ANDY WARHOL, PRIZEFIGHTER
It is likely that the first time Andy Warhol was connected publically to the world of prizefighting was in an ad for Braniff Airlines around 1971. Warhol is shown seated next to Sonny Liston, the reigning heavyweight boxing champion.
The Braniff ad would not be the last time that Warhol and boxing were put together for the purpose of advertising some service or product. The best example of an even more direct employment of this motif occurs in the poster announcing a joint exhibition of paintings by Warhol and Jean-Michel Basquiat, the New York graffiti artist turned painter, promoting the event as a contest or, metaphorically, a prizefight between painters who were friends.
In 1985, Andy Warhol exhibited sixteen paintings done in collaboration with Basquiat. For the poster advertising the exhibition at the Tony Shafrazi Gallery, Michael Halsband photographed both artists, at Shafrazi’s suggestion, outfitted in Everlast prize-fighting gear, with Warhol wearing a white t-shirt and Basquiat bare to the waistband. (Another version of the poster has the artists standing side-by-side-Warhol wearing his trademark black turtle-neck and Basquiat bare-chested-both of them looking ahead; still another version displays Warhol landing an uppercut to the side of Basquiat’s jaw.) Offering its verdict “in the same spirit as the show’s poster,” the New York Times declared Warhol the victor by “TKO in 16 rounds.”
The twin “portraits” of the painters as prizefighters fleshes out a commonplace metaphor from the boxing world. Besides alluding to Basquiat’s constant pictorial allusions to great black boxers, the metaphor encourages the notion that these two friends-actually mentor and protégé-have become competitors-champion and contender. The informative poster implies that the champ of pop art is now risking his crown against a younger opponent. The big question is will he successfully defend his title or will he lose it? Worse still will he be reduced to a has-been-just another ex-champion. Will he become, in boxing parlance, just another tomato can? Let me explain.
Early in the twentieth century, with origins in the term descriptive of the lowest of all tramps or hobos, the pejorative noun tomato can was appropriated into the argot of prize-fighting to refer to a fighter who is so washed up that he can be booked to fight an up-and-coming opponent and counted on to lose the fight. As one sportswriter put it, “A tomato can” will be “treated like a tomato can and knocked out.” It is not known, of course, whether or not Warhol was deliberately playing on this meaning of tomato can when he produced his first painting of the Campbell’s soup can, a portrait (or still life, if you prefer) that propelled him to fame and fortune overnight as the champion of pop art. Of course, few would dare call Warhol himself, then or now, a tomato can, but the Basquiat-Warhol “fight” poster of 1985 leads one to believe that the notion crossed someone’s mind.
Perhaps the most readily recognizable portrait of the twentieth century, Warhol’s painting of a can of tomato soup has been reproduced time and time again. It is almost as remarkable, moreover, that it continues to be “advertised” on a daily basis on the label of every can of tomato soup produced and sold by the Campbell Soup Company. Ignore the flip-top.
George Monteiro is Professor Emeritus of English and Portuguese and Brazilian Studies, Brown University, and he continues as Adjunct Professor of Portuguese Studies at the same university. He served as Fulbright lecturer in American Literature in Brazil–Sao Paulo and Bahia–Ecuador and Argentina; and as Visiting Professor in UFMG in Belo Horizonte. In 2007 he served as Helio and Amelia Pedroso / Luso-American Foundation Professor of Portuguese, University of Massachusetts Dartmouth. Among his recent books are Stephen Crane’s Blue Badge of Courage, Fernando Pessoa and Nineteenth-Century Anglo-American Literature, The Presence of Pessoa, The Presence of Camões, and Conversations with Elizabeth Bishop and Critical Essays on Ernest Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms. Among his translations are Iberian Poems by Miguel Torga, A Man Smiles at Death with Half a Face by José Rodrigues Miguéis, Self-Analysis and Thirty Other Poems by Fernando Pessoa, and In Crete, with the Minotaur, and Other Poems by Jorge de Sena. He has also published two collections of poems, The Coffee Exchange and Double Weaver’s Knot.
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