The NFL Biennial

With one of the art world's biggest events opening in New York this weekend, what better time than to find the art analogue for every NFL team?
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The composition—this is what they call it, the placement of visual elements, the arrangement, considered without regard to the subject, the layout. This is what they call it in institutions like SAIC or SVA or CalArts, our toniest of trade schools. I have spent time in this diaspora, although this time I was in Chicago.

Out the windows was sunset, the jet surface of Lake Michigan below, a Spanish gray lid above, the middle flashing, incandescent yellow quickly dissipating into a blushing, rosy pink. The tall spires were already winking to life, brave diamond-studded swords or goonish phallic testaments dark against the dying light. Behind us was the floor of EXPO CHICAGO, the city’s new top flight art festival, and enough art to induce an anxiety attack.

One can only imagine the fear and excitement the exhibitors felt, first walking into that massive, sanitary white space sitting regally out on Navy Pier, a world from the kitsch of the nearby Ferris Wheels and Bubba Gump. Just architectural elements and white walls—Day 1 of Genesis, empty space and light, waiting to be adorned by some very expensive pieces of art. The press reception's alcohol and hors d’oeuvres and chitchat all seemed inconsequential in the face of all this leviathan exquisiteness.

I'd had some when I met Robin Dluzen; she had soft features and a wavy brunette nebula of hair and, importantly, press credentials from a respected art organ dangling around her neck. I was inebriated on behalf of an outlet I won't name; Robin had worked with it in the past. We talked, in time, about the NFL. She was a devout fan.

Monday morning email exchanges became semi-frequent, sometimes commiserations—she and I are Lions and Bills fans, respectively, this was basically SOP—and very occasionally celebrations. What follows is our dyadic obsession in action: a selection of art works we find most indicative of various NFL teams. Robin handled the NFC, I the AFC. If you disagree with our assessments, you should probably just assume that you're a philistine.

NFC EAST

Philadelphia Eagles + Tracey Emin

Almost as famous as the franchise itself is the fan base of the Philadelphia Eagles, although the remarkable loyalty of the Eagles’ fans is equally matched by their bad behavior. So out of control that, until 2003, there was a temporary courtroom inside their stadium to deal with the lawlessness. While much of that behavior has subsided of late, it’s not disappeared, with a very recent example being a Lions’ fan beaten senseless in Philly late last season. And what better match for the unruly Eagles than Tracey Emin, a YBA famous for not only the “bad behavior” depicted in her art—most famous among these is 1998’s My Bed, an approximation of the artist’s own bed strewn with used condoms and other uncleanly detritus—but her own drunk-and-disorderly antics. It has its appeal.

Dallas Cowboys + Richard Phillips

Cowboys Stadium is chock full of contemporary art, among other reminders that this is one of the richest franchises in the NFL. Factor in their famously winsome cheerleaders, and the Dallas Cowboys were an obvious match for artist Richard Phillips. Known best for his recent paintings of Lindsay Lohan, Victoria Secret Angel Adriana Lima, and ex-porn star Sasha Grey, Phillips, like the Cowboys, is raking in the dough—some of his canvases have sold for upwards of $300,000—and surrounded by hot ladies. This would make him more successful than recent Cowboys teams, but this is an imperfect science.

New York Giants + Yves Klein

Yves Klein, born in 1928 and died 1962, was in many ways the grandfather of modern art. The French artist was a spectacle long before Marina Abramovic, pop before Andy Warhol, minimal before Robert Ryman. Yves Klein also famously patented his own pigment, International Klein Blue. With his influential history and his signature color, I’m pairing Yves Klein with the NFC's Big Blue. Like Klein, the Giants were pioneers—they were, in fact, forerunners of American football as we know it, and the only surviving team of the original five that joined the NFL in 1925.

