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Painting the Town

LeRoy Neiman, perhaps the best known, highest paid and most belittled artist of our time, confidently awaits history's judgment.
Nancy Wolfson
From the Print Edition:
Tom Selleck, Winter 95/96

(continued from page 1)

Abandoned by his father at an early age, Neiman and his mother, Lydia, were forced to fend for themselves. Neiman distinguished himself by drawing. He created a cartoon strip and tattoos for his friends. "I had a natural talent and I used it to get favors, and then to earn money to help feed my family," he says. "Growing up in St. Paul [Minnesota], I used to do calcimine drawings on grocery store windows. They were advertisements aimed at attracting customers. I'd sketch a turkey, a cow, a fish, with the prices. And then I had the good sense to draw the guy who owned the store. This gave me tremendous power as a kid."

After serving in the Army in Europe from 1942 to 1945 during World War II, and then studying painting at the Art Institute of Chicago from 1946 to 1950, Neiman taught life drawing at the Art Institute and did freelance fashion illustration. Walking on Chicago Avenue one evening in 1954, he ran into Hefner, who was headed for a corner eatery aptly named Banquet on a Bun. (Bunny banquets at the Playboy mansion were yet to come.) The two had met a few years earlier in the offices of Carson Pirie Scott, a local department store where Hefner worked as a copywriter and Neiman as a freelance illustrator. When their paths crossed again on the street, Hefner had published about five issues of Playboy. He was working out of a brownstone near the Holy Name Cathedral, around the corner from Neiman's basement apartment that doubled as his studio. Neiman invited Hefner over.

An upright piano functioned as an easel, and the overhead pipes served as racks for his clothes. "This was the classic starving-artist scene," Hefner reminisced in Playboy's 40th anniversary issue in January 1994. Neiman showed Hefner his paintings of people engaged in the pursuit of pleasure, with a special emphasis on the sometimes tarnished glitz and glitter of nightlife. The subjects included boxers at Johnny Coulon's South Side gym, late-night action at the strip joints along Clark Street, gamblers, bars, high life and low life--from the Pump Room to the seediest Rush Street dive. Knocked out by what he saw, Hefner brought his art director, Art Paul, around the next day. Straightaway Paul commissioned Neiman to illustrate "Black Country," a story by Charles Beaumont about a jazz musician. It won Playboy its first art prize from the Chicago Art Directors Club Show.

Thus began a personal and professional association with Hefner and his soon-to-be-empire. In 1958, Neiman began a monthly feature for Playboy called "Man At His Leisure." It would expose him to a style of living a world apart from the struggle-to-survive, street-gang life that he was raised in. For the next 15 years he globe-trotted, observing the rich at play in the world's most glamorous watering holes and sporting spots, delivering to Playboy his impressions of what he saw. Whether it was the Grand Prix auto race in Monaco, the Regatta of the Gondoliers in Venice, or the Super Bowl in Miami, Neiman was there. Gambling at Baden-Baden, sipping brandy at Claridge's and sketching at Fouquet's--always with a long cigar--Neiman not only painted the dream life; he began living it as well.

He catapulted from whiskey and five-cent cigars into the world of fine wine and $30 cigars. "Horse owners and team owners--connoisseurs--began putting top-notch cigars in my pockets and pouring me first-class wine. I got used to it. Today my favorite cigar is a Punch. People send them to me. They give me wine, champagne and caviar, too. Always the best," he admits without qualms. "I don't buy cigars, because my instincts are still the ones of my background. If I go up to the cigar counter at '21' in New York, I might see cigars that cost $8, $21 and $30, but my unconscious will automatically go for a $6 brand."

Following his instincts has usually worked to Neiman's advantage. In the early 1950s, Neiman met a ravishing black-haired young writer named Janet Byrne, who was employed alongside Hugh Hefner in the copy department of Carson Pirie Scott. She was also studying painting at the Art Institute of Chicago where Neiman was teaching at the time. They married in 1957 and have been a twosome ever since.

Today, Janet is a distinguished woman with bright white hair and an air of subdued elegance. "She's my best friend," Neiman is quick to acknowledge. "She's a very special woman whose intellect, judgment and awareness has remained consistent over the years. I'm an artist who's always lived freely, kept the hours I wanted. It takes a woman with a lot of character to share that with you."

As enduring as Neiman's marriage has been his affluence. He is counted by those in the know among the world's top-earning artists, and considered by many to be number one. This is not surprising, given his output. He does approximately a thousand pieces a year, including paintings, sketches, drawings, watercolors and serigraphs. "I work fast. Sometimes I do 40 sketches at one event. A painting generally takes me from two to three weeks. I do about 25 a year," Neiman notes matter of factly. Proud of the fact that no one else has ever put a brush to one of his canvases, he works without studio assistants. Original Neiman paintings (acrylics, oil, or a mix) start at $20,000; they can shoot up to $500,000 for works such as "Stretch Stampede," a mammoth 1975 oil painting of the Kentucky Derby bearing that price tag.

The bulk of Neiman's business is his serigraphs, limited edition prints of original paintings, using the silk screen process. Printed in editions of 250 to 500, they are numbered and signed by the artist. Hammer--and the hundreds of other galleries selling Neiman in the United States--can't get enough of them. "Recently, 'La Cuisine Française,' a restaurant scene of Paul Bocuse at a cheese and fruit table on a background collage of wine bottle labels, sold out in three and
a half weeks!" exults Richard Lynch, vice president of Hammer Galleries. "They often sell out, sometimes in as little as 45 days, but usually in a matter of months." Neiman produces about six different serigraph subjects a year. Generally priced from $3,000 to $6,000 each, gross annual sales of new serigraphs alone top $10 million.

Neiman also does numerous private commissions: a drawing of a corporate chief's wife here, a painting of a bon vivant's yacht there. Not to mention the thousands of posters sold every year at $30 to $200 a pop, or the commercial ventures, such as the annual piece he does for the Saks Fifth Avenue Christmas catalogue, his official artist status at the '80, '84 and, most likely, '96 Olympics, the limited edition racing skis he designed for Atomic, and the champagne label he created for Caesar's Palace in Las Vegas. He turns down nine out of 10 offers, which include solicitations to reprint his work on everything from sheets and towels to scarves and ties.

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