Millions of people watch sports programs, read Playboy and will take any amount of glib, abstract-expressionist slather as long as it adorns a recognizable and pert pair of jugs.
—ROBERT HUGHES, art critic, analyzing the popularity of LeRoy Neiman's paintings
In the timeless neon twilight outside the Riviera Hotel in Las Vegas, Middle America's own Michelangelo smoothes the ends of his upswept ear-to-ear mustache and squints through an elegant curl of smoke rising from the enormous Jamaican panatela stuck between his teeth. Against this blinking, garish backdrop, LeRoy Neiman is the embodiment of serenity and taste. He is wearing an exquisitely cut eggshell-white Italian suit, black-and-white wing tips, a fuchsia silk shirt and is sans cravat. Of course, he is quickly recognized.
A gaggle of saints and sinners drifts over from the slots and forms a ring around Neiman. "Hey, I got a bunch of your tennis stuff in my rec room," brays a doughy guy with gold chains visible in the open neck of his shirt. "I can afford you, LeRoy."
"I got your Steve Garvey hanging in my bar," yells the doughy guy's pal. "Ever done stud poker, LeRoy?"
Neiman gives a wry smile. He is unfailingly friendly, charming, courtly, even kindly to these butter-and-eggers. "Let's put it this way," he explains. "These people are my collectors."
People who wouldn't know a Picasso from a tag-sale poster are collectors of the art of LeRoy Neiman. He is both the best-loved and the most-reviled American artist of our time. He is a brand name, practically an industry unto himself. He and his publishing company turn out paintings by the dozens, lithographs, etchings and serigraphs by the hundreds, $100 coffee-table books by the thousands. His paintings have sold for as much as $350,000 each, and he is said to gross more than $10 million a year. He has made celebrity an art form.
Neiman makes art for people who don't like art.
—JOHN RUSSELL, art critic
Now 58, Neiman became famous more than 30 years ago when he started turning a seemingly endless series of paintings called "Man At His Leisure" for Hugh Hefner's then new Playboy magazine. Mainly, the series consisted of Neiman's multihued depictions of life and leisure among the filthy rich and wholly shameless. The exposure in Playboy plus later appearances before huge audiences watching various Olympic-and Super Bowl-size sports telecasts have served to make Neiman's works every bit as pervasive in the neighborhood saloons and hometown bars of America in the 1980s as Norman Rockwell's work was in the nation's barber shops of the '30s and '40s.
Of his familiar, now frequently imitated slash-and-splash style, which he first laid on canvas in 1953 for a painting of sailing yachts moored in Belmont Harbor in Chicago, Neiman says, "I made my paint move. I was flooding a neon look on something others saw naturally. To me, it was like an explosion."
Although the public has subsequently enshrined the shrapnel from that blast and hung it in its rumpus rooms, art critics have never stopped cringing. They have branded Neiman the art world's high priest of tackiness, America's No. 1 wallpaperer, the nation's foremost purveyor of dentist office perk-me-ups. His technique has been variously described as gaudy, cheesy, vulgar, schlocky and Holiday Inn expressionist. And then there are those who don't like his work. Neiman says he isn't troubled by the critical grenades lobbed in his direction. "In a way," he says, "criticism is an acknowledgment that I've been effective and have reached that person. I reach out, other artists don't."
Neiman is a genuinely warm and endearing fellow who is unabashedly delighted by and appreciative of his own success. "I'm a spectator to my own career," he says. "People fail because they don't use good judgment at the proper time. Something stops them at the moment of opportunity."
Early in his life, Neiman began grabbing at opportunity like a gymnast seizing the uneven bars. He grew up in Frogtown, a tough section of St. Paul. His father was a roustabout who despite perfect eyesight affected glasses while working on the road gangs. A corner of Charley Neiman's chin was missing. "Dad always said it was shot off in a barroom brawl," says LeRoy. "That might have been b.s., but I accepted it. It added to his mystique."
When he was six, Neiman was drawing comic strips for fun. He always crayoned in a tall, black figure in a top hat. It was Abraham Lincoln. Years later, while researching Lincoln photos for a magazine cover, he came to the conclusion that the Great Emancipator was "a vain, p.r.-oriented kind of guy. He was the first public figure to exploit photography. He created the persona of the good guy. He created Abraham Lincoln! Because of Lincoln, I realized you could develop your personal image into a positive thing."
Neiman has gone on to build his own image with mustache and cigar. Everybody assumes the mustache is modeled after Salvador Dali's. "If anything," protests Neiman, "it was inspired by Clark Gable's." But Dali had something to do with it. When they posed together for a picture in a New York restaurant, the photographer asked Neiman to get rid of his smoky stogie. "Don't do it!" Dali advised him. "It's a great prop."
