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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)

He gets off the elevator on the wrong floor. Wearing paint-splattered orange cotton shorts, a spotless white shirt--collar up and top three buttons open--slouchy gray gym socks and leather paint-dabbed running shoes, LeRoy Neiman just shrugs and begins trudging up the stairs in the Hotel des Artistes, his home base for some 33 years. Made up of double-height rooms, this exclusive New York City landmark was originally intended for painters. Norman Rockwell once lived here, yet celebrities such as Rudolph Valentino, Noel Coward and ex-mayor John Lindsay have also called it home. Neiman's painting studio, offices, and home are on one floor, his archives on another, and his pied-à-terre at the top. He takes the stairs to the penthouse.

On the climb, holding an unlit maduro, Neiman recalls a meaningful cigar moment of more than 20 years ago: "I was at an opening of Salvador Dalí's holograms in New York. A photographer was about to shoot a picture of me with Dalí when Victor Hammer, my dealer, came running over, urging me to get rid of the cigar. Dalí intervened, 'Keep that cigar, LeRoy. It's a good prop.'" Neiman kept the cigar.

The artist fumbles with his keys before unlocking the door. "You are about to see the real me. By taking you up here, I am baring my true self to you," he half-jokes, with his characteristic nonchalance. He opens the door to reveal a clean, garret-like space, consisting of two small light-filled rooms connected by an open doorway. In one room there is a single bed, neatly covered with a forest green printed bedspread. Centered above it hangs a Neiman oil painting titled "Hunt Rendezvous." The adjacent sitting room is dominated by a table with a glass top on a curvy wrought-iron base. Beyond the sitting room is a solarium that leads to a large terrace overlooking Central Park. The terrace is outfitted with some Adirondack chairs and an unpretentious custom-made drawing table.

The pristine penthouse seems a striking contrast to the 68-year-old Neiman's public image of the flamboyant man-about-town, with the signature handlebar moustache and a reputed affinity for wine, women and the good life. His private space looks more like a page from Martha Stewart Living than the sort of plush interior Neiman would paint. "I come up here to read and draw," the artist says in his soft, even-toned tenor.

You never catch his subjects reading or drawing. They are more apt to dine, dance, gamble, drink, box, dunk, swing, sail, cycle or drive. Powerfully, they compete and celebrate, play and perform. They are active, not passive. A roster of Neiman's subjects reads like a Who's Who of athletes, jet-setters and celebrities: Michael Jordan, Jack Nicklaus, Frank Sinatra, Liza Minnelli, Tommy Tune, New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, Bobby Kennedy, Prince Rainier and Princess Grace of Monaco, restaurateur/chef Wolfgang Puck, Mike Tyson and O.J. Simpson (in their pretrial days)--even Triple Crown winner Secretariat. Odds are, the list of luminaries that Neiman hasn't painted would be shorter than a lineup of those he has.

Among the neglected was Richard Nixon. "I was in Moscow at the Goodwill Games in 1986," Neiman recalls, "and a Russian official came running over to me, insisting there was someone I had to meet. It was Nixon, who gripped me in an extended handshake and immediately asked why I'd never painted him. I admitted I'd never put him on a canvas, but confessed to having sketched him once. 'You were walking across the White House lawn with Henry Kissinger, and you both had your hands in your pockets. I drew it because I thought it was taboo for top guys to walk with their hands concealed.' 'You really got me that time,' the ex-president roared. Then he walked over to the piano and played 'God Bless America!'" Neiman laughs. "He was really a character."

Catching people with their pants down, or their hands in their pockets, as the case may be, is out of character for Neiman. Rather, he does unto others as he would have them do unto him. He glorifies them. Rhoda Altman, who has been selling Neiman's work for eight years at New York's Hammer Graphics Gallery (which has represented him for 35 years) says, "He is our modern-day Impressionist. The main difference between LeRoy Neiman and the nineteenth century Impressionists is they would paint women at their toilette with no makeup. Neiman wants to show everyone with their false eyelashes on at all times. He wants them to look their best."

Neiman even made Al Capone look good, in a posthumous 1965 portrait. "I think the exterior person is very important. I think the way things look is the way they are," Neiman says. "Even if a person is masquerading, then that's what he is. Sort of on the premise [that] a lie, once believed, becomes a truth."

He repeats this last phrase several times. Playboy's Hugh Hefner, who counts Neiman among his best and oldest friends, suggests, "He quite intentionally invented himself as a flamboyant artist not unlike Salvador Dalí, in much the same way that I became Mr. Playboy in the late '50s." Neiman and Hef both prize props. Hefner's were his pajamas and pipe, Neiman's his Dalíesque black moustache and long cigar that never seems to burn down. Of secondary importance were Neiman's trendy white suits and a selection of hats.

Neiman has had a moustache since he was first able to grow one, and he has smoked since he was 16. "I came from a world of five-cent cigars and whiskey drinking," Neiman recalls. "You were supposed to clean your plate and finish the whole cigar. My first cigar was a Muriel because I liked the name. I didn't know the first thing about good taste or dollar-and-a-half cigars. My father, a roustabout gandy dancer [railroad worker], smoked Dutch Masters, right down to the bottom. This was no afterdinner smoke. I knew that Clark Gable smoked cigars, and I knew there was something special about smoking. Not everyone did it."

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.

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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