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Basketball takes center court at the Blanton

Jeanne Claire van Ryzin
First page of the 1891 document by James Naismith outlining the original 13 rules of basketball. Austin art collectors Suzanne Deal Booth and David Booth bought the document for $4.3 million in 2010.

It’s football season, but basketball is claiming center court right now at the Blanton Museum of Art.

Video and photo-based art by Paul Pfeiffer occupies the majority of “The Rules of Basketball,” on view through Jan. 13.

Born in Honolulu, now based in New York, Pfeiffer first came to prominence in the late 1990s.

With time-consuming dedication, Pfeiffer erases salient details from available media video footage and photographs of professional sports competitions. Frame by frame, Pfeiffer deletes the colors of a player’s uniform, the jersey number, the logo on the athletic shoes and the advertisements that swathe a professional basketball court from the scoreboard to the sidelines. Coaches and sideline attendants are wiped clear.

In some works, Pfeiffer erases details of the spectators, leaving just the flash of cameras popping in the stands. In others, even the players themselves are deleted by the artist’s visual editing.

Presented in continuous loops, Pfeiffer’s reconnoitered videos are projected on gallery walls in a fairly small format from slightly outdated consumer video equipment.

In one weighty-named video, “John 3:16,” we see nothing but a basketball floating above the court, a frenzied sense of intense action in the stadium seats behind it, but with no detail that frenzy remains fuzzy. (Pfeiffer culled together and digitally manipulated some 1,800 frames of footage to create the two-minute collage.)

In another video created this year, Pfeiffer shows us looped footage of a basketball net swooshing and swaying but with nary a basketball nor a player in view. Called “The 100 Point Game,” it references Wilt Chamberlain’s legendary NBA record-setting 1962 game that was nevertheless not visually documented at the time.

All the painstaking yet selective erasure leaves us with Pfeiffer’s precisely whittled-down vision of professional sports as the ultimate spectacle — a view of how pop culture deletes the details, the idiosyncrasies and the context that are ultimately so important to history.

Just a handful of Pfeiffer’s video installations and large-scale photographs are on view in this exhibit organized specifically by the Blanton. (“The Rules of Basketball” shares the first floor galleries with “Inside the Sacred City.” See sidebar.)

Greeting visitors as they enter the exhibit, however, is another item altogether different from Pfeiffer’s work.

It’s the original document from 1891 in which physical education pioneer James Naismith outlined the 13 rules of the game he invented: basketball.

The Canadian-born Naismith was an instructor at a YMCA in Massachusetts. He was searching for a way to encourage young people to exercise during the long winters, so he dreamed up what was then a simple team sport involving two peach baskets and a soccer ball.

Naismith’s yellowed, two-page typewritten document was purchased for $4.3 million at a Sotheby’s auction in 2010 by Austin residents Suzanne D. Booth and David G. Booth.

At the time, the price was the most ever paid for a piece of sports memorabilia.

The Booths are contemporary art collectors and supporters of the Blanton. An alumni of University of Kansas — where Naismith was that school’s first basketball coach — David Booth is chairman and chief executive officer of Dimensional Fund Advisors, and he plans to donate the Naismith document to his alma mater.

In August, KU officials announced that a new building will be built on its campus in which the original 13 rules will be the star attraction.

At the Blanton, meanwhile, the Naismith rules make for a charming historical attraction.

But ultimately it’s not really clear how such an archival sports document and Pfeiffer’s very contemporary art relate to each other, other than the fact that both concern basketball.

And that leaves one to wonder what the purpose of such a pairing is really all about.

“The Rules of Basketball: Works by Paul Pfeiffer and James Naismith’s ‘Original Rules of Basket Ball’”