Apr 19th 2014

LeRoy Neiman—Artist, Provocateur—Tells All

by Mary L. Tabor

Mary L. Tabor worked most of her life so that one day she would be able to write full-time. She quit her corporate job when she was 50, put on a backpack and hiking boots to trudge across campus with folks more than half her age. She’s the author of the novel Who by Fire, the memoir (Re)Making Love: a sex after sixty story and the collection of connected short stories The Woman Who Never Cooked. She’s a born and bred liberal who writes lyric essays on the arts for one of the most conservative papers in the country and she hosts a show interviewing authors on Rare Bird Radio. In the picture Mary L.Tabor

LeRoy Neiman’s paintings, posters and famed handlebar mustache made him one of the most recognizable artists of our time. 

He tells all in All Told: My Art and Life Among Athletes, Playboys, Bunnies and Provocateurs, his autobiography that I previewed before its release on his 91st birthday. At that time, he gave me what turned out to be his last interview. Neiman died 12 days later.

His book gives us the powerful story of the creative journey through rejection, along with his scoop on the famed and storied folk he met, cavorted with, and, yes, painted.

We journey with him from scrappy kid in Saint Paul, Minnesota, through his decision before he finished high school to join the Army during the second great war, to his celebrated career as the “Playboy artist in residence,” as he calls himself; then to see his work regularly featured on TV’s Wide World of Sports, to be named Official Artist of the Olympic Winter Games in Lake Placid and in Sarajevo and the Summer Olympics, Los Angeles, and to become the man who met and painted Muhammad Ali and virtually every sport and movie legend of his time. 

To ring in a Frank Sinatra favorite—yes, he painted him too—he did it his way.

The story that Neiman reveals and that makes this autobiography worth reading, not only for the incredible images, is the struggle that underlies his extraordinary success with sales of his prints that at the time of my interview in 2012 still brought in $10 million a year. 

Rejection was the name of the game that most of us would argue he won.

He did not meet with critical approval. In 1957 he gets invited to the Corcoran in DC, is on display at Chicago’s Art Institute and on to the Big Apple with the likes of Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg.

But the so-called critics in New York snubbed him while his fame grew. In spite of them, he sold paintings faster than he could paint them. And he was off to the races, literally and figuratively: His paintings of jockeys and thoroughbreds are now the stuff of urban legends. 

Perhaps more deeply revealing is the critical—in all senses of that word—bond with his beloved mother. He tells us, “My mother never praised or encouraged me.” Once, she even threw out his paintings. She opens and closes the book like a thread that both held him and challenged him.

But let the critics be damned. He resolutely refused to “defer” to those he dubbed “the art elites.” 

LeRoy Neiman knew what he was about.

“Imagination,” he tells us, “comes of not having things,” key words for the creative soul. “Paintings were windows,” he says. He studied his peers. The power of Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning seemed to him “like witnessing a powerful switch from one way of seeing the world to another,” words key to the invention that marks his work. 

Those lessons inform the fullness, the speed of the images that flash off his canvases.

Insert “artist” for writer in these words by Henry James and you have LeRoy Neiman: A writer is someone on whom nothing is lost. 

Consider these facts culled from his curriculum vitae:

He goes AWOL briefly from the Army but comes home with an honorable discharge and five battle stars. Neiman notes, “The most significant designation on those discharge papers of November 20, 1945 was Army T/4 Artist.” 

He learns his craft at the School of The Art Institute of Chicago, where he also taught, as well as at the University of Chicago and the University of Illinois.

He loved boxing and boxing loved him. To wit: Induction into the New Jersey Boxing Hall of Fame the International Boxing Hall of Fame, the Boxing Writers Association, England’s Lonsdale Boxing Club and recipient of the Marvin Kohn Good Guy Award. The list goes on: Friar’s Club Tribute, Ellis Island Medal of Honor, Honorary Doctor of Arts at School of the Art Institute of Chicago and the Arts Horizon’s Paul Newman Award for Services to the Arts and Children. 

