NEW YORK — THE birth of the modern Olympic Games in 1896 is generally thought of as the beginning of the modern era of sports. Interest boomed in all manner of sporting activities, both competitive and recreational. In the United States, growing prosperity and leisure time resulted in new interest in a wide array of activities, from boxing, boating, and badminton to tennis, sailing, and skating.
"Sport in Art from American Museums" at the IBM Galley of Science and Art celebrates sports and leisure as captured by first-rank artists - mostly 19th- and 20-century Americans. The show is intended as a kind of "jump start" for the National Art Museum of Sport in Indianapolis, says Reilly Rhodes, its executive director. The museum, once housed at Madison Square Garden here, reopened in Indianapolis in the late 1980s with funding from the Lilly Endowment Inc.
The exhibit, on view through March 28, contains nearly 70 works from American museums. The director of each museum chose a single work to travel with the show and wrote a brief description for the catalog. J. Carter Brown, who just announced his retirement as director of the National Gallery of Art in Washington D.C., was first, selecting the unfinished "Tennis Tournament," by George Bellows.
The resulting exhibition is wonderfully concise and focused, making no attempt to be comprehensive. There are surprises. Rather than predictably beginning with Greek or Roman art depicting sport, the earliest piece is a Mayan vessel from Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula made sometime between AD 550 and 950. The drawings on it represent the many ball games important to Mayan life and religion.
Some works are by artists recognized for their love of sport, such as 19th-century American painter Thomas Eakins. His "Salutat," with a boxer receiving the adoration of the crowd, hangs adjacent to Jean Leon Gme's "Pollice Verso (Thumbs Down)," a scene of a Roman gladiator awaiting the word to kill his defeated opponent. Eakins was Gme's student and viewing the paintings together creates haunting echoes.
Frederick Remington is represented, not with a cowboy bronze, but with a painting of a Yale-Princeton football game. Andy Warhol's studies of 10 athletes of the 1970s catches them as more than intense competitors: O. J. Simpson, Chris Evert, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, and the rest are unmistakable pop icons, name brands.
"Sport in Art" proves that the grace, power, joy, and competitive fires evinced by sports offer provocative themes for the artist's hand.