The Racial Politics of Boxing

P. Lorillard Company (American), “Straight Left Hand Counter, Peter Jackson and Fred Slavin, from the Boxing Positions and Boxers series (N266) issued by P. Lorillard Company to promote Red Cross Long Cut Tobacco” (1893); Print, commercial color lithograph; Sheet: 4 in. × 2 1/4 in. (10.2 × 5.7 cm) (image courtesy the Metropolitan Museum of Art)

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.

Eddy & Claus Lindner, “Theodore Bauer, Wrestler, from World’s Champions, Series 1 (N28) for Allen & Ginter Cigarettes” (1887); print, commercial color lithograph, sheet: 2 3/4 x 1 1/2 in. (7 x 3.8 cm) (image courtesy the Metropolitan Museum of Art)

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.”

Installation view of On the Ropes (photo by author for Hyperallergic)

But don’t come to On the Ropes

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