LeRoy Neiman (1921-2012)
Born: June 8, 1921
Died: June 20, 2012;New York
Best known for his brilliantly colored, stunningly energetic images of sporting events and leisure activities, LeRoy Neiman is probably the most popular living artist in the United States. The artistic style of the fabulously successful Neiman is familiar to a remarkably broad spectrum of Americans — “rich and poor, black and white, urban and rural, educated and illiterate,” and young and old alike. He was the official artist at five Olympiads. Millions of people have watched him at work: on ABC TV coverage of the Olympics, as CBS Superbowl computer artist, and at other major competitions, televised on location with his sketchbook and drawing materials, producing split-second records and highly developed images of what he is witnessing. “Before the camera, such reportage of history and the passing scene was one of the most important functions of painters and draftsmen of all sorts. Mr. Neiman has revived an almost lost and time-honored art form,” Carl J. Weinhardt observed in the catalog for the exhibition of Neiman’s 1972 Olympics sketches, which was mounted that year by the Indianapolis Museum of Art. In the Christian Science Monitor(May 2, 1972), Nick Seitz wrote that Neiman, who has been labeled an American Impressionist, “has the journalistic talent, as well as the artistic ability, to convey the essence of a game or contestant with great impact, from the Kentucky Derby to Wilt Chamberlain, from the America’s Cup to Muhammad Ali, from the Super Bowl to Bobby Hull.”
A teacher at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago for 10 years early in his career, after studying there, Neiman also gained wide recognition as contributing artist for Playboy in the 1950s. Many of his images of what he calls “the good life,” have appeared in the form of etchings, lithographs, silkscreen prints, and sculptures as well as paintings, in the permanent collections of public and private museums and other institutions worldwide. These institutional acquisitions, along with sales of approximately 150,000 of his silkscreen prints to individuals, attest to the enormous appeal of his work. “Whether one approves of Neiman’s work or not,… one must agree that he is a work of art himself,” Stan Isaacs declared in New York Newsday(March 27, 1968), in a reference to Neiman’s colorful public persona. “I guess I created LeRoy Neiman,” the artist once said. “Nobody else told me how to do it. Well, I’m a believer in the theory that the artist is as important as his work.”
Of Turkish and Swedish descent (“as near as I can figure out,” as he has said), LeRoy Neiman was born on June 8, 1921 in St. Paul, Minnesota to Charles Runquist, an unskilled laborer, and Lydia (Serline) Runquist. His surname is that of one of his stepfathers; during his childhood his biological father abandoned the family, and his mother, whom he described to Jerry Tallmer for the New York Post (May 9, 1981) as “a very spirited woman, ahead of her times,” later remarried twice. Raised in a rough blue-collar St. Paul neighborhood, early on LeRoy Neiman became a “street kid,” in his words.
He attended a Roman Catholic primary school, where, he told Max Millard for the New York CityWestside TV Shopper (January 27-February 2, 1979), he “was always drawing pictures and getting special treatment… showing off, copping out of other things.” During recess periods he would inscribe pen-and-ink tattoos on his classmates’ arms. A painting of a fish that he made in sixth grade won a prize in a national art competition. Starting in adolescence he earned money from local grocers by painting calcimine images of fruit, vegetables and meat as sale items, and portraits of the shopkeepers themselves on the windows of their stores. As a high school student, he created posters for school dances and athletic events. He participated in boxing matches in the basement of his church, which started a lifetime interest in prize fighting.
In 1942, Neiman quit school and enlisted in the United States Army. While serving as a cook for four years, with two years of combat in Europe, he painted sexually suggestive murals in military kitchens and dining halls that reportedly generated enthusiastic responses from women as well as men. He also painted stage sets for Red Cross shows under the auspices of the army’s Special Services division. “If nothing else, the army completely confirmed me as an artist,” he wrote in his book LeRoy Neiman: Art and Life Style (1974). “:During this period I made my crucial discovery of the difference between the lifestyles of the officer and the Pfc (private first class). This was to become the basis of my later mission in art, to investigate life’s social strata from the workingman to the multimillionaire. I discovered that while the poor I knew so well are so often pitiable, the rich can be fools.”
