“LeRoy Neiman- Artist in Residence of American Culture”
Kenneth Zeran

The artist, Kenneth Zeran, is also the producer of “LeRoy Neiman: A Dialogue” and over twenty other television productions and multi-media projects with the artist spanning nearly 40 years.

We were rolling east on 57th street in Manhattan toward Sutton Place and Yue Sai Kan’s party following her father’s watercolor show that evening at Hammer Galleries. The three of us, seated in the lap of luxury of a stretch limousine. As we moved through the boulevard scene of fashionable imagery of contemporary society the thought occurred to me that my two friends, seated on either side of me, were the best known artists ever to render this scene- American popular culture.

Both world famous, not only for their work but they’re own image. One with a silver hair mop top and recorder in hand and the other with a festooned mustache and cigar in hand. These titans of pop culture had come from the same generation but found different routes. One, the icon of an art movement, the other a maverick.

Andy Warhol’s memorable story has become an enigma of his own fascination with reproduction and fame in spite of his desire to be remembered as a figment. LeRoy Neiman’s life story is still being drafted at the time of this writing. His place at the head table of American Pop Culture should be explained if one wants to understand what history will show one day in its rearview mirror.

This essay is not only authored by myself, as his longtime friend, but also as an eyewitness and player in the amazing career and life of LeRoy Neiman. It’s an inside job, not only on the man but the contemporaneous conditions that promulgated his success and, in turn, its lasting impact on our culture.

Validation of a great artist requires consideration of the formative youthful period when talent is discovered. It is important to understand that Neiman was a child prodigy. Unlike Picasso who was born the son of an art instructor, Neiman did not enjoy the presence of his father or disciplined training. He was on his own with only the occasional encouragement of his mother and a group of nuns. By the sixth grade he had won a national art competition.

While it may be noted that LeRoy Neiman grew up in the depression on the wrong side of the tracks of St. Paul, Minnesota he was enriched in youthful talent. He was drawing fruits and vegetables sought by store owners paying the lad 5 cents each. It helped put food on the family table. Behavioral scientists refer to the process of ‘imprinting’ in early childhood. For the believers the essence of art is drawing, the evidence is clear- Neiman was gifted at a very young age and recognized locally and nationally. Salvador Dali stated “That which does not stem from drawing is plagiarism”. Pablo Picasso pointed out the glass of a camera lense interferes with art. Like Picasso, Neiman’s early ability to draw developed into mastery and stayed with him, providing the ability, confidence and courage to take on endless subject matter.

Without formal training the prodigy was a natural. Without such influence he was able to experience unfettered freedom in self-development while growing up on streets void of pedigree treatment. This experience would form his personality and point of view. A teen working on the Mesabi Range during the day and sleeping in railroad cabooses- a scene of rough guys and whores. An environment lacking elitism and filled with democracy. Neiman the populist- bold, bright, brash, talented, tempered with humility. His roots were earthy All-American.

Understanding the foundation of the youngster's talent leads one to the map of mature development. Again the path is not through a Salon, privileged sanctuary, or Art School but the United States Army, World War II, and experience in D-Day and the Battle of The Bulge.

LeRoy Neiman’s formation would be aligned shoulder to shoulder with the G.I ‘s serving his country. One can hear Aaron Copland’s “Fanfare For The Common Man”. The young artist was in allegiance with the masses- a relationship he would enjoy throughout his career and one that would be rewarded.

Neiman was armed with irresistible talent. The G.I’s loved his work. In the mess halls his murals of a capricious young lady jumping through donut holes would entertain the troops and become the Playboy “Femlin” character, an icon of American pop.

The young man was placed anonymously into the masses and, like cream rising to the top, was distinguished by his peers for his talent to entertain. It was early LeRoy Neiman connecting with the multitudes. What more objective review could there be for an artist?

After serving his country, his country served him with the GI Bill- art school at the renowned Chicago Art Institute, which underscores another key ingredient in understanding the authenticity of Neiman- an impressive knowledge of both his craft and art history. He was exposed to history’s great artists and quickly developed an insatiable thirst in communing with them. Influenced by many, and some in particular, the mix with his own innocent abundant talent was constructing the mosaic of LeRoy Neiman.

He had encountered the sentiments expressed in his favorite poem about artists in Rudyard Kipling’s “L’Envoi”. “Each for the joy of the working, and each, in his separate star, shall draw the Thing as he sees It for the God of Things as They Are!”

