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Mahonri Young: Newly Discovered Works by a Heavyweight

  • By Micah Christensen

Mahonri Young: Newly Discovered Works by a Heavyweight

No one could teach Mahonri Young to draw like this, for no one else knows just what Mahonri Young thinks about the world and feels impelled to record about it. To get this veracious record, hand and mind have been trained to work together to a final coherent expression.

Royal Cortissoz

New York Herald Tribune, 7 April 1929

In 1929, Mahonri Young was among the most sought-after and famous artists in the world. His boxing sculptures and paintings garnered critical and financial rewards on both sides of the Atlantic, and saw Young travel throughout Europe and the United States for collaborations with major museums, collectors, and movie studios. While many of Young’s works can now be found in major museums (e.g. Smithsonian, Metropolitan Museum, and the Brigham Young University Museum of Art, which acquired much of the artist’s estate), the whereabouts of several major works are still unknown. It was only this year that a large personal notebook belonging to Young and containing over two dozen drawings and watercolors, surfaced in a private, East Coast collection. These newly found works illuminate a hitherto-unrepresented episode. The artworks date to the summer of 1929, a few months after Young had returned from Europe and after a series of successful shows in the United States. Young was invited to the Twentieth Century Fox Studio to collaborate on the film Seven Faces (1929). Over six weeks in Los Angeles, Young worked by day at the film studio and by night sketching amateur and professional boxers at the famed Main Street Club, where Jack Dempsey, John Silver, Charlie Chaplin, Rudolph Valentino, Henry Huntington, and Douglas Fairbanks met to socialize and spar. These scenes capture Young’s enormous arsenal at the height of his career.

 

From Utah to Paris

Mahonri Young’s biography is remarkable. He was born in Salt Lake City, eleven days before the death of his grandfather, Brigham Young, Prophet and President of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Mahonri was a member of a new generation growing up on the Western Frontier. Rather than homesteading in log cabins and living off the land, Young walked electrically-lit streets and took lessons from European-trained artists. He eventually studied at the Art Students’ League in New York, then in Paris at  the prestigious Académie Julian. Young returned to the States, and, after the death of his first wife, returned to Paris.

Figure 1: Mahonri M. Young (1877-1957) Da Winnah (1927). Bronze. 34 ½ x 35 ½ x 18 ½ in. Courtesy of the Springville Museum of Art.

It was in Paris that Young created his first series of internationally-acclaimed works capturing the drama of boxers, including Da Winnah! (Figure 1), Right to the Jaw, The Knockdown, and Two Bantams. Young worked with the Valsuani Foundry in Paris, who also cast sculptures for Auguste Rodin, Henri Matisse, Aime-Jules Dalou, and Aristide Maillol. For the series, Young regularly attended boxing matches, even consulting with the French middleweight boxing champion René Devos. The works were an immediate success, launching Young into rarified post-war circles that included Pablo Picasso, Salvador Dali, and the Fitzgeralds. He gave painting lessons to Gertrude and Leo Stein (Figure 2), and dined with Ernest Hemingway. In a 1926 letter to a friend, Young describes a visit from Linda Lee Thomas Porter, wife of the composer, Cole Porter, who came with a group of women from the “loftiest circles of international  society” to see his art. He was delighted to learn that Porter and her friends knew a great deal about boxing, having attending many matches themselves.

Figure 2: Mahonri M. Young (1877-1957) Gertrude and Leo Stein on the Banks of the River Seine, France 1927 (1927) Watercolor and gouache on paper. 8 x 10 in. Sold to private collector in 2017.

Triumph in New York

In early 1928, Young returned to New York for his first solo exhibition at the prestigious Rehm Gallery. The critic at the New York Times wrote glowingly:

His prize-ring subjects, for instance, give the impression that they were done simply for the purpose of reproducing accurately the attitudes of the fighters. And, yet, because a boxing match is a balance of forces solidly rooted to the ground, there is in these subjects a sculptural feeling of balance, proportion and integrated mass. This sculptural quality seems somewhat adventitious because it is found to a much lesser degree in the other subjects.