His love of fine art in music, literature and painting melds seamlessly with the seemingly paradoxical underbelly of his story: The low and high life he led in pool halls and bars and his self-acknowledged lifelong “affection for the hucksters.”

This candid autobiography reveals the author’s private collection: A photo of Muhammad Ali, in robe and neck towel, pen-in-hand, drawing with Neiman at his side. An evocative sepia and brown ink on paper that Neiman did of Leonard Bernstein, drawn in his presence. Neiman may not have been welcome in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, but the doors to the rehearsal halls at the Metropolitan Opera and Avery Fisher Hall were open to him.

We who admire his work and his story know that “the doppelgänger, the white bearded Monet” who lies hidden in his paintings lives in Neiman’s heart and lies at the heart of this telling. 

Neiman reveals how to overcome, how to live on the margin of the fine-art world, at the center of the high life, the low life and all the in-between and never forget who you are.

Here is LeRoy Neiman in answer to my questions about his life, his love—married 55 years to Janet Byrne—and his art.

 

Q: You candidly describe being seen by the critics as “the urchin clambering over the gates of their exclusive world.” Who is a painter the so-called critics have not recognized? 

Neiman: What a challenging question for me. One of my young artist friends, James de la Vega, has had some recognition in New York City but currently considers himself more of a philosopher/artist. At both Columbia University in New York City and at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, I have a presence in the art departments. In both these schools there are many talented young people training and experimenting in areas that are brand new. I have always said to young artists that scholastic training and the studying of art history are crucial to fully developing as an artist. I also tell them it is essential to draw or paint every day as I have done for decades now. As I turn 91 this June 8th, I have to admit my hours at the easel have diminished.

Q: Through your mother’s piercing insight, you realized “photographs are realistic but static” and so you’ve met virtually everyone you painted. Who gave you insights into the soul that you incorporated in the painting? 

Neiman: Perhaps Muhammad Ali who I drew and painted for so many years in many different settings. I really followed his entire career from the workouts to dressing room to the square ring in the big arenas. He was always a compelling subject. There is also a watercolor I did in 1969 that reveals Joe Namath at that moment as he is walking off the football field. His posture says everything about him at that moment.

Q: We have here one fashion illustration of your wife Janet. Have you painted Janet or is she hidden in paintings like your Monet figure? 

Neiman: My lovely wife Janet has been in a few paintings. She is basically a reserved woman who has never sought the limelight. She has always been there throughout my career and continues to be at my side.

LeRoy Neiman died on June 20, 2012, shortly after our exchange.

 

On this life lived well, I close with the poet Marianne Moore, who says in her poem “What Are Years?”:

 

His mighty singing ... how pure a thing is joy.

This is mortality, this is eternity.


Please click here for pictures of LeRoy Neiman's paintings in Google.

Please click here for the late LeRoy Neiman's official website.


All Told: My Art and Life Among Athletes, Playboys, Bunnies, and Provocateurs by LeRoy Neiman (Lyons Press, $29.95; June 8, 2012)





    

 


This article is brought to you by the author who owns the copyright to the text.

Should you want to support the author’s creative work you can use the PayPal “Donate” button below.

Your donation is a transaction between you and the author. The proceeds go directly to the author’s PayPal account in full less PayPal’s commission.

Facts & Arts neither receives information about you, nor of your donation, nor does Facts & Arts receive a commission.

Facts & Arts does not pay the author, nor takes paid by the author, for the posting of the author's material on Facts & Arts. Facts & Arts finances its operations by selling advertising space.

 

 