Having embraced formal training, he went on to teach at the Institute for a decade with lasting results. Behind the image of a swashbuckling artist is the solid fact that he possesses a sophisticated and intellectual capacity that can hold serve in any court. He holds five honorary doctorate degrees.

Early in his career Neiman was awarded the most popular prize out of 3000 entries in the 25th American Biennial Exhibition at the Corcoran in 1957 and the Gold Medal at the Salon d’Art Modern Paris in 1961. He is prolific. Works seven days a week, really never stops. He says, “Its about measuring up to what you expect of yourself.”

The Neiman portrait was emerging from a blend of natural ability, freedom in its development, and an impressive formal training making him a true original with a talent which, can only be imitated.

Such ingredients are enhanced through domestic security. Neiman once told me “I don’t believe you can make it alone”. While at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago he met a dancer and artist whom would complete and remain his foundation for a lifetime- Janet Byrne. Janet Neiman continues to be the ‘other half’ of a flourishing, intellectual, and pragmatic partnership. That LeRoy Neiman is considered a great artist it must be remembered that behind every great man there is a great woman.

With the foundation set, what followed appears, in retrospect, to have been a constellation of preordained success, an exquisite star-crossed timeline that truly validates his place in history.

Chicago culture brought red, white, and blue hues with a jazz theme to the development of the young artist. Neiman met a friend of his wife, a young copyrighter launching an idea for a contemporary post WWII gentleman’s magazine- Hugh Hefner. ‘Hef’ was rolling out Playboy Magazine and hatched the idea of LeRoy traveling the world first-class for a series “Man at His Leisure”. Neiman’s art and imagination was now on the menu for a hungry American appetite. He was capturing the eye of an emerging and prospering super power. His presence was consistently published while his easel was busy producing for the world of Fine Art. It was original and possessed the ‘IT’ in making a connection with the new edge of a new audience that was turning hip.

LeRoy Neiman is not associated with a particular school or art movement. He is a self professed 'maverick'that has succeeded in spite of typecasting. He survived every cranky critic’s vocabularic werdz comfounded by his mass appeal. As Andy said of his own work, “It’s all right there on the surface”.

Pop Art’s world rejected illustration and abstract images, it lured concepts of reproduction done in technical form. Pop artists were rendering the result of a culture and Neiman was painting the act. Neiman is anti-technical.

A photograph may present 1/60th second or television 30 frames per second. Neiman paintings allow for time beyond a moment. The perspective is the setting with stories evolving in each part of the space. The content may remain unresolved. The difference between cinema and a Neiman painting is the movie takes one to two hours and is temporary whereas a Neiman can put it all into a single image and it is everlasting.

His artwork does not require a qualification to enjoy and appreciate. The audience can identify the subject matter while being dazzled by the magic of his technique. The style is a combination of the old masters oil work and exlosive modernity. His painting has the same kind of impact that existed over a century ago in Impressionism. Rather than a soft, restful application of paint in concert with the 19th Century European world, Neiman renders the opposite- bold, slashing, vibrant color fields that speak of the modernity of contemporary post-war 20th Century America. The Impressionists benefited from photography and Neiman from electronic media. Both have the same feature in common. Representational imagery with the application of paint, as that which emotionally engages the viewer. It’s about the paint. The medium is the message. Impressionism is popular and so is Neimanism.

Every great artist creates a unique visual language that leaves an audience processing that dialect. Much like Jackson Pollock, Neiman’s discovery of industrial oil and enamel paint provided punch and, when combined with flat media, creates depth and motion. The use of positive and negative relationships contribute to the free form. These invade each other and blend to communicate. Whereas Pollock’s work was abstract expressionism, Neiman harnessed such chaos into scenes of identifiable imagery. Giving the viewer great value, it also completed the movement’s next step into a culture of televised realism. “Everybody was dripping the paint. I made images with it and it changed my life.” “I think in words integrating temperature and tonality” LeRoy has said the left side of his brain is Norman Rockwell and the right side is William DeKooning and his heart is Toulouse-Lautrec.

Such a style is suited for scenes of action. Again LeRoy Neiman is in the right place at the right time for the explosion of spectator sports and a 'reawakening' for the human race.