Neiman is no fool. While he may be a bad painter, he is not a mediocre one. For what he gives us is an art that is not just superficial and infinitely sleazy but [one] that communicates superficiality and sleaze with unblushing zest and unerring articulateness.
—FRANZ SCHULZE, artist and critic
Vegas, with all its flash and filigree, suggests nothing so much as a giant Neiman canvas, but Neiman says he doesn't really like the town. He's only there at this moment to attend the heavyweight title fight between Larry Holmes and Michael Spinks. He did the artwork for the tickets, the program cover and a poster hawked at the souvenir stands. Now he will do a painting of the fight itself.
The day before the bout, Neiman is sitting in a booth in the Riviera coffee shop with Holmes and Don King, the boxing promoter who commissioned Neiman's fight picture. Neiman playfully bites the hand that fed him. "Larry," he says. "I've always felt that Don is just a sketch, but you are a painting."
King, unfazed by the painterly put-down, launches into an impromptu critique of Neiman's oeuvre. "LeRoy strives for excellence and makes it par excellence," says King. "LeRoy can do more with a paintbrush than a monkey can with a peanut. The monkey can snatch the essence of a peanut without destroying the shell. LeRoy captures the universe, puts the image on canvas and gives it eternal life. His paintings speak in all dialects and many tongues. When Neiman does a tennis ball, it's a tennis ball personified. A Neiman is alive, it has a pulse and a heart. His magic wand profounds and astounds. As Mark Antony said, 'Age cannot wither it, nor custom stem its infinite variety.' Now that's talking, Jack."
Neiman appraises King soberly. "A little moderate," he says at last, "but you got the point across."
Art critic Hilton Kramer was asked for a few thoughts on LeRoy Neiman. He replied, "That might be difficult. I never think of him."
Not surprisingly, Neiman normally avoids the art crowd. He's far more at home with pop celebrities. Here he is at Bo Derek's ranch in Santa Ynez, Calif. Derek hasn't commissioned a painting. "I've just always wanted to do her," Neiman says. "Somebody will want to buy Bo Derek by LeRoy Neiman."
Derek is riding a gray Andalusian stallion around the corral, her mane of honey-blonde hair waving in time with the horse's gait. Neiman leans back on a bench, sketching. His shirt is fuchsia, socks mauve, cigar Mexican.
"Bo is so aware of how she looks from every angle that she's completely natural," Neiman says. "That's vanity at its finest." This doesn't put Neiman off in the least. His motto: "You have to draw subjects the way they intend to present themselves."
Neiman draws the Perfect 10 in sugary pastels, starting with the hair and rounding off her edges until the figure becomes another Playboy mannequin. He does three quick sketches. "I'm drawing nature," Neiman says. "The feeling of the wild, primitive life. It's a humbling experience to be before such a magnificent animal." It's unclear whether he means Bo or the horse.
The next day Neiman is behind the batting cage at Dodger Stadium, shmoozing with Eli Wallach and Danny Kaye as Tommy Lasorda joins in. "I've been trying since '81 to get that——ing portrait you did of me," says Lasorda. "Sinatra——ing told me you'd give it to me."
"I'm cleaning it up," says Neiman. "I still haven't gotten all the profanity out."
"Neiman supplies images of superiority to people who are thankful they're...average."
—PETER PLAGENS, painter and art critic
Neiman considers the working class his critic. "There's great dignity in working people," he says. "Nobody has more dignity than the dishwasher or the guy who picks the cigarettes off casino floors." Asked whether he would care to know any of the great unwashed personally, he replies, with mock disdain, "Hell no, I don't fraternize with those people." Neiman doesn't waste any time painting them either. "There are plenty of artists taking care of that," he says. "I prefer only the fittest, the finest and the richest to populate my paintings. I only do great sports paintings of great athletes."
The one transcendent athlete in Neiman's pantheon is Muhammad Ali. In fact, it was Ali who first sparked Neiman's more intimate involvement with athletes as people. He met Ali in 1962, and has painted him dozens of times. "Ali's the one athlete who looked the same his entire career," Neiman says.
He visits Ali at his home, a well-guarded, 22-room Victorian mansion in Wilshire in Los Angeles. Ali is taking down his chandeliers and packing to move. He says he's going to get a mobile home and spread the word of Islam.
"You're my hero," says Neiman, meaning it.