Browse articles by author

More Essays

Apr 8th 2021
EXTRACT: "Pollock’s universe, the universe of Mural, cannot be said to be a rational universe. Nor is it simply devoid of all sense. It is not a purely imaginary world, although in it everything is in a constant state of flux. Mural invokes one of the oldest questions of philosophy, a question going back to the Pre-Socratic philosophers Parmenides and Heraclitus – namely, whether the nature of Reality constitutes unchanging permanence or constant movement and flux. For Pollock, the only thing that is truly unchanging is change itself. The only certainty is that all is uncertain."
Apr 8th 2021
EXTRACT: "Many present day politicians appear to have psychopathic and narcissistic traits too. It’s easy to spot such leaders, because they are always authoritarian, following hardline policies. They try to subvert democracy, to reduce the freedom of the press and clamp down on dissent. They are obsessed with national prestige, and often persecute minority groups. And they are always corrupt and lacking in moral principles."
Apr 6th 2021
EXTRACT: "This has led some to claim that not just half, but perhaps nearly all advertising money is wasted, at least online. There are similar results outside of commerce. One review of field experiments in political campaigning argued “the best estimate of the effects of campaign contact and advertising on Americans’ candidates choices in general elections is zero”. Zero!"
Mar 30th 2021
EXTRACT: "The Father is an extraordinary film, from Florian Zeller’s 2012 play entitled Le Père and directed by Zeller. I’m here to tell you why it is a ‘must see’." EDITOR'S NOTE: The official trailer is attached to the review.
Mar 28th 2021
EXTRACT: "Picasso was 26 in 1907, when he completed the Demoiselles; de Kooning was 48 in 1952, when he finished Woman I.  The difference in their ages was not an accident, for studies of hundreds of painters have revealed a striking regularity - the conceptual painters who preconceive their paintings, from Raphael to Warhol, consistently make their greatest contributions earlier in their careers than experimental painters, from Rembrandt to Pollock, who paint directly, without preparatory studies."
Mar 26th 2021
EXTRACT: "Mental toughness levels are influenced by many different factors. While genetics are partly responsible, a person’s environment is also relevant. For example, both positive experiences while you’re young and mental toughness training programmes have been found to make people mentally tougher."
Mar 20th 2021