The subject of sport was glorified by artists of the Classical Era until the Dark Ages lowered the curtain on such ideal pursuits. Athletics were non-existent for a very long time and were missing during the Renaissance when intellectual delineation was defined for the art world. To this day, for the esthete, sport and art sit at opposite ends of the spectrum. It explains why, in spite of the British developing athletics into 19th century class society and the re-introduction of the modern Olympic Games, sport eluded the artist’ palette. The familiar turf of the artist was in the intellectual realm.

America changed all of this. A democratic system based upon free enterprise is a formula for competition. It is the genius of American success and sport is it’s parallel and is embedded in the culture. As such, it cannot be ignored as a major subject in the American landscape. It has performance, drama, truth, judgement, heroes, color, atmosphere, spectacle, pageantry, promises of great wealth, and played out on a magnificent stage. It is proof the United States carries on the Golden Age of Antiquity in the Greco-Roman world.

History remembers civilization through art and the importance of sports in American culture will find LeRoy Neiman as the signature artist. This single fact, alone, guarantees his important place in art history.

Neiman’s artistic style and the spectacle of sport go hand in hand. Bold color fields. Daring motion in paint application. Accurate facial and body expression. Dramatic composition of moments filled with human interaction captured in the aesthetics of the sporting world. Action. In a sense, painting is comparable to participation in a sporting event. The artist is performing with and against the medium. The two collide. A great artist, like a great athlete responds to what is happening. A great stroke of paint is like a home run or can be a knockout punch. Neiman admits to learning much about art from an intimacy with the fight game.

If the confluence of Neiman’s emerging style with the sports world was a match, then the coup d’ grace was television. Again, the artist was star crossed in place and time leading to an amazing feat in the annals of art and audience.

I was doing a series of interviews in the early 1970’s and LeRoy was sketching some of the subjects. One such interview was with Roone Arledge which, took place during breakfast at The Essex House on Central Park South in Manhattan. Roone Arledge, president of ABC Sports was the 'emperor' of televised sport. During breakfast the idea was hatched for LeRoy to appear at the 1972 Olympic Games in Munich, Germany. Neiman would create artwork on location and appear on camera in reportage to a worldwide audience.

In a single setting more people witnessed LeRoy Neiman and his art than ever gathered for Michelangelo, DaVinci, Monet, Picasso, or any other artist. It was a rebirth of art as part of the Olympiad. Millions were treated to prime time performances of Fine Art. Neiman became familiar to the masses. He once told me the three most compelling elements of his career were 1. The G.I Bill, 2. Playboy Magazine, and 3. Roone Arledge.

The chromatic punch of television electrified Neiman’s art. It was novel and exciting. The other part of the happy marriage was LeRoy’s personage. A character himself, with mustache, cigar, dashing wardrobe, twinkling personality- a combination of Clark Gable and Groucho Marx or LeRoy’s own expression- ‘A Day at the Races' and a 'Night at the Opera’. Armed with insightful commentary, it showcased another talent of Neiman. I produced him for television on locations around the world and it was rewarding watching his development as a performer in a new medium..

It is another notable attribute that distinguishes Neiman in the art world. He became an on- screen celebrity. Featured in both television and Motion Pictures. In a sense, he became what he beheld. Having sketched and painted such subject matter throughout his career he had become transposed into his own canvas of the good life.

This became apparent in Moscow, Russia in the 1980’s where LeRoy and I were covering the Goodwill Games. Approaching the Velodrome a large contingent of the international press corps was rushing in our direction. It appeared something very important was happening. The pack of press encircled us. They had spotted LeRoy Neiman!

Fame. It is the eventual destination of great people, including great artists. I once asked LeRoy about money, power, and fame, and which was the most coveted by today’s person. He answered- "You can get money and you can lose it, likewise, you can acquire power and lose it too. But fame can never be lost".

Fame creates momentum in the value of art. The sale of LeRoy Neiman artwork is staggering. The mass audience loves his art and egotistically enjoys owning something famous. It is also enduringly comfortable with which to live.

And what they own is of impressive quality. Another factor in Neiman’s star-crossed success is how well his colorful style is reproduced in media. Unlike the high cost of an original painting, silk screen prints make Neiman collectable to a larger audience. The silk screen printing process is well suited to deliver the physical surface so sumptuously at play in the original. The large openings in the screen separations allow for thick enamel, matte and gloss applications alike. The result is a substantial heavy fortified surface with depth and color distinguished in a flat digital world. Neiman printmaking is at the top of the art world and will be etched in decades to come at the “LeRoy Neiman Center for Print Studies” at Columbia University.

