Butt Slapping at the MIA

A couple of years ago, a friend and I were in the late, great Village Video, scrutinizing the Criterion Collection shelf, hung up on the paralyzing decision of what movie to rent. My pal grabbed a DVD. The cover image depicted a skinny runner carrying a torch before a seemingly infinite ocean of Asian spectators. It was Tokyo Olympiad, the 1965 Kon Ichikawa documentary that chronicles the previous year’s Summer Games in Tokyo. I was skeptical.

ME: “I don’t know, dude. Are we really going to watch two hours of track-and-field events from 50 years ago?”

                HIM: “Trust me.”

We watched it. And it was enthralling. Not only is the film epic in its documentary prowess. (“Can you believe those Africans are running the marathon barefoot?!”) It is epic in its vaulted, ecstatic artistry. Sprinters’ thigh muscles quiver in slow motion. Close-ups capture the weight lifters’ twisted masks of strain. It’s a fantasia of sweat, pain, striving, and scarily intense nationalism, and it’s pretty incredible.

Why do I bring this up?

Arnold Schwarzenegger

Robert Mapplethorpe’s
Arnold Schwarzenegger, 1976

Because you need to know that sports photography can be moving. And because I recently strolled through The Sports Show at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, which chronicles, mostly through photographs, how the camera helped transform the leisure games of the 19th Century into today’s juggernaut global sports culture. I was hoping to have a capital “A” Art moment—to feel that old Tokyo Olympiad heart flutter.

 I didn’t.

The Sports Show is a successful exhibition. Its historical scope and its charting of culture are impressive. But it’s approach is much more journalistic, which is important to know going in. What you’ll see is mostly documentation.

There are a lot of firsts (the cover of the first Sports Illustrated, August 16, 1954: Milwaukee Brave Eddie Matthews swinging for the fences). There are a lot of rare shots (a young Fidel Castro, looking like a scruffy Northeast hipster, blithely playing golf). There are a lot of political artifacts (swastikas everywhere at the 1936 Summer Olympics in Nazi Berlin, Tommie Smith’s and John Carlos’s famed “Black Power” salute at the 1968 games). There are even art world collectibles that happen to have a sports theme. (A 1904 Alfred Stieglitz shot of a horserace, a Frank Lloyd Wright shot of a girls’ gym class taken in 1900).

But for me, so few of these transcended the realm of memorabilia. After a while, I felt like I was browsing through a spectacularly deep sports collectible shop—or like I was wheeling and dealing for autographs on eBay. Fun, sure. But was it art?

Sometimes, it was. A Robert Mapplethorpe portrait of Arnold Schwarzenegger, taken in 1976, stuns with its formal brilliance. A half-parabola of theater curtain cuts the composition in half, its curve mirrored in Arnold’s locked bicep. Off to the side, on a clean-swept wood floor, a blank wall backdrops the bodybuilder. It’s an elegant presentation of flesh as classical sculpture.

Polaroids taken by Andy Warhol—whose ghost totally haunts this show, with its focus on icons, reproduction, and dissemination—enthrall with their candid shot-in-a-basement genericness. I can’t forget the early-80s Wayne Gretzky getting goofy with a hockey stick, his hair all floppy and feathered.

There are clever contemporary video works, including a childlike animation of the infamous Pacers-Pistons brawl of 2004, and the enthralling “Zidane: 21st Century Portrait,” a split-screen video that trains 17 cameras on the French soccer star over the course of a single game.

And a Diane Arbus gem steals the show: a devastatingly deadpan shot of a girl in a baseball glove begrudgingly guarding a base.

Ultimately, for me, the bright points were a little too few and far between. The exhibition is a satisfying catalogue. It’s a collector’s dream.

But it’s no Tokyo Olympiad.

The Sports Show
Through May 13
Minneapolis Institute of Art
2400 Third Ave. S., Mpls.