Broad Church: Artists & Boxing In Sag Harbor

In what is becoming my summer ritual, I went to The Church in Sag Harbor, the former 1832 Methodist chapel that artists Eric Fishl and April Gornick transformed into an art center, opening in 2021 after several years of renovation.

Given that Summer is the high season of the Hamptons, the Church consistently schedules major exhibitions for the peak period, and this summer is no exception with: Strike Fast, Dance Lightly: Artists on Boxing (open until September 3, 2023). The exhibition was done in collaboration with the FLAG Art Foundation (which had an associated exhibit of its own in New York City that closed in early August).

The exhibition was inspired by Fischl’s consideration of two works of art, one a Greek or Roman sculpture of an old boxer at rest, and the other, Pierre Bonnard’s painting Le Boxeur (portrait de l’artiste). In a meditation on the works Fischl quotes Paul Simon’s The Boxer in which “the fighter remains,” and from Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah in which “she broke your throne, and she cut your hair,” explaining that boxing can be seen “as metaphor for the physical and emotional battles waged over the demands of our spirit and our minds” transmuted into art that “asks each of us; What are we fighting for? What is worth fighting for?”

From that departure point, Chief Curator Sara Cochran assembled a thoughtful and thought-provoking show of some 70 works by artists young and old, of the moment and ready-to-be-rediscovered, known and better known, some made for the exhibition, conceiving of boxing as metaphor for the existential challenge faced by each artist as they create work, asking themselves: Do I still have it? Am I still the Champ? Can I still get in the ring? And can I take the blows I may receive because of my work? At the same time the show explores themes of masculinity and combat, vulnerability, defiance, and brutality.

What’s also great is the wide of range of artists Cochran has chosen to include, from recent drawings by 94-years-young cartoonist Jules Feiffer, a 1992 Martin Kippenberger oil, a Glenn Ligon installation of 8 Canvas punching bags, Rashid Johnson’s No Mas, and Gary Simmons’ Everforward… (a pair of white leather boxing gloves hanging by a gold thread), as well as artists worthy of reconsideration such as Joe Zucker whose Boxing Painting #8 (1981) reminds the viewer of his ability to create expressive emotions with thick layers of paint, Lonnie Holley’s provocative assemblage Untitled, and the clever work of George Negroponte, Braque Boxing (2016).

Among the standout works was Derrick Adams 2022 If I wasn’t saved, in which acrylic and fabric are incorporated in a collage on canvas that brings boxing to the gospel church, Jeffrey Gibson’s WAR IS NOT THE ANSWER FEEL SOMETHING REAL (2020), a repurposed punching bag, covered in acrylic felt, and glass beads.

There is a Diane Arbus of a boxer working out, Paul Davis’ image of Sonny Liston, Fab 5 Freddy on Jack Johnson, A Leroy Neiman of the Frazier and Ali fight, and Platon’s final portrait of an aged Muhammad Ali in 2009 already deep in his Parkinson’s. There is a Mapplethorpe of Dennis Speight Boxing (1983) and, of course, the famous Michael Halsband images of Jean-Michel Basquiat and Andy Warhol in boxing gloves.

Many of the works have a political dimension: There are Delilah Montoya’s photo of women boxers, Deborah Roberts’ image of a young Black girl with boxing gloves, called Fight the Power (2017) and Carry Mae Weems White Patty Don’t Shine. Some of the works such as Zoe Buckman’s Champion (2016) and Alison Saar’s Black Lightening reference issues of women’s rights and reproductive rights.

There are too many works to do justice to each. However, this just speaks to the richness of the experience of seeing Strike Fast and validates the efforts of Fischl and Gornick to create The Church as an art space and the talent of Chief Curator Sara Cochran in assembling the show.

Last, but in no way least, the show features a recent painting by Fischl Broken Hallelujah (2023) that is magnificent and a reminder (if we needed one) of Fischl’s powers as a figurative painter.

Which brings me to a final, fun way to support The Church and have a signed Eric Fischl: Fischl has teamed with Sag Harbor based microbrewery Kidd Squid who are offering a $50 4 pack of Pilsner beer called Indulgences with labels featuring a Fischl painting design, and which has a can signed by Fischl, which can be purchased at Kidd Squid Brewery located at 11 Spring Street, Sag Harbor NY 11963.

Summer in the Hamptons offers many pleasures. For me, one is going to The Church.

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