by Stew Mosberg
Now in his ninth decade, the hugely popular artist LeRoy Neiman doesn’t get into his studio as much. His Ubiquitous long black Monte Cristo cigars rarely touch his lips, and the once globally recognized handlebar mustache has turn gray.
Born in St. Paul, Minn., the artist has referred to himself as having grown up a “street kid.” As a parochial school student he spent most of his time in class drawing and sketching, but was fortunate to find that it earned him special treatment. Winning an art contest while in the sixth grade, Neiman began to earn money soon after by creating artwork for local merchants. He left school in 1942 to join the U.S. Army, but returned to obtain his high school degree after the war.
He went on to study at the University of Chicago and University of Illinois, and also the Art Institute of Chicago, where he later taught. Early in the 1950s, he was a freelance fashion illustrator for Carson Pirie Scott & Co., where he met Playboy founder Hugh Hefner and ultimately became the magazine’s primary artist. By the 1960s, Neiman set up studios in London and Paris and ultimately, overlooking Central Park in New York, where he now lives.
In LeRoy Neiman: Art and Life Style (1974), one of nine books about him and his work, the artist reaffirmed, “If nothing else, the army completely confirmed me as an artist. During this period I made my crucial discovery of the difference between the lifestyles of the officer and the 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.”
As for artistic muses, Neiman cites many of the greats including da Vinci and Rubens, Raoul Dufy, Oskar Kokoschka, and George Bellows. He drew other inspiration from the Abstract Expressionists, in particular Jackson Pollock and the “action painters” who experimented with flinging, splattering, and dribbling paint.
One day in 1953, he came upon a number of partially used cans of enamel paint. As he experimented with the off-beat medium he found it to be very workable and ultimately created an image titled Idle Boats, which subsequently won first prize at the “Twin City Show.”
That painting was purchased by the Minneapolis Institute of Arts and became his first work acquired by a museum. That same year, he also had solo shows at galleries in Chicago and Lincoln, Ill. In 1956, he was listed in Art in America magazine’s “New Talent in America” and then in 1957, one of his paintings was included in the American 25th Biennial Exhibition at the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C.
Widely known for his vividly colored, energetic and flashy imagery of sporting events and “the good life,” Neiman was once as recognizable to audiences as the athletes and personalities he depicted. He could be spotted in box seats at major championship matches, rubbing elbows with the VIPs and dignitaries, palling around with the likes of Ali, Sinatra, Salvador Dali, Andy Warhol, with whom he had a two-man show in 1981, and even Sylvester Stallone. Neiman has credits in Rocky II, III, IV, and V, where he either appeared in a cameo role or his art was used as a set decoration. Neiman mingled and hobnobbed with so many famous people, too numerous to mention here, but it’s a safe bet those celebs shared a similar comfort level with him.
The instantly identifiable Neiman painting style is familiar to a remarkably broad range of people; many of whom first became aware of his art in the pages of Playboy magazine. But his acclaim is much wider. He was the official artist at five Olympiads, millions watched him sketching on TV during the Olympics, the Super Bowl, Churchill Downs, a Grand Prix race, tennis tournaments, even the 1972 world championship chess match between Bobby Fisher and Boris Spassky.
Neiman’s talent and persona were a perfect fit for ABC Television’s Wide World of Sports. As such, he was present alongside Jim McKay, Howard Cosell, and Peter Jennings during the infamous Munich Olympics and thus became a witness to the horrific massacre of Israeli athletes. The resulting images from that year’s Olympiad were later exhibited in the Indianapolis Museum of Art.
The cover of this issue of Arts Perspective depicts Neiman’s rendition of the opening ceremony of the 1984 Olympics. It is a positive reflection of the festive atmosphere attached to the parade of multi-national flags and athletes.
For Bronco fans in particular, Neiman’s portrait of Quarterback John Elway, painted in 1999, the year the star retired, captures his likeness without histrionics, but with a reverence worthy of the two time Super Bowl champion, MVP player, and hall of famer.
In his just published book from Lyons Press, All Told – My Art and Life among Athletes, Playboys, Bunnies, and Provocateurs, Neiman reflects on his life and impressions of the world around him and all the famous people he met. It is a wonderful account of a life well lived; fascinating, fast-paced and every bit as extraordinary as the events he visually recorded.
In the candid memoir, Neiman even talks about his iconic mustache which, readers will discover, has a charming connection to the wife of Salvador Dali.
“I’m a storyteller,” he declares. “Only I tell my stories in a riot of color. Painters have always told stories — martyrdoms, murders, battles, saints, and sinners — and that’s still what I do… I paint superheroes, like the Olympians who daily perform supernatural feats, things we could never do, even with unlimited years of practice.”
While sports themes may seem to dominate his work, Neiman is also a reporter of the “good life.” In 1958 he was given an assignment by Playboy magazine to create a series titled, “Man at his Leisure,” and being as gifted with words as a paint brush, Neiman also wrote the text for the body of work. Traveling throughout Europe to cover elite social and sporting events, the artist’s keen eyes and skilled hands gave birth to bold, flamboyant artistic renditions of such heady places as the Cannes Film Festival, the Folies Bergère, the running of the bulls in Pamplona, Steeplechase and motor races – a gamut of the exciting, fast-lane lifestyle in which he was right at home.
Incredibly, Neiman continues to work and early last year he did eleven charcoal drawings of J. Edgar Hoover, Eliot Ness, and the “folk hero” mobsters of his prohibition-era youth. He’s considering lending them to the recently opened Las Vegas Mob Museum.
When Arts Perspective asked him to somehow choose among the hundreds of paintings done over his illustrious career he came up with a current favorite, one titled Big Band (13’x9’), which he completed in 2005. In it are 18 nearly life-size portraits of the great jazz stars from the 1950s to 1980s that he knew personally. It may well be a dynamic metaphor for Neiman’s life; musicians playing a tribute to the man who loved and lived it all while giving the world his unique perspective on the journey.
Stew Mosberg is a freelance writer and a former arts publisher. He has written two books on design and taught at Parsons School of Design in New York. He is a staff writer for Arts Perspective magazine.
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