Wilt Chamberlain, who was so good on a basketball court the NBA had to widen the free-throw lane in order to keep him back from the net, wrote two autobiographies. The first, from 1973, Wilt: Just Like Any Other 7-Foot Black Millionaire Who Lives Next Door, boasts of certain sexual extravagances. The second, 1991’s A View From Above, is more specific; it includes the famous unverified statement that the number of Chamberlain’s sexual encounters was “closing in on twenty thousand women,” a claim that adds a certain layer of subtext to his on-the-court nickname, the Big Dipper. He presents this lofty figure in the manner of a basketball statistic. “Yes that’s correct, twenty thousand different ladies. At my age, that equals out to having sex with 1.2 women a day, every day since I was fifteen years old.” Chamberlain, by the way, still holds the record for most rebounds for a career—the fairly coincidental figure of 23,924.
The artist Paul Pfeiffer, whose debut show at the Paula Cooper Gallery opened last week, is known for his clever manipulation of sports footage. Basketball is a recurring interest. It feels almost inevitable that he should have chosen Chamberlain as his muse for his first exhibition in New York since 2007.
“He’s one of the fathers of the athlete celebrity,” Mr. Pfeiffer said in an interview near his studio just south of Midtown. “He literally changed the game of basketball. They changed the markings on the court to simply make it fairer for other players. He was just so much taller and more powerful than anyone else, it wasn’t fair.”
For the art world, 2007 is about as far away as Chamberlain’s iconic, mostly undocumented 100-point game against the Knicks in 1962, when he was still playing for the Philadelphia Warriors. (Mr. Pfeiffer projects a filmed faux re-creation of this milestone in a dark corner of the gallery.) Four years after being the breakout star at the 2000 Whitney Biennial, Mr. Pfeiffer seemed bred for representation by Gagosian, the largest gallery in the world. The centerpiece of his first and only show there was a staggering video work called Empire, which showed, in real time, a hornet’s nest being constructed over the course of three-months. He says he appreciates “the value of slowness.”
In 1998, he was one of the first artists to join a new gallery in Harlem, The Project, founded by an intrepid young dealer named Christian Haye; Mr. Pfeiffer “helped string the lights.” The Project was an immediate success, and moved to 57th Street, then opened a space in Los Angeles with the dealer Michele Maccarone, which was inaugurated by a solo show by Mr. Pfeiffer. It all happened fast. Early on, Mr. Haye struck a deal with the collector Jean-Pierre Lehmann for right of first refusal on certain artworks. The gallery would eventually lose $1.7 million in a lawsuit when Mr. Lehmann realized several large works by Julie Mehretu had been sold to other collectors without being offered to him first. Mr. Pfeiffer stuck around until the very end. The last time many people in the art world heard from Mr. Haye was in December 2009, when he took a booth at Art Basel Miami Beach but failed to fill it due to what the fair characterized as “shipping problems.” The dealer himself showed up in Miami, but declined a reporter’s questions. Since then he has effectively disappeared. (Simon Preston, who was a director at The Project, said Mr. Haye’s current obscurity is probably intentional, though he hasn’t spoken with him much either.) After the gallery closed, Mr. Pfeiffer started showing frequently in London and Berlin and lived for a time in Europe.
“This is still my hometown,” he said. “But when The Project didn’t exist anymore, I didn’t feel any rush to jump to a new gallery. I sort of grew up with this gallery, and that was enough for me for a long time. But there are some pressures.”
Mr. Pfeiffer has been based out of New York since 1990. He was born in Honolulu in 1966, and moved to the Philippines when he was 10. His parents were both classically trained musicians who taught and studied sacred music. In the Philippines, where he lived until the age of 15, he didn’t have a television, but he says you didn’t need one to register the country’s sweeping fascination with American popular culture. He got to know America “through a certain lens of otherness.”
“To me, sports is attractive because it just is so foreign to me,” he said. “I couldn’t really follow the action, so I would just sort of stare at the imagery.”
In conversation, he compares crowds at a sports stadium to Francis Bacon’s painting, Fragment of a Crucifixion. In 1998 he made a piece named for that work, a 30-second video loop of former Knicks forward Larry Johnson giving a triumphant shout in the moment right after scoring, but with all of the recognizable signifiers of a basketball game—aside from the featureless audience in the far away bleachers— carefully edited out; the nets, the ball, the other players, even the Knicks logo on Mr. Johnson’s jersey. There’s something simultaneously eerie and hilarious about the work, and it all comes down to a single question, one that people would never ask when they’re actually watching a game: why is everybody yelling?