Washington Redskins + Richard Prince

The very identity of the Washington Redskins franchise has long been a subject of controversy, with the word “redskins” continually under fire from the American Indian community and, increasingly, everyone else. Lawsuits have been filed, won and lost over the term, which originates from a racist American past, but—at least for its defenders—is held to no longer have the same offensive meaning. Beyond that debate, the trademark is the subject of a legal dispute. No stranger to the legal battle over the rights to imagery and ideas, and so perhaps the best analogue to this least artful of franchises, is the artist Richard Prince. The artist was sued by photographer Patrick Cariou, whose book of photos was borrowed from quite heavily in Prince’s series “Canal Zone.” Initially, it was Cariou who won this case, but it was later turned over in favor of the artist. In both cases, the argument isn't over yet.

AFC EAST

New England Patriots + John Trumbull

As a Bills fan, only preternatural self-control could mitigate my intense loathing for the denizens of Foxboro. I decided not to waste too much time and thought and went with a classic piece of Revolutionary War art, The Death Of General Warren at the Battle of Bunker Hill, June 17, 1775, by John Trumbull. Chosen not only for its depiction of various Pat Patriots in the hellish arms of Mars, the key component of the piece is the bayoneting of the titular General. Warren and the revolutionaries were, of course, American heroes. But also fuck the Patriots.    

Miami Dolphins + David Hockney

Same caveats as above. To the Dolphins we bequeath Hockney's A Bigger Splash. The painting depicts what is apparently a backyard swimming pool with the kind of blank pulchritude and pretty nihilism one would find in Less Than Zero; it's edenic to the point of discomfort. As such, it is ideal for its trappings of wealth and weather, and also for the fact that, much like at Dolphins games, what appears to be a moderately fun event is attended by absolutely no one. 

New York Jets + Roy Lichenstein

It pains me to associate the Jets with one of my favorite painters, Roy Lichenstein. His Whaam!, however, is the perfect allegory for Rex Ryan’s New Jersey; brash, polarizing, semi-pornographic, loud, and being blown to fucking pieces.

Buffalo Bills + Patrick Nagel

Patrick Nagel is, like the Bills, both historically successful and incessantly put down. It is instantly indicative, upon first glance, of a past era—in Nagel’s case, the 1980s; Buffalo’s, the early '90s—that recently saw lionization and which is now dead. The driven white skin of Nagel’s signature raven-haired models-cum-mannequins is also evocative of Western New York between the months of, say, October to April; as a consequence, any Patrick Nagel piece becomes our art world avatar for the Buffalo Bills. 

NFC SOUTH

Carolina Panthers + Oscar Murillo

The last half of 2013 seemed to have been all about Oscar Murillo hype in the art press. Billed as “The Next Basquiat”, Murillo was selling paintings for $3,000 two years ago, and for between $60,000 and $300,000 today. Murillo sees as much criticism for his mediocre paintings as he does support. The Carolina Panthers have some success to their name—their Super Bowl XXXVIII appearance is considered one of the best Super Bowls of all time, and in Cam Newton they have a quarterback who could get them to another one. However, at their home games in Charlotte, North Carolina, the Panthers, like Murillo, often find their fans out-numbered by those of their opponents.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers + Haim Steinbach

While the Bucs have not been a force during the late, loud Greg Schiano administration, they have had a big impact on the way the game is played. The Cover 2 defensive scheme, which is also known as Tampa 2, was developed and implemented with much success for the Bucs in the late '90s, though it’s been co-opted of late by a bunch of generally better teams including the Chiefs, the Bears and the Colts. Who’s the art world equivalent of the Tampa 2 Bucs? How about Haim Steinbach, whose arranged, consumer-product sculptures got him a little fame in the 1970s, before Jeff Koons stole the idea and became uber-rich by selling a less interesting version of it.

New Orleans Saints + Georg Baselitz

The New Orleans Saints and German painter Georg Baselitz both have long been on steady upward trends. The Saints didn't become a winning team until 1987, but went on to secure a Super Bowl championship in the 2009 season. Baselitz, for his part, has been a powerful force in the expressionist painting canon since the 1960s. All that hard-won success has been obscured by scandal of late, though. The Saints “Bountygate” embarrassment is bad; Baselitz’s misogynistic 2013 interview in which he stated “Women don't paint very well. It's a fact,” isn't any good, either.

