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

Mar 23rd 2020
EXTRACT: "In March 2020, my sister Nancy and I did something that, as scholars, we had never done before: we wrote about ourselves, comparing our own experiences receiving cancer care on either side of the Atlantic. As we recently reported in the BMJ, much of our experience is similar. As twins, we both have the same form of cancer. Both of us received excellent treatment in well-established university teaching hospitals. Both of us are now in remission. But there is a glaring difference. Nancy lives in the US, covered under a good private healthcare scheme. I live in the UK, covered by the NHS."
Mar 21st 2020
EXTRACT: "In philosophy, individualism is closely linked with the concept of freedom. As soon as restrictive measures were imposed in Italy, many people felt that their freedom was threatened and started to assert their individuality in various ways. Some disagreed with the necessity of cancelling group gatherings and organised unofficial ones themselves. Others continued to go out and live as they always did. We often assume that freedom is to do as we choose, and that is contrasted with being told what to do. As long as I am doing what the government tells me, I am not free. I am going out, not because I want to, but because that shows I am free. But there is another route to freedom..........."
Mar 12th 2020
EXTRACT: "Repeated stress is a major trigger for persistent inflammation in the body. Chronic inflammation can lead to a range of health problems, including diabetes and heart disease. The brain is normally protected from circulating molecules by a blood-brain barrier. But under repeated stress, this barrier becomes leaky and circulating inflammatory proteins can get into the brain. The brain’s hippocampus is a critical brain region for learning and memory, and is particularly vulnerable to such insults. Studies in humans have shown that inflammation can adversely affect brain systems linked to motivation and mental agility. There is also evidence of chronic stress effects on hormones in the brain, including cortisol and corticotropin releasing factor (CRF). High, prolonged levels of cortisol have been associated with mood disorders as well as shrinkage of the hippocampus. It can also cause many physical problems, including irregular menstrual cycles."
Mar 12th 2020
EXTRACT: "It’s important to do things that make you happy or content as you are doing them – and doing them for yourself. Research has found that picking recovery activities you find personally satisfying and meaningful is more likely to help you feel recovered by the next morning."
Feb 22nd 2020
EXTRACTS: "A recent study of nearly 3,000 physicists found that a scientist’s most highly cited publication had an equal probability of being published at any point within the sequence of papers the scientist published.........Creativity is not the prerogative of the young, but can occur at any stage in the life cycle...........there is not a single kind of creativity, but that in virtually every intellectual discipline there are two different types of creativity, each associated with a distinct pattern of discovery over the life cycle. The bold leaps of fearless and iconoclastic young conceptual innovators are one important form of creativity. Archetypal conceptual innovators include Einstein, Picasso.......very different type of creativity, in which important new discoveries emerge gradually and incrementally from the extended explorations of older experimental innovators.......The single year from with Paul Cézanne’s work is most frequently illustrated in textbooks of art history is 1906 – the last year of his life, when he was 67."
Feb 22nd 2020
EXTRACT: "As our global population is projected to live longer than ever before, it’s important that we find ways of helping people live healthier for longer. Exercise and diet are often cited as the best ways of maintaining good health well into our twilight years. But recently, research has also started to look at the role our gut – specifically our microbiome – plays in how we age."
Feb 16th 2020
EXTRACT: "In an increasingly polarised political landscape, we see differing political views challenged, not through debate and discussion, but through tribal behaviour. We often consider the groups that we belong to as worthy of empathy, respect and tolerance – but not others. What’s more, recent research has identified that we reward our leaders for being naysayers – negating, refuting or criticising others – rather than empowering them."
Feb 14th 2020
EXTRACT: "All of which is to say that the Communist Manifesto is not a historical relic of a bygone era, an era of which many would like to think we have washed our hands. As long as workers’ rights are trampled on, and children are pressed into wretched servitude; as long as real wages stagnate, so that economic inequality continues to grow, allowing wealth to be ever more concentrated in the hands of the few – then the Communist Manifesto will continue to resonate and we will hear the clarion call of workers of the world to unite, “for they have nothing to lose but their chains. They have a world to win.” "
Feb 4th 2020
EXTRACTS: "In my many visits to Michael’s studio I have had the opportunity to observe his process up close and over time.............."Armageddon Yacht (2019)". The name is derived from a term that US sailors use for an aircraft carrier. Power and violence are recurring themes in Anderson’s work – and no less here. With irony and wit he questions our contemporary assumptions and illusions about power. The central image of three models sipping martinis on a yacht presents us with an idealized vision of Western luxury and decadence, privilege and wealth."
Jan 23rd 2020
EXTRACT: " For the first time in over two decades a painting by Marc Chagall will be going up for auction in Israel. Tiroche Auction House will be hosting the Israeli & International Art auction on January 25th – featuring paintings by a number of Israeli masters, including Reuben Rubin, and Yosl Bergner. The highlight of the evening however is Chagall’s Jacob’s Ladder (1970-1974), a theme to which the artist would return at least a dozen times in paintings and drawings."