Neiman has cited as especially influential in his development as an artist the work of the artists Leonardo da Vinci and Rubens, “for spirit”; Tintoretto, “for space”; and Fragonard, “for feel,” as F. Lanier Graham quoted him as saying in The Prints of LeRoy Neiman: A Catalogue Raisonné of Serigraphs, Lithographs, and Etchings (1980). Others include various Romantic Realists, Impressionists, Post-Impressionists, and Fauvists; the French master of light and color Raoul Dufy; the Eastern European Expressionists Kees van Dongen and Oskar Kokoschka; George Bellows and other members of the Ashcan School of art; and the Abstract Expressionists, especially Jackson Pollock and other practitioners of action painting, in which paint is applied directly by such means as splattering and dribbling
During his interview with Max Millard, Neiman said that his painting style came into being “very suddenly.” The catalyst that sparked its emergence was Neiman’s acquisition, one day in 1953, of partially used cans of enamel paints that were being discarded by the custodian of the apartment house adjacent to his. As F. Lanier Graham pointed out, “Freely flowing paint makes possible fast-moving strokes. With fast-moving strokes, one can render the impression of fast-moving action.”
“That was when I hit my stride,” Neiman has been quoted as saying with regard to his initial experiments with house paints. Idle Boats, one of his earliest works in that medium, won first prize in oil painting at the 1953 Twin City Show. That same year it was bought by the Minneapolis Institute of Arts and thus became the first of his paintings to be purchased by a museum. Also in 1953, Neiman had his first solo shows, at galleries in Chicago and Lincoln, Illinois. He was among the artists featured in New Talent in America 1956, in Art in America (February 1956). In 1957, one of his paintings was included in the American 25th Biennial Exhibition at the Corcoran Gallery of Art, in Washington, D.C., and a Neiman work displayed at the Chicago Art Exhibition, which drew 25,000 visitors, won the prize for most popular painting.
Earlier, while freelancing at a Chicago department store, Neiman had made the acquaintance of Hugh Hefner, who was then a copywriter there. In December 1953, Hefner began publishing Playboy. A few months later, after a chance meeting, Neiman showed Hefner some of his paintings. Much impressed, Hefner brought Art Paul, Playboy’s art director, to Neiman’s apartment to see them. Paul immediately commissioned the artist to illustrate Black Country, a short story by Charles Beaumont about a jazz musician. His creation of those illustrations, which earned Playboy an award from the Chicago Art Directors Club in 1954, marks the inception of Neiman’s ongoing association with the magazine.
In 1958, Neiman began producing sketches and paintings for a Playboyfeature called “Man at His Leisure,” for which he also wrote the text. Appearing in the magazine for the next 15 years, “Man at His Leisure” showed the artist’s impressions of sporting events and social activities, many of them at some of the world’s most socially prestigious locales. During six months of travel abroad for Playboy in 1960, for example, Neiman captured scenes in England, of competitions at the Grand National Steeplechase, Epsom Derby, and Ascot; in Paris, of the Tour d’Argent, Maxim’s, the Lido, and the Folies-Bergere; elsewhere in France, of the Cannes Film Festival and St. Tropez; in Madrid, of the Fiesta de San Isidro bullfights; and in Monaco, of the Grand Prix auto race. The multitude of subjects that Neiman depicted for Playboy in later years include the Beatles and the Carnaby Street scene in London; Prince Philip playing polo at Windsor Castle; nudists relaxing on the Dalmatian Coast of Yugoslavia; the running of the bulls in Pamplona, Spain; the Epson Derby; America’s Cup challenges; the Kirov and Bolshoi ballet troupes in the Soviet Union; and animals in Kenyan wildlife parks. Between 1960 and 1970 he produced a total of more than 100 paintings and two murals for 18 Playboy clubs. “Playboy made the good life a reality for me and made it the subject matter of my paintings — not affluence and luxury, as such, but joie de vivre itself,” he told an interviewer for VIP Magazine (July 1962).
In 1961, Neiman rented a studio in Paris. While living in France he did studies of the Deauville social season and of famous French restaurants, and he won a gold medal at the Salon d’Art Moderne, in Paris. Neiman also spent time in Italy, where he painted a regatta of gondoliers in Venice and the filmmaker Federico Fellini at work in Rome. His first solo shows outside the United States were held in galleries in London and Paris in 1962. After returning to the United States the next year, he established a studio in New York City. A few months later he had his first one-person exhibit in New York, at the Hammer Galleries, which has since mounted another two dozen shows of his work. Among the more than 50 additional venues in the United States and overseas that have hosted solo Neiman exhibits are the Minnesota Museum of Art, in St. Paul; the University of Texas in El Paso; the Abbey Theatre, in Dublin, Ireland; the Museo de Bellas Artes, in Caracas, Venezuela; Casagrafica, in Helsinki, Finland; and the New State Tretyakov Museum, in Moscow. In 1988, a show of his artworks toured four cities in Japan. Neiman has participated in dozens of group exhibitions as well, and in 1981, in a two-man show, with Andy Warhol, at the Los Angeles Institute of Contemporary Art. The Hermitage Museum, in St. Petersburg, Russia, which purchased 19 of his prints in 1973, is one of the many public and private institutions that hold works by him in their permanent collections. Despite such recognition, art critics have, with few exceptions, totally ignored his work or dismissed it as superficial or vulgar. According to Nancy Wolfson, Neiman may be the “most belittled artist of our time.”