Atlanta Falcons + David Hockney

Yes, Hockney's been named already. But great artists and bad football teams contain multitudes. More to the point, what happened to the Falcons in 2013? The NFC South powerhouse has had five winning seasons since 2008; in 2012, they were famously the last undefeated team in the league. The next year, they fell to the bottom of their division, and looked as lousy as any team in the league. Hockney was also super hot in recent memory, with his 1980s pool paintings gracing the pages of art history books and the walls of museums all over the world. Just like the Falcons, Hockney fell flat on his butt in 2013, when the artist unveiled a series of godawful iPad “paintings.”

AFC SOUTH

Jacksonville Jaguars + Marcel Duchamp

Marcel Duchamp’s Fountain is perhaps his best known work. That piece, a urinal signed “R. Mutt”—technically, the piece is attributed to Duchamp—is often seen as a subversive critique on what, exactly, constitutes art, and perhaps as a Quixotic titling at various aesthetic windmills. The noted performance collective Pantera Onca, under the noblesse oblige of noted arts patron Shahid Khan, have been plying similar waters on the gridiron. The question the Jags ask: how loosely can something be defined before it subverts the idea of what exactly constitutes being a professional football team.

Indianapolis Colts + Robert Longo

Not sure why, but Robert Longo’s Untitled (Ulysses) makes me think of Indy. Trusting my instincts, here.

Houston Texans + Dash Snow

Houston owes a decent amount of its art world cache to John and Dominique de Menil, whose private collection/public museum includes works by such luminaries as Duchamp, Matisse, Picasso, Warhol, and Pollock, among others. Houston itself is the largest city in Texas, and owes a decent amount of its cultural clout to purple drank, the indomitable Slim Thug, and Texas Football Culture. The de Menil arts lineage found its most divisive scion in Dash Snow. (He's also a relative of Robert—and, consequently, Uma—Thurman.) Snow's lasciviously brut photographs focused on his own Downtown Sybarite existence; pieces such as Untitled (Gotcha), composed of a New York Post cover, glitter, and Snow’s own semen, exist in some weird place between crude genius, raw life-as-life, and a critique on the enduring power of blue blood, not matter how diluted. The proud Texas Football Culture Lineage had seemingly found its champions in the exceedingly attractive Houston Texans, whose on-field showing in 2013 was not really all that pleasant to look at, either, come to think.

Tennessee Titans + Ed Ruscha

Ed Ruscha’s Burning Gas Station conflates the Titans origins as the Houston Oilers as well as their current conflagration of a logo, which led ESPN's Gregg Easterbrook to aptly dub them The Flaming Thumbtacks.

NFC NORTH

Green Bay Packers + Michelle Grabner

Despite splitting her career between Chicago and Milwaukee, the artist, writer and curator Michelle Grabner has been vociferous about her preference for Wisconsin. Famously a Green Bay fan—as evidenced by this portrait of her in a Packers beanie—Grabner also shares with the franchise a certain down-home, small-town sentiment. Green Bay’s population of 104,868 is certainly a small in terms of NFL cities, giving it a provincial flavor compared to the 2.7 million of the Bears’ home city. As Green Bay has during its recent run of success, Grabner makes the “provincial” powerful, as evidenced by her lauded gingham patterned paintings, and The Suburban and The Poor Farm, which are the well-known gallery and the residency, respectively, that she runs out of her backyard in Oak Park, IL and Little Wolf, WI, also respectively. Have I mentioned yet that she’s also the 2014 Whitney Biennial curator?

Chicago Bears + Andrea Fraser

My experience of the Chicago Bears during my five years in town has been shaped by one man: Jay Cutler. The Bears’ quarterback is most often painted as a world-class douche: generally rude to fans, press, fellow players and coaches, as evidenced in his famously bitchy, caught on tape walk-away from offensive coordinator Mike Tice. For his combination of talent and perma-snarl, Cutler is not unlike the American performance artist Andrea Fraser. Fraser is known for her talent, but perhaps better known for her open contempt for the institutions of art. Her works include speeches full of nudity, shouting and antagonisms, and the likening of selling art to the business of prostitution. Cutler and Fraser share a “fuck you” attitude, a disregard for the pretensions of the fields and markets in which they operate. Both are grating, and admittedly bold. Neither is for everyone.