Neiman’s lofty perch in our culture can also be viewed through an impressive volume of books. Again, the publications are visually striking with strong color reproduction. It should not go unnoticed that his early advertising/design experience is a major asset.

Herein, is another talent from his arsenal that distinguishes him. He is well read and applies quotations within different artworks, calling on his talent as an illustrator LeRoy Neiman is, in his own right, an engaging writer. He pens fascinating prose and commentary throughout his books. No other major artist of his status has authored more published writing.

Of course, he has enjoyed a blue chip supporting cast. While we were dining with Vladimir Lenin’s capitalist friend Armand Hammer, I recalled Neiman’s successful relationship with the prestigious Hammer Galleries. And then there was the oldest gallery in America, M. Knoedler, longtime publishers of LeRoy Neiman printmaking. This heavyweight action has been juxtaposed with the studio sharply administered by his longtime assistant and photographer Lynn Quayle.

Neiman’s success has also been ground breaking in the impact of technology in the culture. In 1977, before a worldwide audience tuned into the Super Bowl, he premiered the graphic art paint box on behalf of CBS and the Ampex Corporation. He was featured throughout the broadcast ‘painting’ live with a computer. The technicians were amazed he could create so fast. It was the first use of what has since become a standard art medium on most computers throughout the world today.

This essay’s author featured Neiman’s artwork in producing the first use of digital technology in network television on CBS, forever changing the ‘look’ of television. Again, Neiman and his art are center stage as the curtain went up on pop culture’s latest chapter.

LeRoy Neiman’s work cultivates excitement. I was at a Neiman show at the Franklin Bowles Gallery in San Francisco not long ago. LeRoy was there signing books. It was a populated scene. Invited guests formed an endless line for over four hours to meet the artist. The pilgrimage had to be suspended. It was similar to the Salvador Dali scenes in the 1970’s. Electric atmosphere.

This segued to an interesting observation. As luck would have it there were two other extraordinary art exhibits at the de Young and Legion of Honor that same weekend with an Andy Warhol retrospective and a show of Tiffany, Lalique, and Faberge. The reaction of the viewers to these exhibitions was instructive.

Those at the Warhol show conveyed closed body language, folded arms and faces expressing curiosity in a state of comprehension. The glass artists elicited a respectful, quiet, studious examination with hands clasped behind the back. Attendees at the Neiman exhibition displayed a comfortable and animated response. Lots of pointing and oratory. The response to LeRoy Neiman is a rendezvous with familiarity. When asked what he saw when he sang, Frank Sinatra responded- “I see a LeRoy Neiman painting”. Neiman’s art sings with sincerity, an ingredient found in that which endures.

This essay has painted a flattering portrait of LeRoy Neiman in validating his place in American culture. It is the story of that seemingly predestined person that is in the right place, at the right time, with the right stuff. An artist at the cultural divide.

Although LeRoy Neiman has skillfully rendered every conceivable subject matter, history will forever associate him with the era of the spectacle of sports.

Much in the way Charles Russell (1864-1926) is remembered as the greatest eyewitness to the old west in the 19th century portraying cowboys, Native Americans, and horses in majestic landscapes. Both born on the banks of the Mississippi in towns named after saints. Both working with subject matter in a macho world. Russell was rural, Neiman urban. Russell’s studio populated with gifts from cowboys and Indians and Neiman with gifts from athletes and celebrities. What other two artists can claim an American chapter as their own?

Perhaps Neiman will find himself in the company of Toulose-Lautrec, and his Can-Can dancers of Parisian Café Society.

Or like another maverick, the composer John Philips Sousa (1854-1932). In the Romantic era he was an orchestral composer, conductor and violinist but what he is best remembered for is his rousing and stirring marches that captured the colorful American spirit. They loved him on the Champs-Elysees. He has remained very popular with the masses. He will be forever remembered as the ‘March King’.

While these comparisons are useful in the ‘handle’ history applies to reputation it needs to be stated that LeRoy Neiman’s oeuvre has had an incomparable variety in both subject matter and media.

World history teaches that great powers produce great art and it is to LeRoy Neiman’s great fortune that he was coined in a period of America at its zenith. The artist in residence.

It happens to be the Fourth of July as I close this essay. It is fitting. His artwork will forever remain timeless in the American cultural landscape.

© Copyright, Kenneth Zeran, 2009 - All Rights Reserved


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