According to Joe Flower in Sport (September 1984), Neiman is always given “the best seat, with the best view, right up front with the owners, the movie stars, the high muckity-mucks. If that’s not good enough, he just wanders down to the dugouts, the benches on the sidelines, the dressing rooms.” By his own account, Neiman observes the action around him with the eye of a sociologist as well as that of an artist. During his conversation with Nick Seitz, for example, he said, “I love to study the intimate interaction between black man and white man. The cooperation between a black champion and a white trainer is a strong subject.” In Art and Life Style he wrote that he is “as conscious of stable boys and dishwashers as [he is] of the wealthy horseman and the imperious maitre d’ and his compatriot diner,” and he has also said, “When I go to any kind of bash or social thing, I always notice the working guy right away, the limousine driver, the waiter, the hatcheck girl, the disc jockey, and the hired musicians.” Horse races hold a special fascination for him, because, in his words, “you find the full range of social strata in one scene.” “And I’m there myself,” he noted to Jerry Tallmer. “I’ll place a few bets, have a few drinks. It’s a total experience, a constant drama.”
In July 1972, millions of television viewers worldwide watched Neiman sketching Boris Spassky and Bobby Fischer competing against each other at the world champion chess tournament held in Reykjavik, Iceland, and in August and September of that year, ABC-TV broadcasts showed him drawing, “from life, on the spot,” scenes at the Summer Olympic Games, which took place in Munich, Germany. For most of those Olympics sketches, Neiman used a combination of two or more mediums — watercolor, ink, gouache, felt-tip marker, chalk, colored pencil, graphite, and charcoal. Neiman again demonstrated for television audiences his remarkable skills at portraiture and stop-motion drawing during the Olympic Games in Montreal (1976), Lake Placid (1980), Sarajevo (1984), and Los Angeles (1984). As a spectator at the 1978 and 1979 Super Bowls, Neiman wielded a computerized electronic pen to portray the action for CBS-TV. He also served as the official artist for the Sports Spectaculars broadcast by CBS-TV in 1979 and 1980; for the 1980 Democratic National Convention; and for the 1986 Goodwill Games, in Moscow, which were carried on the Turner Broadcasting Network.
“I sketch all the time,” Neiman told Max Millard, adding that for him, a sketch is “a record — something to consult with” when planning a larger work. (He produces about two dozen paintings a year; few measure less than two feet by three feet, and many are much bigger.) Except when he wants to render, say, a person’s distinctive stance, he uses each sketch as a guide rather than a precise study. He usually paints not on canvas but on Masonite or Upson board coated with a thin polymer ground. After covering the panel with flat or glossy commercial enamels brushed over large areas, he applies glazes of oil paints. “Certain passages are heightened in color and others subdued,” F. Lanier Graham reported. “Generally his method progresses from a transparent film body of middle tones to an overpainting of opaque ones.”
Describing Neiman as “first and foremost a colorist,” Malcolm Lein wrote, “His tones are vivid, jarring, and at times, gaudily biting; they explode in an effusion of reds, blues, pinks, greens, and yellows; they shimmer and dance across the surface plane, electrified bits of pure energy.”
“Extremely important in my painting is the use of the same color for both positive and negative purposes…,” Neiman explained in a letter to American Artist that appeared in an article by William Caxton, Jr. in the April 1961 issue. “This is accomplished by deliberate selection of the adjacent colors, possibly a complement or an opaque if [the first color] is transparent, which permits the same [color] to be flat, fall back, or stand out, highlight, outline, and describe whatever is emotionally necessary for its intended function in the picture. Understanding the possibilities of one color next to another gives the artist complete control over the psychological impact he is striving to achieve…Inventive color is essential.” “I do not depart from the colors borrowed from life,” he was quoted as saying in VIP Magazine, “but I use color to emphasize the scent, the spirit, and the feeling of the thing I’ve experienced.”