The city of Homs has been ravaged by war, leaving millions of people homeless an

Mar 20th 2021
EXTRACT: "There are two main rival models of ethics: one is based on rights, the other on duties. The rights-based model, which traces its philosophical origins to the work of John Locke in the 17th century, starts from the assumption that individuals have rights ....... According to this approach, duties are related to rights, but only in a subordinate role. My right to health implies a duty on my country to provide some healthcare services, to the best of its abilities. This is arguably the dominant interpretation when philosophers talk about rights, including human rights." ........ "Your right to get sick, or to risk getting sick, could imply a duty on others to look after you during your illness." ..... "The pre-eminence of rights in our moral compass has vindicated unacceptable levels of selfishness. It is imperative to undertake a fundamental duty not to get sick, and to do everything in our means to avoid causing others to get sick. Morally speaking, duties should come first and should not be subordinated to rights." ..... "Putting duties before rights is not a new, revolutionary idea. In fact it is one of the oldest rules in the book of ethics. Primum non nocere, or first do no harm, is the core principle in the Hippocratic Oath historically taken by doctors, widely attributed to the ancient Greek philosopher and physician Hippocrates. It is also a fundamental principle in the moral philosophy of the Roman statesman Marcus Tullius Cicero, who in De Officiis (On Duties) argues that the first task of justice is to prevent men and women from causing harm to others."
Mar 18th 2021
EXTRACT: "Several studies have recently compared the difference between antibodies produced straight after a coronavirus infection and those that can be detected six months later. The findings have been both impressive and reassuring. Although there are fewer coronavirus-specific antibodies detectable in the blood six months after infection, the antibodies that remain have undergone significant changes. …….. the “mature” antibodies were better at recognising the variants."
Mar 15th 2021
EXTRACT: "Like Shakespeare, Goya sees evil as something existing in itself – indeed, the horror of evil arises precisely from its excess. It overflows and refuses to be contained by or integrated into our categories of reason or comprehension. By its very nature, evil refuses to remain within prescribed bounds – to remain fixed, say, within an economy where evil is counterbalanced by good. Evil is always excess of evil." ....... "Nowhere is this more evident than in war. Goya offers us a profound and sustained meditation on the nature of war ........ The image of a Napoleonic soldier gazing indifferently on a man who has been summarily hanged, probably by his own belt, expresses the tragedy of war – its dehumanization of both war’s victims and victors."
Mar 14th 2021
EXTRACT: "A blockchain company has bought a piece of Banksy artwork and burnt it. But instead of destroying the value of the art, they claim to have made it more valuable, because it was sold as a piece of blockchain art. The company behind the stunt, called Injective Protocol, bought the screen print from a New York gallery. They then live-streamed its burning on the Twitter account BurntBanksy. But why would anyone buy a piece of art just to burn it? Understanding the answer requires us to delve into the tricky world of blockchain or “NFT” art."
Mar 14th 2021
EXTRACT: "Exercise is good for your health at every age – and you can reap the benefits no matter how late in life you start. But our latest research has shown another benefit of being physically active throughout life. We found that in the US, people who were more physically active as teenagers and throughout adulthood had lower healthcare costs."
Mar 10th 2021
EXTRACT: "Although around one in 14 people over 65 have Alzheimer’s disease, there’s still no cure, and no way to prevent the disease from progressing. But a recent study may bring us one step closer to preventing Alzheimer’s. The trial, which was conducted on animals, has found a specific molecule can prevent the buildup of a toxic protein known to cause Alzheimer’s in the brain."
Feb 24th 2021
EXTRACT: "The art historian George Kubler observed that scholars in the humanities “pretend to despise measurement because of its ‘scientific’ nature.” As if to illustrate his point Robert Storr, former dean of Yale’s School of Art, declared that artistic success is “completely unquantifiable.” In fact, however, artistic success can be quantified, in several ways. One of these is based on the analysis of texts produced by art scholars, and this measure can give us a systematic understanding of how changes in recent art have produced changes in the canon of art history."
Feb 24th 2021
EXTRACT: "The most politically sensitive option we looked at was the virus escaping from a laboratory. We concluded this was extremely unlikely."
Feb 16th 2021
EXTRACT: ".... these men were completely unaware that they had put their lives in the hands of doctors who not only had no intention of healing them but were committed to observing them until the final autopsy – since it was believed that an autopsy alone could scientifically confirm the study’s findings. As one researcher wrote in a 1933 letter to a colleague, “As I see, we have no further interest in these patients until they die.” ...... The unquestionable ethical failure of Tuskegee is one with which we must grapple, and of which we must never lose sight, lest we allow such moral disasters to repeat themselves. "
Feb 14th 2021
EXTRACT: "In 2010 Carlos Rodriguez, the president of Buenos Aires' Universidad del CEMA, created the world's first - and only - Center for Creativity Economics.  During the next ten years, the CCE presented a number of short courses and seminars.  But the most important of its events was an annual lecture by an Argentine artist, who was given a Creative Career Award."
Feb 11th 2021
EXTRACT: "It’s not hard to see why. Although AI systems outperform humans in tasks that are often associated with a “high level of intelligence” (playing chess, Go, or Jeopardy), they are nowhere close to excelling at tasks that humans can master with little to no training (such as understanding jokes). What we call “common sense” is actually a massive base of tacit knowledge – the cumulative effect of experiencing the world and learning about it since childhood. Coding common-sense knowledge and feeding it into AI systems is an unresolved challenge. Although AI will continue to solve some difficult problems, it is a long way from performing many tasks that children undertake as a matter of course."
Feb 7th 2021
EXTRACT: "When it comes to being fit and healthy, we’re often reminded to aim to walk 10,000 steps per day. This can be a frustrating target to achieve, especially when we’re busy with work and other commitments. Most of us know by now that 10,000 steps is recommended everywhere as a target to achieve – and yet where did this number actually come from?"
Feb 5th 2021
EXTRACT: "This so-called elite supposedly conspires to monopolise academic employment and research grants. Its alleged objective is to deny divine authority, and the ultimate beneficiary and prime mover is Satan.Such beliefs derive from the doctrine of biblical infallibility, long accepted as integral to the faith of numerous evangelical and Baptist churches throughout the world, including the Free Church of Scotland. But I would argue that the present-day creationist movement is a fully fledged conspiracy theory. It meets all the criteria, offering a complete parallel universe with its own organisations and rules of evidence, and claims that the scientific establishment promoting evolution is an arrogant and morally corrupt elite."