If any sport could be classified as a religion, soccer—with its rabid global following, monumental stadiums and winged iconography—would be it. Like any religion, the sport has inspired its own artistic tradition—one that spans almost as many cultures and countries as the sport itself. While the majority of its estimated 240 million practitioners reside in Europe and Latin America, soccer, or futból, as it is widely known, enjoys similar fervor in certain American sects—and nowhere more so than in Miami.
As a microcosm of Latin American influences, Miami is unsurprisingly at the forefront of soccer’s mainstream American ascent. In January, David Beckham announced plans to bring a major league soccer team to the multicultural mecca. This, coupled with the looming 2018 World Cup, make the arrival of the new exhibit “The World’s Game: Futból and Contemporary Art” at Peréz Art Museum Miami on April 13 all the more timely.
But even as the world gears up for soccer mania, the sport may not seem like an obvious muse. Given art and athletics’ disparate positions on the experiential spectrum—one subjective and passive, the other concrete and active—the two seem, on the one hand, aesthetically incompatible. As is the case in Jeff Koons’s One Ball Total Equilibrium Tank, in which a basketball sits motionless and untouchable in a tank of water, any modern artistic treatment of athletics could come across as deliberately ironic.
But such is not the case in the forthcoming PAMM exhibit, which, in its assemblage of 50 artworks by 30, telegraphs a genuine reverence for the sport and its players—literally depicting the sport’s balletic movements as well as capturing the notorious fandom surrounding it.
Several works reflect the legendary status afforded to the most famous soccer players, starting with Andy Warhol’s Pele. A part of his 1978 Athlete Series that included Muhammad Ali and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, the silkscreen portrait depicts Brazilian soccer sensation Pelé, hailed by may as the all-time soccer MVP. More contemporary soccer gods show up as well, like Samuel Eto’o, whom Kehinde Wiley captured in naturalistic glory for a portrait commissioned by Puma for the 2010 World Cup in South Africa.
If there’s anyone who can bridge the gap between spectator sport and contemporary art, it’s Franklin Sirmans, who took over as PAMM’s director in 2015. A former soccer player himself, Sirmans witnessed the convergence of soccer and pop art in real time. “I feel a personal connection to Andy Warhol’s Polaroids and the silkscreen of Pele [because] I grew up in NYC in the 1970s when Pele arrived at the Cosmos,” says Sirmans, who previously included Warhol’s Pele in a similar show at LACMA timed to the 2014 World Cup.
In the four intervening years, Sirmans says soccer’s trickle into art has only intensified. “What amazes me is how much new work there is within the span of every four years!” Sirmans says. While his curation of the PAMM exhibit borrows several works from his LACMA showcase, it also reflects the 2018 political landscape outside the world of soccer. “In this case, we wanted the work to [be] acutely attached to our geographic location in the world; to present art from Latin America and the Caribbean, and the African diaspora as well,” he says. “I think it is important that the show be well-rounded.”
Perhaps no work serves this mandate—literally and figuratively—better than that of artist Roberto Guerrero, whose sequin-encrusted soccer ball—titled Últimos implementos para un futbolista delicado (2005), or “the last implements of the delicate football player”—offer an alternative to the mud-slinging machismo culture of mainstream soccer. “The concept of masculinity is certainly one that plays out in world fútbol,” says Sirmans. “For better or for worse.”
“The World’s Game: Futból and Contemporary Art” will be on view at PAMM until September 2.
Main image: “Samuel Eto’o” (2010) by Kehinde Wiley. Private Collection, courtesy the artist and Roberts & Tilton, Los Angeles (Image courtesy the artist and Roberts & Tilton, Los