Jerry Saltz on the Met’s Incredible Boxer at Rest Sculpture

I lost all bearings at the shocking first sight of Boxer at Rest, the astounding Hellenistic (323-31 B.C.). bronze masterpiece on view only until July 18 in the center of the long entrance hall of the Greek and Roman wing. It was like a thunderbolt. My psychic borders broke as it instantly embedded itself in my inner museum: It’s one of the greatest works of Western sculpture I’ve ever seen. It’s a masterpiece of immeasurable pathos, profundity, humanity, and otherness; inexpressive mysteries of material and self merge. I see dark inner depths, something brutal, brooding, beautiful, gigantic, an inchoate island unto itself. A kneaded muscular wrecked mountain, Minotaur-like. It was like I heard some barbaric howl.

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1. The Pose

Boxer statue posing

He’s a massive man, naked except for leather boxing gloves wound around his knuckles and forearms, and he sits on a stone. He’s turning to his right as if something has caught his attention. Or maybe because he knows it might be unbearable to meet the gaze of something almost animal-like. This is an instantaneous moment but also looks eternal and elemental. Damned.

2. The Face

Boxer's close-up face

His brow is huge, his beard full, his neck columnar. His physique is Herculean. He breathes through his open mouth as if blood is caked in his nose, which looks bashed-in and broken. His deformed cauliflower ears look like globules of flesh. His eyes and face are cut and bleeding.

3. The Blood

Boxer's bleeding face

Made of incredible inlays of copper, blood drips appear on his right side and arm. There is a bruise under his right eye, made from a different metal alloy so it stands out.

4. The Genitals

Boxer balls

His penis has been infibulated, the foreskin sewed shut so he cannot get an erection or ejaculate. Typical for slaves and athletes of the time, it was also seen as decorous body adornment. The material density of this genital mutilation only adds to the primal energy, and humanness radiating from this sculpture.

5. The Hands

Boxer statue's hands

The pose of his hands astounds. Casual and changing but gentle. You see through the punishment he’s suffered and inflicted to sweetness but also protecting himself, the sense of healing touch. The morphogenesis of pain.

6. The Foresight

The closest western visual relative of this pose I can conjure is the hulk in Goya’s incredible aquatint of some humanoid form sitting alone, turning toward us in an empty moonlit nightscape, Giant. In this Boxer, a bigger breach opens between his world and ours. I have not grasped such Shakespearean humanity except in Velázquez and Rembrandt. Never in sculpture.

Jerry Saltz on the Incredible Boxer at Rest