Young was one of several prominent American artists to become famous for his boxing images. George Bellows (1882-1925) and George Luks (1867-1923) also rose to prominence with their depictions of amateur and prize fights. All three had a similar lineage as students of Robert Henri (1865-1929) at the Arts Students’ League in New York. Henri was a founding member of the Ashcan School philosophy, which aspired to apply academic skills to paint prosaic, even dirty, subjects. According to the art critic Robert Hughes, Henri “wanted art to be akin to journalism . .  paint to be as real as mud, as the clods of horse-dung and snow that froze on Broadway in winter.” As a result, Luks’ and Bellows’ images of boxing often wallowed in the violence and gore  of their subjects, albeit with occasional humor, as in a self-portrait Luks did of himself as a failed boxer with a black eye and prominent cut on his left cheek titled Chicago Whitey. This contrasted with Mahonri’s images which tended to focus on color and movement. Despite these differences, critics often grouped and compared the three.

Figure 3: George Luks (American, 1867-1933) Chicago Whitey, A Self Portrait of the Artist (C. 1925) Oil on canvas. 36 x 24 in. Archives of Anthonys Fine Art & Antiques, Salt Lake City.

Young, long-accustomed but demonstrably weary of the comparison, later wrote in his autobiography:

So, I got a lot of work done [in Paris] and then when I came home I had a show of these things at Frank Glynn’s and they made quite a hit. They even said, ‘Why, this man almost is George Bellows.” The Truth of the matter is, I’d done prize-fights long before George Bellows had, but they [Bellows’ works] were paintings. I’d made studies and drawings, an infinite number of drawings.

It was not just in early depiction or quantity that Young differed from his contemporaries. For all Young’s dedication to capture the energy and athleticism of his subjects, he was arguably the one who most completely broke free from Henri’s unforgiving observable reality. Perhaps it was the academically-minded training of the Academie Julian, where artists studied the Old Masters that led Mahonri to move away from bruises and towards a kind of idealized poetic vision of boxing. This is illustrated clearly in three drawings in the notebook, After Raphael, Leonardo and A Well Rounded Match (Figures 4 & 5).

Figure 3: George Luks (American, 1867-1933) Chicago Whitey, A Self Portrait of the Artist (C. 1925) Oil on canvas. 36 x 24 in. Archives of Anthonys Fine Art & Antiques, Salt Lake City.

Figure 5: Mahonri M. Young (1877-1957) A Well Rounded Match (1929) 5 ¼ x 5 ¼ in.

There are two undated drawings, one from Raphael and the other  after Leonardo. Mahonri approaches these quick copies, probably done from reproductions, with an interest in the lines of the figures, which were not natural. Rather, both Old Masters were known for their masterful contraposto positions that deliberately and subtly manipulated figures into unnatural positions that carefully drew a viewer’s gaze around an image. By doing so, they idealized the human form and brought geometric order to the chaos of natural observation. On the page after these Old-Master copies, Mahonri has a new, strikingly experimental boxing image. The images incorporate the full cast of two boxers, the referee, and audience  members in a roundel format that would befit any tableaux of the Adoration of the Shepherds by a cinquecento artist.

Beyond artistic merit, Young was seen as someone who understood boxing on a practical level. In a period of six months, Vanity Fair reviewed his work twice, each time praising the artist for his ability to capture his subject: “Mahonri Young shows how unrivaled among American [artists] is his mastery over the problem of an athlete’s body and movement.” Within weeks of his New York solo exhibition, Mahonri was welcomed into the boxing community; he signed a contract to design boxing’s most prestigious award, the Muldoon-Tunney Trophy. The prize was unveiled with great fanfare on April 18,  1929 at Madison Square Garden (where it still resides) by William Muldoon, New York State’s boxing commissioner, the heavyweight champion Jack Dempsey, and Young. The trophy would eventually bear the names of the boxing greats James Corbett, Robert Fitzsimmons, James Jeffries, Jack Johnson, Jess Williard, and Mohammed Ali. Young knew all of them, and used many of them for later work, including a portrait of the World Heavyweight Champion Joe Louis (Figure 6), who became a personal friend.

