Art and sports are not such strange bedfellows. In fact, as "The Sports Show" proves, they sleep together rather nicely.
Opening Sunday at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, this expansive exhibition showcases images of sports moments great and small, while investigating the role of the camera and media in transforming sports from a Sunday afternoon activity into a daily, worldwide phenomenon.
"The power of the sports image is not just its singular presence, but that it can be distributed globally and across time," said the show's organizer, David Little, curator of photography and new media at the museum, and a seasoned sports aficionado. "Images are absolutely vital to our understanding of sports today. The camera is the ideal partner."
One has only to think of the difference in tempo and reach between the first documented Olympiad in 776 B.C. and the 2012 Super Bowl to realize the camera lens is a complicit player in sports. After all, the defining play of the Giants-Patriots contest was decided by video.
"The Sports Show" reaches beyond the competition, however, to reflect on the culture at large. The exhibit features more than 100 images, going back to an 1883 shot by Thomas Eakins of naked youths at a swimming hole, a study for one of the artist's famous paintings.
Many of photography's big names are here: Henri Cartier-Bresson, Alfred Stieglitz, Jacques Henri Lartigue and Diane Arbus, to name a few. But Frank Lloyd Wright? Yes, there's an image he took of a girls' gym class in 1900. Stanley Kubrick of "2001: A Space Odyssey" fame? Yes, as a young photojournalist, he shot boxer Rocky Graziano for a magazine spread.
There are iconic portraits, such as Richard Avedon's stunning 1963 portrait of a high-school-aged Kareem Abdul Jabbar (recently acquired by the museum), an Andy Warhol series on Wayne Gretsky and Annie Leibovitz's inspired 1988 image of a shirtless, barrel-chested Kirby Puckett.
The aesthetics can be just as seductive as the subjects. Levin Levinstein's "Handball Players, Lower East Side, NY" is a mesmerizing study in abstraction. Gjon Mili's 1941 study of Red Sox slugger Ted Williams is a latter-day continuation of Eadweard Muybridge's 1887 "Animal Locomotion" studies (on view here, too).
Perhaps most exceptional is Mili's 1939 image of high jumper Clarke Mallery. In the upper third of the image, a completely horizontal Mallery clears the pole, leaving the lower two-thirds negative space, only sky.
The show thoughtfully addresses race and politics, too. On the obverse of a widely circulated 1947 press image is taped "Jackie Robinson being congratulated ... after it was announced that the Brooklyn club had purchased the Negro from its farm team." Purchased? Did they say that about Babe Ruth when he left the Red Sox for the Yankees?
Also riveting are Leni Riefenstahl's photographs of athletes from the 1936 Berlin Olympics, including Jesse Owens, the black gold medalist who was snubbed by German Chancellor Adolf Hitler. Her revolutionary film "Olympia" premiered on Hitler's birthday in 1938; her portrait of the dictator is a chilling reminder that sports can be propaganda.
The role of the fan is explored in a two-gallery, sound-video installation making its U.S. debut. Paul Pfeiffer's "The Saints" is based on a 1966 World Cup match between Germany and Great Britain where nationalism takes the upper hand. The sound -- recreated by a crowd of Filipino fans -- is deafening.
"Zidane: 21st Century Portrait," a split-screen film installation by Douglas Gordon and Philippe Parreno, underscores the notions of icon and spectacle in sports by focusing 17 cameras on French soccer star Zinedine Zidane at a 2005 match. It is not only a portrait of a charismatic star, but also of the crowd, the smell, the noise and memory.
Fans should enjoy "The Sports Show," but even those who hate overpaid athletes, stadium debates and Super Bowl commercials will find plenty to chew on. It is conceptually complex, visually compelling and makes a convincing argument that sports competition is indeed part of the human -- and artist -- genome.