by Peellaert in two of the three major portrait series that punctuated the artist's career (only Sinatra and Elvis appeared in all of them).  

The first portrait, realized in 1985, is emblematic of the Las Vegas, The Big Room series. At first sight, this is another incarnation of the "Greatest of All Time" : the towering Ali is standing in the ring inside a gilded arena, his steely gaze anticipating another triumph. But something is off : the scene takes place between rounds, and a cutman is tending to a bloody patch. The imposing moldings on the ceiling, spreading dynamically over half the composition, take on a menacing quality as if ready to engulf its subject. And then the title gives us a clue : for Ali, "Caesars Palace" is not a name synonymous with triumph : it is where, on a fateful October 3rd 1980, the shopworn legend—who was likely in the early stages of Parkinson's disease—was matched up against the younger and stronger Larry Holmes in a fight billed as "The Last Hurrah" and suffered a humiliating defeat that precipitated his retirement.

The Vegas series aimed to capture the mighty at an often tragic turning point : the gods as lonesome "monsters" taken aback by a moment of truth in which the frailty of their human condition becomes apparent.

With "Freeway", from Twentieth Century Dreams, Peellaert went the opposite direction and depicted Ali as the personification of the American Dream to conjure up the series' only unequivocally hopeful "dream". Relishing in the early, heady days of his 1960s triumphs, Cassius Clay elopes with  Jacqueline Kennedy aboard a convertible, a vision of two star-crossed lovers momentarily transcending race, class struggles and obligations to enjoy an elating romp across the highway, that most American of landscapes.

But as always with Peellaert, there was also a darker, more cynical way of interpreting this fantasy. Behind closed doors, as stately J.F. Kennedy transcended his own Wasp condition by frolicking with a desperate Marilyn before discarding her, the prim and proper First Lady might as well have had her moment of fun with a stud from the wrong side of the tracks.

Jacqueline Kennedy and Muhammad Ali as depicted by Guy Peellaert in Freeway, from the Twentieth Century Dreams series (1995-1999).