At 86, LeRoy Neiman Isn't Slowing Down
Saturday, September 15, 2007; 4:20 AM
NEW YORK -- Something strange is missing from LeRoy Neiman's art studio. There's an easel, of course, and a long table piled with pots of paints and brushes. Years of work have left a thick coat of multicolored droplets splattered across the floor.
What's missing? In a word: Art.
Other than a few commissions stacked below the easel and two enormous paintings hanging on the walls, Neiman's airy studio is remarkably spare _ a testament to his astounding selling prowess.
"I haven't got anything left," he says. "I've got a couple dozen decent paintings that I've kept. But everything else is taken."
He says it without regret or hubris. It's just a fact of life for the 86-year-old known for his expressive, vibrant portraits of sports figures and cultural life. For decades, Neiman has turned his art into a virtual one-man empire, creating a phalanx of fans and joining the ranks of artists whose works command prices over $100,000.
"I haven't bought a cigar or a bottle of wine in 40 years," he says with a laugh during an interview in the Upper West Side home and studio he has shared with his wife, Janet, for decades.
It's here that Neiman has created his abstract, vivid and kinetic views of racetracks and bars, as well as portraits of such luminaries as Muhammad Ali, The Beatles, Louis Armstrong, Frank Sinatra and Mickey Mantle.
Along the way, he's churned up more than paint. Neiman has often been dismissed by some as too commercial to take seriously.
"Many people would say that the very popularity of LeRoy's work would speak against his being a great artist," says Tony Jones, president of the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. "I think it's all a complete waste of time. He is who he is and he paints what he paints."
His slicked-back hair and signature handlebar mustache may be gray these days, but Neiman hasn't slowed down. He still cranks out paintings every few months and always has a stack of prints and posters to sign.
He's just finished portraits of former Yankee great Reggie Jackson and the two Ryder Cup captains _ Nick Faldo and Paul Azinger _ and a painting for the popular East Harlem Italian restaurant Rao's. He's planning a 160-foot-long mural for the soon-to-open Sports Museum of America downtown and has been commissioned to climb into a helicopter and paint the Los Angeles skyline.
This month, his smallest works are up for sale. Franklin Bowles Galleries in San Francisco and New York are offering 300 of his drawings for Playboy magazine, ranging in price from $10 to $50,000.
The drawings of a 12-inch-tall voluptuous brunette _ nude except for high heels, stockings and gloves _ have graced the magazine's Party Jokes Page since 1957.
"I think she's as legitimate a thing I do as my paintings because she took as much out of me and I gave as much to do it as anything else I've ever done," says Neiman, as he pages through an accompanying catalog.
There's a sketch of Femlin relaxing in a champagne glass, another in a yoga pose, a third of her playing soccer. He draws a year worth of her at a time.
"I love this little creature. She's part of me," he says. "I don't know if it's important to society, but it's important to me."
He and publisher Hugh Hefner came up with the concept. Neiman offered an elegant design and Hefner added the name. "Hef said, 'She's a gremlin.' I said, 'And she's feminine.' Then he said, 'Femlin.'"
Playboy was where Neiman really got his start. His work illustrated articles and a regular feature, "Man at His Leisure," that offered him the chance to roam the globe painting bullfights, polo matches, bars and auto races.
He became the first New York Jets' artist in residence and made art in front of millions at live televised boxing bouts, Super Bowls, Pan-Am Games and five Olympics.
His portrait of hockey star Bobby Hull graced the cover of Time magazine in 1968 and he created six postage stamps for the Centennial Olympic Games in Atlanta. He even had cameos as the ring announcer in several "Rocky" movies.
Dr. Louis A Zona, executive director and chief curator at The Butler Institute of American Art in Youngstown, Ohio, compares Neiman to the much-mourned Luciano Pavarotti, celebrated for bringing opera to the masses.
"LeRoy Neiman has done the same thing. He's taken fine art techniques, he's taken abstract expressionist techniques and he's presented them to the average person," Zona says. "He's truly an American original."
Some of Neiman's biggest fans are those who dribble, rush or bat for a living. Athletes like Derek Jeter, Michael Jordan, Tiger Woods and Shaquille O'Neal have all been Neiman-ized.
He recalls a time when O'Neal came over while the artist was sketching the basketball star and began quizzing him about the drawing.
"He said, 'I want to know how you did it and why you did it,'" Neiman recalls. "I said, 'What is it that you like about it?' He said, 'You got me fast. I look fast.'"
That's a talent athletes love. The Art Institute's Jones recalls entering a bar with Neiman in Chicago and the place erupting with a roar of recognition. Inside were British boxer Ken Norton and his entourage, as well as defensive backs from the Chicago Bears.
"The bar is filled with these immensely huge men," Jones says. "LeRoy, who is not small, and I are completely lost in this, surrounded by these huge men. And LeRoy is the star."
Born into a working class family in St. Paul, Minn., Neiman was an art star early. He began by offering classmates pen tattoos of Popeye and Mickey Mouse. "I got so I could draw them upside down. At recess, the kids would stick their arms out," he says.
While serving in World War II, Neiman made portraits of officers, did drawings to get out of detail and made memorable posters warning about venereal diseases. In Belgium, he learned that the GI Bill would put him through art school.
"I knew then I was going to be an artist," he says.
He studied at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, where he would later teach for a decade. He gets frustrated when art schools don't require more drawing.
"I draw all the time," he says, pulling out an ever-present clump of scrap paper from his back pocket, should inspiration strike. "Drawing is my backbone. I don't think a painter has to be able to draw, I just think that if you draw, you better draw well."
Neiman was doing fashion drawings at a Chicago department store when he met Hefner, a copywriter. Neiman saw a bright, chain-smoking nervous wreck, "one of those kind of guys who was going to do something," he says. "I knew he had something."
A key breakthrough in his art came by accident: He was in his basement studio when a janitor passed by with a wheelbarrow full of half-full enamel paint cans used in bathrooms. "I said, 'Drop them in front of my studio,'" Neiman recalls.
The new paint turned out to be a revelation, offering Neiman something that watercolors, pastels and oils couldn't _ movement and texture.
"It works," he says. "I haven't grown since."
Through a national network of galleries that sell his work, Neiman's fortune has soared. He's also given some of it away: In 1995, he donated $6 million to create the LeRoy Neiman Center for Print Studies at Columbia University and last year offered $3 million to his alma mater in Chicago.
He's also passed his knowledge to a new generation. For three years, Neiman has taught intensive drawing to groups of Chicago public high school students. He invites football players, ballet dancers and cyclists for the children to draw and then takes them to a boxing gym, a race course or even Charlie Trotter's restaurant for some sketching in the field.
"I think he's never forgotten he came from a disadvantaged, difficult background himself," says Jones. "And he says to me all the time, 'I'm really lucky.'"
For Neiman, the chance to make a handsome living with art, to draw what he wishes and enjoy the admiration of fans, is all he needs.
"I've got the public. I don't care about the critics," he says. "I did at one time. I don't any more. I did when I needed compliments. But if you get a lot of compliments, you don't need a critic to tell you, 'This should be done another way.'"
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