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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 2)

Burger King was among the few corporations to make Neiman an offer he didn't refuse. In 1976, the hamburger chain gave away Neiman posters in conjunction with an Olympics promotion. Printed on cheap paper, but according to the artist's specifications, they were reproductions of paintings of five different Olympic swimming and track and field events done exclusively for Burger King. "I was picked on at the time, accused of selling out," Neiman recalls. "But those posters were distributed to kids who had never seen a painting before in their lives, kids growing up the way I did. Hundreds of them have come up to me, some now professional athletes themselves, asking me to autograph the posters. They've held onto them for 20 years. The Burger King project exposed my work to millions of people, so it was not a bad thing." That, along with the live television appearances he made on ABC as its on-camera artist during the '72 Olympic Games in Munich and the '76 Games in Montreal, may have made LeRoy Neiman America's best known artist.

"The guy is basically recession-proof," Lynch says. Neiman is not the only one to score in this game. Sharing the spoils are the galleries selling his work across the country and Knoedler Publishing, a wholesale operation that was created in 1975 exclusively to publish and distribute the graphics of LeRoy Neiman. These include serigraphs, etchings, books and posters. From 1979 to 1985 Knoedler also published a quarterly newsletter, Neiman News, which chronicled the artist's activities and his latest releases, and reprinted articles that had been published about him. Knoedler Publishing and Hammer Galleries are divisions of Knoedler Modarco, Inc., a company owned by the Hammer--as in Armand--family.

"There is nothing I've wanted that I don't have," Neiman says, referring to his material success. But if there is an arena in which his accomplishments have fallen short of his goals, it is in the art world itself. He is the artist everyone loves to hate. Over the years, prominent art critics like John Russell, Calvin Tomkins and Hilton Kramer have, by and large, dismissed Neiman's work as commercial, or they have ignored Neiman entirely. In 1989, when the New Haven Register asked Kramer for a few thoughts on Neiman, he replied, "That might be difficult. I never think of him."

As if to compensate for being snubbed by the art press, Neiman is in the process of donating his archives to the Smithsonian Institution's Archives of American Art, and in September he announced the creation of the LeRoy Neiman Center for Print Studies at Columbia University with a $6 million gift to its School of the Arts. The artist believes that official appreciation for his work will come later. He refers to the present fascination with Florine Stettheimer, an early twentieth century painter of New York's avant-garde whom Neiman has long admired. "She was great and she was treated like absolutely nothing," Neiman says. "Time had to pass and sociology had to advance to bring her recognition." He likens his own paintings and illustrations of our world to the eighteenth century Venetian artist Giandomenico Tiepolo's stylized renditions of the Venice of his day.

"I'm not a scene painter," Neiman says. "I'm the scene painter." He has been applauded for his draftsmanship, his use of vibrant color and his ability to capture more than just the character of an individual subject. Like Toulouse-Lautrec--Neiman's favorite painter early in his career--he puts all of his subjects into a larger context, capturing the look, pace and atmosphere of a place. "I paint what I see, not what I fantasize about," he says. "And I focus on the beauty and the best. Sure, I'd rather paint a Rolls-Royce than a Volkswagen. Not because of the snob appeal, but because a Rolls is a better designed, better engineered machine. But if I do paint a Rolls, I include the mechanic who's working on it, or the chauffeur driving it. I paint the whole picture."

"What Audubon was to birds, Neiman is to society," asserts Kerig Pope, managing art director of Playboy. He has worked with Neiman for 30 years on Playboy's Party Jokes page. Neiman illustrates the monthly column with drawings of his "Femlin" character, an impish nymphet whom he invented 40 years ago. He has not missed a deadline, nor run out of props or poses for his creation, in 480 issues.

"If anyone tarnished my reputation as a serious artist, it was myself, by playing around with Playboy and stuff," Neiman admits. "But I learned a lot from those folks, and I don't regret it."

The tour of Neiman's quarters ends in an opulent room that serves as his private office. A colossal eighteenth century crystal chandelier hangs from the ceiling, huge fifteenth century Belgian tapestries cover the white walls, and a pair of Venetian Renaissance marble columns frames the space. It is the epitome of Old World elegance. He takes out box after wooden box of Cuban Montecristos, Davidoff Aniversario No. 1s and Don Joaquin maduros. Neiman's conversation veers from the influences of Dufy and Matisse on his work to his partiality to raw color. He talks technique and his old tricks: "For a long time I was doing the unimportant things in focus, and the very important things in shadow or in the dark in a disguise of some sort, so you had to discover them."

The same could be said of the painter himself, the man behind the props.

Nancy Wolfson is a freelance writer who lives in New York City.

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