In American Artist, Neiman identified as the “prime objective” of his work the “phenomenon of change.” “The spectator looking at a painting of mine must deal with this condition of change. Areas are broken up at close range and fit together only at a distance…As one advances on my painting, it becomes more abstract, more fluid, and as one moves away, it falls into focus and is realistic…At no two distances will the painting appear the same. This gives the spectator more room for conjecture, and his contribution to the visual image, upon contemplation, adds to its provocative possibilities. These plastic qualities of my painting coincide with the realities of contemporary society and its rapidly moving, shifting, and ever-changing panorama. Today’s man accepts many casual observations, and oft-times the real truths escape him if he doesn’t take the time to look beneath the surface.”
As a portraitist, Neiman does not attempt to delve much beyond the surface. “When I paint, I seriously consider the public presence of a person — the surface facade,” he wrote in Art and Life Style. “I am less concerned with how people look when they wake up or how they act at home. A person’s public presence reflects his own efforts at image development.” In adopting that approach, Neiman has been praised for capturing both the essentials and the idiosyncratic characteristics of his subjects. Among hundreds of other famous people, he has painted the boxer Muhammad Ali (many times over a span of 15 years, beginning in 1964); the conductor Leonard Bernstein; the dancer Suzanne Farrell; and, on commission, the hockey star Bobby Hull, for the March 1, 1968 cover of Timemagazine; Frank Sinatra, Liza Minnelli, and Sammy Davis Jr., in performance at the Royal Albert Hall, in London; Tom Seaver and Reggie Jackson, for the Baseball Hall of Fame; and Sylvester Stallone, in pictures — including one measuring 15 feet by 24 feet — for several of the actor’s Rocky films. (Neiman appeared as himself in the films in cameo roles.) In 1995, he created 40-foot-high murals of the dancer-choreographer Tommy Tune for a New York City theatre.
Hundreds of works by Neiman appear in his books, which, in addition to Art and Life Style, are Horses (1979);LeRoy Neiman Posters (1980); Carnaval (1981); Winners (1983), which was published in Japanese in 1985;Monte Carlo Chase (1988); The Prints of LeRoy Neiman 1980-1990 (1991); Big Time Golf (1992);LeRoy Neiman, An American in Paris (1994); LeRoy Neiman On Safari (1997), The Prints of LeRoy Neiman 1990-2000 (2000), and his most recent LeRoy Neiman Sketchbook: 1964 Liston vs. Clay – 1965 Ali vs. Liston (2005). Each year for the past quarter-century, he has created at least eight limited-edition serigraphs (silkscreen prints). Distributed by Knoedler Publishing, they are sold in selected galleries throughout the United States. According to an article in Manhattan (Winter 1995-96), the more than 150,000 Neiman prints that have been purchased to date “have an estimated market value exceeding $400 million.”
By his own account, LeRoy Neiman works very hard, has no hobbies, and does not take vacations. He paints in a double-height studio in the Hotel des Artistes, a landmark New York City building across the street from one of his favorite subjects — Central Park. In the same building he maintains an office; a penthouse pied-a-terre; and an apartment that he shares with his best friend — his wife, the former Janet Byrne, whom he married on June 22, 1957. His archives, which he is currently assembling for preservation at the Smithsonian Institution, in Washington, D.C., are also kept there. His signature black handlebar mustache and luxuriant slicked-back hair are now peppered with gray, and he is seldom photographed without his trademark prop, a long cigar. Described by Malcolm Lein as quiet and warm, for many years he cultivated a reputation as a flamboyant man-about-town.
“I like being outrageous…,” he acknowledged to Pete Dexter for Esquire (July 1984). “I don’t actually do anything, except be conspicuous. It keeps me revved up.” In the New Yorker (February 5, 1979), he was quoted as saying, “My performance is part of my success.”
A member of the New York City Advisory Commission for Cultural Affairs since 1995, Neiman has received four honorary degrees and, among other honors, an Award of Merit from the American Athletic Union (1976), a Gold Plate Award from the American Academy of Achievement (1977), and a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Muscular Dystrophy Association (1986). Through the years, he has donated scores of his artworks to charitable organizations, and in 1995 he gave the School of the Arts at Columbia University, in New York City, a gift of $6 million to create the LeRoy Neiman Center for Print Studies.