Sep 25th 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 benamed 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.

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




For Mary L. Tabor's own web site please click here.

You can follow Mary on Twitter and on Facebook.

Below links to Amazon for LeRoy Neiman's All Told, and for Mary L. Tabor's Who by Fire and for her (Re)Making Love.



     

 


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

Jul 4th 2020
EXTRACT: "--- Nobody is more dangerous than he who imagines himself pure in heart, for his purity, by definition, is unassailable. --- Author James Baldwin’s words, written in the America of the late 1950s."
Jun 29th 2020
EXTRACT: "Numerous studies have shown that children who grow up in more deprived neighbourhoods tend to have worse physical health as adults compared to those raised in more affluent areas. This is the case even when researchers take into account family income and education, and whether or not parents have major illnesses. In order to address this health disparity, researchers need to understand how those living in disadvantaged neighbourhoods end up with worse health outcomes. Our team’s latest study has highlighted one potential way your childhood neighbourhood may influence your health for years to come. It might do so through changing how the activity of your genes is regulated."
Jun 29th 2020
EXTRACT: "Ruth Poniarski is a painter and the author of Journey of the Self: Memoir of an Artist (Warren Publishing, 2020), in which she tells the story of her decade long struggle with mental illness, a “spiraling malady” which led her into a “pattern of psychosis”. I recently had the opportunity to talk with Poniarski about her life and work, and how she eventually overcame her demons."
Jun 27th 2020
EXTRACT: "I know I’m good in a couple of things, really good in a few things, and that’s enough. My confidence is big enough that I can really let people grow next to me, it’s no problem. I need experts around me. It’s really very important that you are empathetic, that you try to understand the people around you, and that you give real support to the people around you."
Jun 27th 2020
An essay about the "the enormously influential 1940 'Head of Christ' painting by evangelical Warner E. Sallman" pictured below.
Jun 17th 2020
EXTRACT: "The diverse, non-human life forms that live in our guts – known as our microbiome – are crucial to our health. A disrupted balance of these contribute to a range of disorders and diseases, including obesity, diabetes, inflammatory bowel disease. It could even affect our mental health..... It’s well known that the microbes living in our guts are altered through diet. For example, including dietary fibre and dairy products in our diets encourages the growth of beneficial bacteria. But mounting evidence suggests that exercise can also modify the types of bacteria that reside within our guts."
Jun 13th 2020
EXTRACT: "Bonhoeffer’s life holds an important lesson for us today, regardless of our religious affiliation or lack thereof. And simply put it is this: you are called upon; you are called on behalf of your neighbor. When you are called to be responsible that is not an obligation which you can decline, discharge or acquit yourself of – it is an infinite responsibility, a “forever commitment” as Charles Blow recently put it. And we all must be prepared to make any sacrifice necessary when we are called."
Jun 11th 2020
EXTRACT: "People differ substantially in how much they’re affected by experiences in their lives. Some people seem to be more affected by daily stress, or the loss of someone close to them. On the other hand, some people seem to get through the same experiences relatively unscathed. Similarly, some people benefit strongly from counselling, or having a support system of close family and friends. Others seem better able to manage on their own. But understanding why some people are more sensitive than others isn’t just a question of how they were raised, and the experiences they’ve been through. In fact, previous research has found that some people in general seem more sensitive to what they experience – and some are generally less sensitive."
Jun 7th 2020
EXTRACT: " The root causes of anthropogenic climate change – which has led to the endangering of countless species across the globe – cannot be adequately grasped in isolation from the technological application of modern science. While Swedish activist Greta Thunberg was certainly justified in calling upon American legislators to “unite behind the science,” neither can we overlook the culpability of science in bringing about the environmental crisis. "
May 23rd 2020
EXTRACT: "The QAnon movement began in 2017 after someone known only as Q posted a series of conspiracy theories about Trump on the internet forum 4chan. QAnon followers believe global elites are seeking to bring down Trump, whom they see as the world’s only hope to defeat the “deep state.” OKM is part of a network of independent congregations (or ekklesia) called Home Congregations Worldwide (HCW). The organization’s spiritual adviser is Mark Taylor, a self-proclaimed “Trump Prophet” and QAnon influencer with a large social media following on Twitter and YouTube."
