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“Muhammad Ali symbolizes all that makes America great, while pushing us as a people and as a nation to be better” – David Eisner

ALI, MUHAMMAD. I Love You America

No Place, 1979

13 1/2 x 19 1/2 in. Acrylic on canvas, with small fabric American flag mounted at right. Signed and dated by the artist, “Muhammad Ali Feb 1-19-79.” Framed.

Muhammad Ali was the embodiment of the revolution in American race relations in the second half of the 20th century. This painting captures the realization of his dreams. Here Ali celebrates America in a vibrant red, white, and blue painting incorporating an American flag. Ali’s enormous and complicated impact on American culture is manifest in this painting reflecting his love of country and his fight for justice and equal rights.

The complex story of Muhammad Ali and America was one of confrontation, controversy and redemption. The young boxer Cassius Clay represented the United States in the 1960 Rome Olympics where he won a gold medal. On his return he declared, “To make America the greatest is my goal / So I beat the Russian and I beat the Pole / And for the USA won the medal of gold …” After defeating Sonny Liston for the heavyweight title, he announced that he had joined the Nation of Islam and adopted the name Muhammad Ali.

Ali’s outspoken support of Black activism and his refusal as a conscientious objector to serve in the military in the Vietnam War made him a widely reviled figure. When Ali was convicted in 1967 for his failure to serve, he was sentenced to five years in prison. Boxing commissions denied Ali the right to box, costing him the prime of his career. He spent those years speaking out for racial justice on college campuses and in the press. Finally in 1970 the decision was overturned by the Supreme Court.

In this evocative work of Outsider Art, Ali addresses the country that first sentenced him to prison and later came to embrace him and his messages of activism, justice, and peace. The American flag has attracted artists for more than two hundred years, from Emanuel Leutze’s Washington Crossing the Delaware to Jasper Johns’s Flag paintings to Faith Ringgold’s The Flag is Bleeding. Ali’s painting has characteristics of outsider art, but the boxer’s long interest in painting had its origins in his father’s career as a professional sign painter and amateur artist. In the early 1960s Ali became a close friend of the artist LeRoy Neiman, finding their energy and style mutually resonant. Their collaboration, which helped ignite Ali’s interest in art-making, was included in 2017 show about the two at the New York Historical Society.

“This is the Muhammad Ali who inspires us today – the man who believes real success comes when we rise after we fall; who has shown us that through undying faith and steadfast love, each of us can make this world a better place. He is and always will be the champ.” – Barack Obama

“I am America. I am the part you won’t recognize. But get used to me – black, confident, cocky; my name, not yours; my religion, not yours; my goals, my own. Get used to me.”– Muhammad Ali

Ali’s principled stands and his calls for social justice inspired a generation, helped to transform America, and brought him worldwide love and respect.

This painting by Muhammad Ali is a wonderful relic of a dominant figure of American cultural history and a defining movement in twentieth century America.

Provenance: Rodney Hilton Brown, publisher of Muhammad Ali’s limited edition silkscreen prints, 1978.