LeRoy Neiman: Artist whose brash style was perfect for the sports subjects he loved to paint
LeRoy Neiman was an artist whose paintings are immediately recognisable for their dynamic subjects and brash primary colours, often executed in household enamel paint.
His pictures captured the essence and movement of sports personalities, film stars and jazz musicians. With a signature black handlebar moustache and slicked-back hair he presented a flamboyant Daliesque character, ever conscious of the artistic persona he had created for himself and of those whom he depicted. "When I paint, Iseriously consider the public presence of a person - the surface façade," he wrote. "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."
Neiman was born in St Paul, Minnesota, in 1921. When his father, a railway worker of Swedish descent, left home, he took on the name of his stepfather. As a teenager he designed signage for grocery stores, sketched portraits of the store owners and made tattoos of Popeye and Mickey Mouse for his classmates. In 1942 he joined the US Army as a cook, seeing wartime service in Europe and painting stage sets used in Red Cross theatrical productions for the troops. "If nothing else, the army completely confirmed me as an artist," he wrote in LeRoy Neiman: Art and Life Style (1974).
During a decade of studying and teaching at the Art Insititute of Chicago, a series of chance happenings in the early 1950s would shape the rest of his career. The first was a dramatic alteration in his painting style. "The big shock of my life was Abstract Expressionism – Pollock, de Kooning, those guys," he said. "It changed my work. I was an academically trained student, and suddenly you could pour paint, smear it on, broom it on!"
It was in 1953 that he discovered his trademark material, enamel house paint. A caretaker at a neighbouring apartment block had discarded several cans which still contained paint. Neiman set to using them in hiscreations. The same year saw soloshows in Illinois and the acquisitionby the Minneapolis Institute of Arts of one of his works, his first sale to a musuem. "That was when I hit my stride," he later recalled.
A year later Neiman met Hugh Hefner, whose new Playboy magazine had débuted a few months before. Early commissions for Playboy, to accompany individual articles, soon became a regular stint. He created the cartoon character Femlin, a portmanteau of female and gremlin, for the magazine's "Party Jokes" page. This was followed in 1958 by the beginning of the regular "Man at his Leisure" feature, for which Neiman created sketches and text over the next 15 years.
From the 1960s onwards the majority of Neiman's paintings focused on sport. This became formalised in 1972 when he became official painter for the Munich Olympiad, a position he would continue to hold up to the Los Angeles games in 1984. Muhammad Ali commented, "It was not unusual for me to look up from a work-out or a sparring session to see LeRoy perched on a chair, off to the side, studying my movements while sketching in quick strokes."
Neiman described the inspiration he derived from sport as "all colour and movement, a world of numbers, flags and geometric surfaces. It is a universe of green, from the gaming tables to the gridiron." In the catalogue of an exhibition of his Olympic-themed work, a critic noted: "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-honoured art form."
It was not only team and field sports that attracted his attention. In 1972 he sketched the world chess tournament between the grandmasters Boris Spassky and Bobby Fischer in Reykjavik, live on television.
Over the last 20 years the artist had seen continued success in the marketplace for his paintings and prints. His painting Le Mans (1969) made $107,550 at Christie's in 2003, a record for his work. His commercial methods were to influence other artists, such as Andy Warhol, who, upon hearing of the roaring sales of the artist's prints in the '60s, remarked, "I want to be successful like LeRoy Neiman."
In 1996 Neiman gave $6 million for the founding of the LeRoy Neiman Center for Print Studies at Columbia University. His autobiography All Told: My Art and Life Among Athletes, Playboys, Bunnies and Provocateurs was published this month. In an interview with the Associated Press in 2008 he said: "It's been fun. I've had a lucky life, I've zeroed in on what you would call action and excellence... Everybody who does anything to try to succeed has to give the best of themselves, and art has made me pull the best out of myself."
LeRoy Neiman, artist: born St Paul, Minnesota 8 June 1921; married 1957 Janet Byrne; died Manhattan 20 June 2012.
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