Jan 16th 2020
EXTRACT: "Between 1940 and 1942 Charlotte Salomon, a young German-Jewish artist, created a sequence of 784 paintings while hiding from the Nazi authorities. She gave the sequence a single title: Leben? oder Theater? (Life? or Theatre?). Viewed in the 21st century, Salomon’s artwork could be considered a precursor to the contemporary graphic novel, creating a complex web of narratives through words and images."
Jan 9th 2020
EXTRACT: "It’s simply not possible to do justice to the value of Iran’s cultural heritage – it’s a rich and noble history that has had a fundamental impact on the world through art, architecture, poetry, in science and technology, medicine, philosophy and engineering. The Iranian people are intensely aware – and rightly proud of – their Persian heritage. The archaeological legacy left by the civilisations of ancient and medieval Iran extend from the Mediterranean Sea to India and ranges across four millennia from the Bronze age (3rd millennium BC) to the glorious age of classical Islam and the magnificent medieval cities of Isfahan and Shiraz that thrived in the 9th-12th centuries AD, and beyond."
Jan 9th 2020
EXTRACT: "Lautrec had a genius for representing people. He would rarely paint any other subject. When he looked at a person who caught his interest, not only their appearance, but seemingly also their personality would magically flow from his hand, fixing a moment of their life, and his, on a piece of cardboard or canvas."
Jan 7th 2020
EXTRACT: "In 2010, Great Britain generated 75% of its electricity from coal and natural gas. But by the end of the decade*, these fossil fuels accounted for just 40%, with coal generation collapsing from the decade’s peak of 41% in 2012 to under 2% in 2019. The near disappearance of coal power – the second most prevalent source in 2010 – underpinned a remarkable transformation of Britain’s electricity generation over the last decade, meaning Britain now has the cleanest electrical supply it has ever had. Second place now belongs to wind power, which supplied almost 21% of the country’s electrical demand in 2019, up from 3% in 2010. As at the start of the decade, natural gas provided the largest share of Britain’s electricity in 2019 at 38%, compared with 47% in 2010."
Jan 5th 2020
EXTRACT: "Owing to these positive developments, many were lulled into thinking that modern advanced economies can run on autopilot. And yet economists knew that market capitalism does not automatically self-correct for adverse distributional trends (both secular and transitional), especially extreme ones. Public policies and government services and investments have a critical role to play. But in many places, these have been either non-existent or insufficient. The result has been a durable pattern of unequal opportunity that is contributing to the polarization of many societies. This deepening divide has a negative spillover effect on politics, governance, and policymaking, and now appears to be hampering our ability to address major issues, including the sustainability challenge."
Jan 2nd 2020
In September 2018, Ian Buruma was forced out as editor of The New York Review of Books, following an outcry over the magazine’s publication of a controversial essay about #MeToo. A year later, in a conversation with Svenska Dagbladet US correspondent Malin Ekman, he reflects on lost assignments, literature, cancel culture, threats to freedom of speech, and the state of liberal democracy.
Dec 31st 2019
EXTRACT: "I have long been troubled by the way so many believing Christians in the West have either been ignorant of or turned their backs on the plight of Palestinians, both Christian and Muslim. Right​-wing Evangelicals, under the sway of heretical theology, are so blinded by their obsession with Israel that they can't see Israel's victims. Other Western Christians simply just don't know or about the people of Palestine. I find this state of affairs to always distressing, but especially so at Christmas time, since the Christmas story we celebrate not only took place in that land, it continues to define the lives of the Palestinians who live in places like Bethlehem and Nazareth. "
Dec 19th 2019
EXTRACT: "Although there have long been farmers and merchants who specialised in growing and selling seeds, it wasn’t until the 20th century that people started talking about seed production as an industrial process. Thanks to changes in farming, science and government regulations, most of the “elite” seed that is bought and sold around the world today is mass produced and mass marketed — by just four transnational corporations."
Dec 14th 2019
EXTRACT: "Dehydration is associated with a higher risk of ill health in older people, from having an infection, a fall or being admitted to hospital. But an appetite for food and drink can diminish as people age, so older people should drink regularly, even when they’re not thirsty. Older women who don’t have to restrict their fluid intake for medical reasons, such as heart or kidney problems, are advised to drink eight glasses a day. For older men, it’s ten glasses."
Dec 12th 2019
EXTRACT: "A decade ago, I wrote The Life You Can Save: Acting Now to End World Poverty. This month, a fully revised Tenth Anniversary edition was published, and is available, free, as an eBook and audiobook. The chapters of the audiobook are read by celebrities, including Paul Simon, Kristen Bell, Stephen Fry, Natalia Vodianova, Shabana Azmi, and Nicholas D’Agosto. Revising the book has led me to reflect on the impact it has had, while the research involved in updating it has made me focus on what has changed over the past ten years"