Minnesota Vikings + Bjarne Melgaard

The Minnesota Vikings have long worn the cultural heritage of the region (literally) on their sleeves, and the franchise loves this Scandinavian image so much that they essentially have two viking mascots. Officially, “Viktor the Viking” is the oversized, fabric approximation; “Ragnar” is a man whose real name is Joseph Juranitch, and is the one with the long beard we see riding a motorcycle on the field at the beginning of the game. Here, I’m matching the Vikings with a fellow Scandinavian, Bjarne Melgaard, who can be pretty over-the-top himself. The expressionist painter has a special fondness for depicting certain parts of the male anatomy—imagery that may remind some of the photographic work of former Vikings quarterback Brett Favre.

Detroit Lions + Mike Kelley

I’ll preface this paragraph by explaining that I am a proud Detroit Lions fan, which probably explains my passionate defense of the team that, in the past few seasons, has been labeled the dirtiest around. And yet, despite the penalties, scuffles and fines, the Lions have an indisputable trove of talent. This includes the infamous Ndamukong Suh, the 2010 Rookie of Year, and the divine Calvin Johnson; Matthew Stafford’s killer arm also seems worth mentioning. While the Lions’ tendency to implode at the worst of times keeps them from securing championships, there's some reason to hope in the success of the late, Detroit-born artist Mike Kelley. He, too, was something of a bad boy, but his wild talent ensured that his relentless and wide-ranging social critique, anti-authoritarianism, and overall refusal to accept the status quo resonated long after his untimely death.

AFC NORTH

Cleveland Browns + Mark Rothko

Untitled Mural for End Wallby Mark Rothko. Pretty self-explanatory, really.

Pittsburgh Steelers + Ivan Bevzenko

The Steelers bring to mind hard work, hard lines, and a blue-collar approach to life and football as subtle and nuanced as a gun to the head. Here, in short, is the world of socialist realism: the noble, hard-working and relentlessly square-jawed proletariat, the focus quarely upon hewing to the here and now. The genre dispenses, as the Platonic Universal Steelers team does, with all pretense and, some would argue, imagination. This is the hard-charging, run-establishing, championship-winning Steelers milieu which persists even if it may no longer exist (hey, like the Soviet Union!). Young Steel Workers, by Ivan Bevzenko, is a perfect mixture of spirit and subject.  

Cincinnati Bengals + Anonymous Book Cover Designer

Any game in Paul Brown, surrounded on all sides by the ever-encroaching, cartoonishly colored jungle, instantly reminds me of this cover of Heart Of Darkness. We may be stretching the limits of art here in relation to the other items on this list, but I’ve already given you Rothko in this section, and seriously, does that not remind you of those savage sidelines? 

Baltimore Ravens + James Abbot McNeil Whistler

James Abbot McNeil Whistler’s Nocturne in Black and Gold: The Falling Rocket so vexed noted Victorian art critic/Brahmin pearl-clutcher John Ruskin that he wrote of the piece “I have seen, and heard, much of Cockney impudence before now; but never expected to hear a coxcomb ask two hundred guineas for flinging a pot of paint in the public’s face.” Translated from Ruskin, this is a critic basically calling Whistler a pretentious queen brazenly fleecing the good, God-fearing, moralistic art-consuming subjects of Her Royal Majesty with this fucking lame excuse for capital-A Art. Whistler sued Ruskin for Libel, and his defense of his work before the bar helped toss off the retrograde romanticizing yoke of the Pre-Raphaelites and other contemporary styles. The case paved the way for the rise of, among other things, Aestheticism, decadence, Impressionism and Abstract Art. Whistler's spirited defense (defence?) finds a mirror in the historically hermetic Baltimore Ravens, a franchise whose identity has long laid on the preventative side of the ball.

