Sixty years is a long time for success in any field. Since the 1950s, LeRoy Neiman has been a popular oil painter whose successes are measured less through the accolades of critics and academics than by commissions and auction results. During the past half century Neiman became known for many things, starting with the paintings of Playboy magazine cover girls he executed for Playboy Clubs and the Playboy Mansion.
He was the official artist for five Olympic games. He also gained notoriety for his ringside sketches of the 1972 Muhammad Ali-Al Frazier match. Because of a blackout on live television coverage, sports anchors relied on his sketches to illustrate their coverage of the storied fight. Neiman has painted many other famous athletes, human and equine. The loving eye he brings to his painted racehorses has been compared to his work on the female figure for Hugh Hefner.
And just in case his painting eluded anyone’s attention, Neiman turned himself into a trademark with his prodigious mustache, which extends beyond both cheeks like a cat’s whiskers and suggests that he once considered Salvador Dali as a role model.
Growing up before World War II in Minnesota, Neiman did not have a particular interest in art, although he did win a national award for a painting of a fish when he was in the sixth grade. Referring to himself as a “street kid” from a tough, working-class neighborhood in St. Paul, his curiosity was immersed in the edgy ambiance of urban life. By his account he wandered streets filled with mobsters, gamblers and prostitutes. In a story from Depression-era America, his teenage years were marked by boxing matches and riding boxcars to Chicago.
After high school, he joined the army and found himself painting murals on the mess hall walls. A positive response from his fellow troops led him to pursuing art on the GI Bill when he left the service in 1946. Studying at the Art Institute of Chicago, he learned the skills and discipline required to achieve satisfying results.
With the benefit of the faculty, mostly emigré East European Jews, he discovered and was influenced by a variety of painters, whose works seemed to echo his childhood experiences. Ashcan School and the New York Realists called to mind the gritty excitement of the urban streets where he grew up. The intense drama of Expressionist painter Kokoschka, the vibrant colorfield of deKooning and Klein as well as the traditional mainstream of modern urban art all left a mark on the young art student’s palette.
Once asked who his early influences were, he read out a litany of famous artists including Fragonard for his brushwork, Rubens for his spirit and Homer, Remington and Sargent for movement.
In 1951 Neiman joined the faculty of the Art Institute, teaching drawing and fashion illustration. Several years later, a chance encounter with Hugh Hefner lead to work for Playboy magazine, where Neiman wrote and illustrated the column “Man At His Leisure.” The 15 years with Playboy gained him recognition as an action sports painter and opened many doors. Known also for his sparkling portraiture of celebrities, his roster of the rich and famous include Frank Sinatra, Leonard Bernstein, Liza Minnelli, Muhammad Ali and Sylvester Stallone. International figures include Nelson Mandela, Prince Charles, The Three Tenors and The Beatles. And, in homage to his Depression-era youth, he captured a spirited impression of Chicago gangster Al Capone.
Assessing his unique style, call it masculine impressionism, you get a sense that the only thing not moving in his paintings is the canvas. With bold splashes of vibrant color, the artist paints in motion; a method popularized by the frantic Abstract painter, Jackson Pollack, who tossed and drizzled paint onto canvas with reckless abandon. Neiman’s method is more disciplined, with an objective that is representational and story-telling. Whether it’s an NBA winning game shot at the hoop or a lively night at an Irish pub, there is a narrative and a sense of urgency to Neiman’s painting.
Sporting themes comprise the majority of Neiman’s body of work. Football, basketball and boxing, hockey, gymnastics, tennis, golf, swimming and cycling and a nod at billiards have caught his imaginative eye.
His work is available in the retail market and at auction. A current release, “Homage To Lincoln,” chronicles American history with a head and shoulders study commemorating the 200th anniversary of the 16th President’s birth. The 17- by 17-inch serigraph, signed by the artist, is limited to an edition of 345 numbered impressions and retails for $2,500.
In the last year, his serigraphs have sold marginally well at auction houses. As one of the most popular living artists in America today, collectors have a full range of his work to consider. Among recent sales:
A lot of two golf serigraphs, The 16th at Cypress and International Foursome (1982) sold at Treadway-Toomey in Ohio in September for $2,200 (hammer); the tennis themed serigraph, The Racketeers (1974) went up to the paddle at Heritage in Dallas in October and sold for $600 (hammer); a framed serigraph of famed NFL player Jerry Rice (1985), showing the wide receiver off the ground in a winning catch, brought $500 (hammer) at Portland’s O’Gallerie auction in June.
As Neiman’s sports pieces are often celebratory in the spirit of the winning game point or touchdown, what could be more characteristic of his work than his jubilant, duck-for-cover depiction of a just uncorked champagne bottle with the bubbly spraying up to the sky. The 2006 serigraph sold at Heritage in July for $1,100 (hammer).
LeRoy Neiman could be called America’s sporting life artist or a purveyor of the leisure life. Either way, it’s quite a leap for the street kid from St. Paul.
Mary Manion is the acting director of Landmarks Gallery and Restoration Studio, Milwaukee. She can be reached at email@example.com.
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