LeRoy Neiman dies at age 91 in New York

June 21st, 2012

American artist, LeRoy Neiman, popular for his bright colored depictions of sporting events, died at age 91 in New York yesterday, June 20th.   While overall not receiving the critical acclaim and presence at auction as contemporaries with similar name recognition, his overall popularity in a way seemed to transcend the vagaries of the contemporary art scene.   He painted and sketched an expansive range of subjects spanning from athletes to wild animals, to jazz musicians to presidents. Close friends with Hugh Hefner, Mr. Neiman was a prolific contributor for Playboy Magazine. Mr. Neiman further contributed to fashion magazines such Vogue in his early years and appeared in three “Rocky” movies because of his ties to the boxing world.   His longtime friendship with Muhammad Ali dates back to the boxer’s time as Cassius Clay.

As America’s first sports painter, his trademark style and rapid brushwork was never classified into any one genre. Usually crafted with enamel house paint, his art captured the motion and quick expressions of many famous figures. The highest recorded price for one of his works was $107,550 for his 1969 “Le Mans” at a 2003 Christie’s auction (The Washington Post).

LeRoy Neiman, Le Mans (1969)

Although his work was well-known and sold in large quantities, Mr. Neiman was never highly praised by critics or art experts. The commercial, celebrity-driven essence of his work made him famous among the masses (although not necessarily promoting his name), but left him off the radar of the critical eye. In an 1995 interview, Neiman stated that “I struck a chord. History will rate me with Andy Warhol, Norman Rockwell, and Walt Disney” (NYTimes). His strength lay in his conviction to convey human nature and emotion in the moment of the action; he would sketch millionaires to waiters in their most natural settings. Following in the impressions of artists like Degas, Renoir, and Toulouse-Lautrec, Neiman took on sociological studies of everyday life and actions in public venues.

“It’s been fun. I’ve had a lucky life,” Minnesota born Neiman said in an interview with The Associated Press. “I’ve zeroed in on what you would call action and excellence. … Everybody who does anything to try to succeed has to give the best of themselves, and art has made me pull the best out of myself.” (The Guardian) He often described himself as a workaholic who rarely took vacations outside of his Manhattan home and studio.

Neiman in studio in 2011

Mr. Neiman, recognized by his trademark handlebar mustache and cigar in one hand, covered major sporting events like several Olympics, the New York Jets 1969 championship, and the 1971 heavyweight fight between Ali and Joe Frazier, which was coined the “fight of the century.” He was focused on the public image of his subjects stating that: “I am less concerned with how people look when they wake up. A person’s public presence reflects his own efforts at image development.”

Mr. Neiman with Muhammad Ali in 2001

The official painter of 5 Olympiads and World War II veteran is survived by his devoted wife, Janet, of 55 years. Mr. Neiman, who authored 15 books, released his autobiography, “All Told: My Art and Life Among Athletes, Playboys, Bunnies, and Provocateurs” earlier this month. His support and donations, including his 1996 gift of $6 million to Columbia University’s School of Arts, has aided many growing art centers and inspiring artists.

-Z. Zabor
Photos attributed to CNN, The Washington Post, and the New York Times

Related Links:

LeRoy Neiman, painter of athletes and celebrities, dies at 91 [The Washington Post]
LeRoy Neiman, artist who captured sports and public life, dies at 91 [NY Times]
LeRoy Neiman dies aged 91 [The Guardian]
Jerry Saltz: Why I liked (and even respected) LeRoy Neiman [Vulture]
LeRoy Neiman, whose brushstrokes captured motion, emotion of sports, dies [CNN.com]
Famed sports painter LeRoy Neiman dead at 91 [Reuters]
LeRoy Neiman, The Nickelback of Art [WSJ]