NFC WEST

St. Louis Rams + Molly Zuckerman-Hartung

The Rams began as the Cleveland Rams in 1937, and then moved to Los Angeles, then to Anaheim and finally to their current home in St Louis. At a smaller scale, the past decade has been an endless swapping of leadership for the Rams, from owners to coaches to personnel. Amongst all these changes, the lack of a solid Rams identity has perhaps actually become their style, much like the work of abstract painter Molly Zuckerman-Hartung, whose postmodern lack of unique gesture, and combinations of appropriated images and marks, has made this multifarious method of painting into her own “no-style” brand.

Arizona Cardinals + Walton Ford

The logo of the Arizona Cardinals has changed quite a bit over the years, from the plain “C” design they used when known as the “Chicago Cardinals” to the bird perched upon a football circa 1947, to the bright red bird’s head we see today. Notably, the Cardinal received a subtle but important revamp in 2005; perhaps the bird was looking a little too weenie-ish, because the new logo features a scowling and notably angrier-looking bird. In honor of the Cardinals tougher, more vicious image, I’m matching them with contemporary painter Walton Ford, who is remarkably adept at personifying human-like rage in his avian subjects.

San Francisco 49ers + Jean-Michel Basquiat

The San Francisco 49ers have one of the strongest franchises in the NFL, both in the present—they made the Super Bowl in 2012 and nearly repeated last year—and the recent past. The organization has five Super Bowl wins to its name, four of those in the 1980s alone. It all calls to mind another powerhouse who was super hot in the 80s and has been killing it again lately: Jean-Michel Basquiat. The young painter rose quickly in the 1980s, winning fame and fortune amid huge demand for his expressionist works. Basquiat died in 1988 at the age of 27, but his work has continued to gain value, especially of late. His works routinely fetch staggering prices at auction, recently topping $21 million for a single painting.

Seattle Seahawks + Bruce Nauman

The Seattle Seahawks have an impenetrable defense, a great running game and a quarterback who has changed the way we thought quarterbacks ought to play the game. That's enough to explain the team's Super Bowl win, but Seahawks fans like to think that there’s an additional reason why the team is doing so well. Many Seattle fans wear the number 12, signifying the impact that the crowd—the team's vaunted 12th Man—has on the outcome of home games, mostly by yelling so loudly that the opposing team can't communicate. In honor of the ear-splitting 12th Man, I’m pairing them with artist Bruce Nauman and a particular piece: Clown Torture. This video work was on display at the Art Institute of Chicago for many years, and bombarded viewers and unlucky museum guards with full-volume footage of a screaming clown, played on a loop everyday from opening until closing.

AFC WEST

Oakland Raiders + Damien Hirst

At once simple, decadent, menacing, laughable and shocking, Damien Hirst’s diamond encrusted skull For The Love Of God—and the subsequent art market finagling that defined its sale—features more in common with the Raiders than just a color scheme. The piece lampoons and masturbates the art industry at the same time; it's admired and hated, and is both totally fucking dumb and sort of backhandedly genius. A decent pairing, then, with the feared and beloved and mocked Black Hole, and the Raiders' enduring bad boy image, which now mostly exists in some sort of parallel universe that's unaffected by their impotence on the field. This is the same kind of bubble that, depending on your view, either keeps Hirst’s works from being appreciated as they should be—call it the Kanye West Effect, wherein art must languish in the umbra of personality or perceived personality—or, conversely, earns them entirely too much praise and attention.

San Diego Chargers + Theo Van Doesburg

Qualcomm Stadium is ringed by hilariously bad team banners, all of which feature the logos of San Diego's peers on color-blocked fields which seem to be the abstract chromatic manifestation of comic sans. So, basically Theo Van Doesburg’s Dance I

Denver Broncos + Amalia Pica

Argentine artist Amalia Pica’s oeuvre, including Switchboard (pavilion)avails itself of the nuances, challenges, and politics of communication; nothing and nobody communicates more demonstratively, abstrusely, and frequently than Peyton Manning at the line of scrimmage.

Kansas City Chiefs + Marisol

Missouri’s chief cultural exports being barbecue and William S. Burroughs, the Chiefs find themselves here repented by Marisol’s sculpture of Burroughs; with that, let's get out of here before anyone makes a joke involving corpulent Arrowhead field general Andy Reid, the city's renowned culinary tradition, and the phrase Naked Lunch.


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