"I'm just a washed-up bum," responds Ali. He moves ponderously toward a bookcase and takes down a Bible, opens it and makes Neiman read the Second Commandment: "Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of anything."
Ali says nothing for a moment. He is busy laying out two dozen pictures of Jesus on the carpeted floor. "Imagine you're white, and you see a black Jesus and black angels all your life," he says. "It'd mess up your mind."
Neiman looks slightly uncomfortable. He quickly asks about the life-size painting he made after the second Liston fight of Ali standing triumphant in the ring, arms upraised. Ali says his estranged wife, Veronica, loaned it to a museum and he has not seen it since.
"You've got to get it back," Neiman says. "That's a great painting!"
Some critics claim they can't tell one Neiman from another, but Neiman can. "You've got to be careful not to become redundant or a hack," he says. "You've got to become more self-critical. Does my work still excite me? I'm usually picked to do a commission based on what I've done before. It's not a new experience. The only thing that inspires me then is a lot of money."
What Howard Johnson's is to the taste buds, LeRoy Neiman is to the eyes.
—A noted magazine designer
Barbered, tanned and languid, Neiman stands beneath Dali's Young Virgin Auto-Sodomized By Her Own Chastity, which hangs in Hugh Hefner's Tudor mansion in Holmby Hills in L.A. Neiman is wearing a blue-and-white print kimono. He's barefoot and smoking a long cigar, Cuban this time. Hefner lounges nearby in yellow pajamas, maroon smoking jacket and black slippers.
Neiman and Hefner first crossed paths 35 years ago in Chicago. Neiman was a fashion illustrator doing millinery drawings. Hefner was writing ad copy for a men's store and drawing cartoons. "I don't remember the moment," says Hefner. "Our eyes did not meet across a crowded room." One day, after Hefner had started his magazine, he ran into Neiman on a street and asked him to become a contributor to Playboy.
Neiman did "Man and His Leisure" for 15 years and learned a lot about much more than art. "I was a peasant when I went into the world Playboy supplied," he recalls. "I met the rich and powerful and immediately saw their shortcomings and disgusting tendencies. But I realized how formidable they were. They're jaded, and jaded people can't lose."
A phone call for Neiman comes to the mansion from Larry King, the radio and TV personality. King has just moved into a huge Washington, D.C. condo overlooking the Lincoln Memorial. He has a large empty wall to fill, and he wants a Neiman, a big Neiman.
"Of what?" asks LeRoy, recounting the conversation.
"Baseball. I love baseball."
"I don't have anything big in baseball."
"Football then. That's my number two sport."
"Don't have any big footballs, either."
King says he is crushed. "Tell you what," says Neiman. "Measure the wall, call me back, and we'll talk money."
Neiman says he doesn't know how much money he has and that he doesn't much care. He has no use for agents, publicists or fawning entourages. He turns down hundreds of offers to design T shirts, pillowcases and belt buckles. He won't make concessions. He never gives an inch in negotiations. And nobody can tell him how to paint.
Anyone with a semester of art appreciation who looks carefully at a typical Neiman painting for 30 seconds will conclude that it is a B-plus illustration of a clichéd pose, carried out with considerable facility, a little garishness and absolutely no profundity.
A week later Neiman is visiting another grand estate in Holmby Hills. This one is owned by Glen Larson, the writer and producer of TV's Magnum, P.I., The Fall Guy and Sheriff Lobo. Neiman appeared in one of Larson's unsold pilots a few years back, playing an artist kept by a beautiful woman.
The Larson spread is a cross between Versailles and a suburban shopping mall. It boasts a pool, a tennis court, a bowling alley and a racquetball court that converts into a recording studio.
"It's humble and laid back," says Neiman.
"You mean it's humbly pretentious," corrects Larson.
Larson's "media room" is a shrine lined with a battery of TV consoles and a slew of Neimans. The centerpiece is a Neiman flanked by two Chagalls. The subject of Neiman's work is P.J. Clarke's, the ultra-trendy saloon on Manhattan's East Side. Among the unlikely gathering of diners in the painting are Jackie Onassis, Henry Kissinger, Liz Taylor, Eddie Arcaro and Howard Cosell. It cost Larson 225 grand.
Larson notes that his latest series, a detective show called In Like Flynn, received rave notices from the critics, but nobody tuned in, and it was canceled after one night. "I finally write a good show, and nobody watches," Larson laments.
Neiman sips a glass of a 1980 Mondavi cabernet. "What would you rather have," he asks. "Critical or public acclaim?"
Larson answers without hesitation. "Public acclaim. That's the ultimate vote."
Neiman is pleased. "Great answer, Glen. Great answer."