Figure 6: Mahonri M. Young (1877-1957) The boxer Joe Louis (c. 1940) Painted plaster. 10 ½ x 8 x 12 in

The 1928 exhibition opened doors to the collecting elite. Young’s letters from the time are peppered with interactions with the railroad heiress Mrs. Jay Gould II, the publisher Nelson Doubleday, and a visit to the home of Ralph Pulitzer, the newspaper magnate, where Young was surprised to see his work “on turning pedestals in the living room, next to a cast of Rodin’s Thinker.”

Hollywood

It was during this frenzy of attention that Mahonri was contacted by a New York representative of the Twentieth Century Fox Film Company. The studio was producing an ambitious film, Seven Faces (1929) that would feature the famed stage actor Paul Muni, playing a caretaker in a nineteenth-century French wax museum. Muni was an impressionist. Young was to create nineteen full-sized plasters of historical figures (e.g. Napoleon, Schubert, Washington) for the fictional wax museum; and, in the film, the statues would magically transform into Muni acting as each  one. Mahonri accepted an offer to work on the film for eight weeks, which included round-trip travel and lodging at the St. Francis Apartment Hotel in Los Angeles.

Figure 7: The Main Street Gym band and newsie supporters welcoming boxer “Bud” Taylor at the train station. Los Angeles Public Library

It was during these several weeks that Mahonri worked in earnest for the first time since Paris; by day on the Fox Studios lot, and spending his evenings in boxing clubs. “Los Angeles was,” according to the boxing historian and novelist J.H. Graham “a pugilistic paradise.” Mahonri spent his time primarily at the Main Street Athletic Club, located at 321 Main Street in Los Angeles. Although three years later matches for the Los Angeles Olympic Games of 1932 would be held at a  much larger, newly built stadium, the Main Street Club had the reputation for drawing the best professional and amateur fighters from around the country. Fights were held every night but Sunday. Out-of-state boxers arriving for a match would be greeted by the Main Street Gym Band and paraded from the station to the ring (Figure 7). On any given day, a visitor could see international champions like Jack Dempsey training alongside local figures.

Young worked like a journalist-artist, capturing the full spectrum of life at the gym; from individuals at punching bags, duos sparring, medics hunching over a downed fighter, to epic panoramic views of the gym and all its contents. Some of the sketches are the product of lightning-fast observation.

Figure 8: Mahonri M. Young (1877-1957) Punch to the Gut (1929). Ink on paper. 4 ¾ x 7 in.

In one small work (Figure 8), Mahonri used pen and ink in fluid short-hand notation to communicate the force of a punch given and received with energetic and  short lines that belie years of practice.

Figure 9: Mahonri M. Young (1877-1957)  John Silver (1929).  Graphite on paper.  9 ½ x 7 in.

In a few works, Young turned his observations to the club’s eccentric cast of characters. He did a sketch of John Silver (Figure 9), whose roughed-up face bore the remnants of years of punishment that made him the world’s third-ranked welterweight fighter. He would go on to be a legendary referee, and privately train celebrities like James Cagney and Ronald Reagan.

Figure 10: Mahonri M. Young (1877-1957) Main Street Athletic Club (1929) Ink and watercolor on paper. 5 ¾ x 9 in.

All of the works in this notebook were unknown until this year, with the exception of Main Street Gym (Figure 10), which was later turned by Young into an etching by the same title (Figure 11).

Figure 11: Mahonri M. Young (1877-1957), Main Street Gym (I/IV), 1932, etching, graphite and ink, 14 x 18 ½ inches. Brigham Young University Museum of Art, purchase/gift of the Mahonri M. Young Estate, 1959.

After six weeks, the head of Twentieth Century Fox, Winfield R. Sheehan, invited Young to a private dinner, where he worked hard to convince the artist to stay in California indefinitely as a member of the “studio family.” Six months later, the film Seven Faces was released nationwide, and received critical acclaim. Tragically, in 1931, there was a fire in the Studio’s California storage facility where Seven Faces, along with many other movies from the era, were destroyed. No known copies exist. Three of the plasters Young was commissioned to make for the movie were bronzed by the studio: Napoleon, Schubert, and the Gallic Cock. The fate of the others is unknown. It is only now, with the coming to light of this notebook, filled with artistic treasures, that we are able to see, study, and enjoy a window into Mahonri Young’s career as an artistic heavyweight.

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