May 23rd 2020
EXTRACT: "The aim of my research for the Understanding Unbelief programme was to investigate the worldviews of non-believers, since little is known about the diversity of these non-religious beliefs, and what psychological functions they serve. I wanted to explore the idea that while non-believers may not hold religious beliefs, they still hold distinct ontological, epistemological and ethical beliefs about reality, and the idea that these secular beliefs and worldviews provide the non-religious with equivalent sources of meaning, or similar coping mechanisms, as the supernatural beliefs of religious individuals."
May 22nd 2020
EXTRACT: "Psalm 91, for example, reassures believers that God will protect them from “the pestilence that walketh in darkness… A thousand shall fall at thy side, and ten thousand at thy right hand; but it shall not come nigh thee”.............Luther was a devout believer but insisted that religious faith had to be joined with practical, physical defences against sickness. It was a good Christian’s duty to work to keep themselves and others safe, rather than relying solely on the protection of God. "
May 22nd 2020
EXTRACT: "Evidence from this study shows clearly that eating foods rich in flavonoids over your lifetime is significantly linked to reducing Alzheimer’s disease risk. However, their consumption will be even more beneficial alongside other lifestyle changes, such as quitting smoking, managing a healthy weight and exercising."
May 5th 2020
EXTRACT: "It’s possible that the answers to questions like, “how do I live a virtuous life?” or “how do we build a good society?” are not the same as they were a few weeks ago."
May 2nd 2020
EXTRACT: "Strangely, those with strong beliefs tend to be admired. The human mind hates uncertainty, so it is comforting to be told what to think, and to form settled opinions. But it is not rational. As the philosopher Bertrand Russell wrote: “The fundamental cause of the trouble is that in the modern world the stupid are cocksure while the intelligent are full of doubt.”
Apr 21st 2020
Extract: "Humans, Boccaccio seems to be saying, can think of themselves as upstanding and moral – but unawares, they may show indifference to others. We see this in the 10 storytellers themselves: They make a pact to live virtuously in their well-appointed retreats. Yet while they pamper themselves, they indulge in some stories that illustrate brutality, betrayal and exploitation. Boccaccio wanted to challenge his readers, and make them think about their responsibilities to others. “The Decameron” raises the questions: How do the rich relate to the poor during times of widespread suffering? What is the value of a life? In our own pandemic, with millions unemployed due to a virus that has killed thousands, these issues are strikingly relevant.
Apr 20th 2020
Extract: "If we do not seize this crisis as a moment for transformation, then we will have lost the war. If doing so requires reviving notions of collective guilt and responsibility – including the admittedly uncomfortable view that every one of us is infinitely responsible, then so be it; as long we do not morally cop out by blaming some group as the true bearers of sin, guilt, and God’s heavy judgment. A pandemic clarifies the nature of action: that with our every act we answer to each other. In that light, we have a duty to seize this public crisis as an opportunity to reframe our mutual responsibility to one another and the world."
Apr 16th 2020
EXTRACT: "Death is the common experience which can make all members of the human race feel their common bonds and their common humanity."
Apr 7th 2020
EXTRACT: "A crisis such as this one demands that we exercise what the philosopher Immanuel Kant called the ‘public use of reason’ – as opposed to merely the ‘private use of reason’ where, briefly put, the expert, the specialist is tasked with resolving a defined problem. The private use of reason is sufficient when we are dealing with a problem that can be solved by simply applying the appropriate expertise...............The public use of reason asks: how we are defining the problem? Is our definition – our conceptualization of the problem – perhaps part of the problem itself? Is this pandemic solely a problem of public health, or is it also a problem of extreme economic inequality? ..............Since this crisis began, the greatest failure of the administration is not the denial, the lies, the lack of preparedness, but the inability to rally and unify the nation against this common threat, the lack of genuine leadership – Trump’s utter inability to bring the nation together."
Apr 5th 2020
EXTRACT: "Rarely has an architectural experiment aroused such extremes of ire and admiration. One side is convinced the house is a masterpiece. The other expresses brutal condemnation of the entire project (leaky roof, danger of flooding, too-hot, too-cold interiors depending on the American Midwest weather).........Farnsworth encapsulated her personal ambiguity in her comment to a Newsweek interviewer: “This handsome pavilion I own is almost totally unworkable.” She told one journalist, “ … all I got was this glib, false sophistication. The conception of a house as a glass cage suspended in air is ridiculous.”