06/26/2012 01:19 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

LeRoy Neiman -- The Artist Critics Love to Hate

The New York Times obituary of artist LeRoy Neiman, who died last week at 91, called him "one of the most popular artists in the United States," but noted that art critics did not hold him in much esteem. His popularity rivaled American favorites like Norman Rockwell, Grandma Moses and Andrew Wyeth, according to obituary writer William Grimes, but he never managed to win any critical acclaim during his long life.

"Mr. Neiman's kinetic, quickly executed paintings and drawings, many of them published in Playboy, offered his fans gaudily colored visual reports on heavyweight boxing matches, Super Bowl games and Olympic contests, as well as social panoramas like the horse races at Deauville, France and the Cannes international Film Festival," the obituary explained. But although "he generated hundreds of works, including paintings, drawings, watercolors, limited edition serigraph prints and coffee-table books yearly, earning gross annual revenue in the tens of millions of dollars," the critics were not impressed.

"Although he exhibited constantly and his work was included in the collections of dozens of museums around the world, critical respect eluded him," Grimes wrote. "Mainstream art critics ignored him completely or, if forced to consider his work, dismissed it with contempt as garish and superficial -- magazine illustration with pretensions. Mr. Neiman professed not to care."

My husband Nick and I knew LeRoy back in the days when we lived in Manhattan. (We also knew his brother, Earl C. Neiman, who was an artist specializing in religious art, which is a long way from Playboy -- the magazine that made Leroy famous.)

I always admired Neiman's skill and his ability to draw the figure in motion -- which made him probably the world's most famous painter of sports figures. He worked so fast and so effortlessly that he often painted live on television at major sporting events, watched by an audience of millions.

Neiman was drawing all the time. He kept cards of stiff paper in his pocket and, in a restaurant or at a dinner party or while deep in conversation, he would take out a card and a black felt pen and sketch one or two of the people in front of him, who often didn't realize what he was doing. Then he would sign the sketch and hand it over to the subject.

You could say that this was a parlor trick that LeRoy did to win people over, but you could also say that, like many artists, he just had to keep making art out of what he saw in front of him. Wasn't Picasso known for drawing and painting on tablecloths, napkins, restaurant menus and everything else he could find while enjoying himself at a party or meal?


Anyway, he sketched my husband and signed it with the information "Nick at table, Mahattan Ocean Club, Dec. 2, '99". Not long after, to my delight, in another restaurant he handed me a quick sketch of myself with the inscription "Joan at table, Capsoto Frers, 2, 27, 00, With Love, LeRoy Neiman."


I was thrilled! I even got "with love," which Nick didn't! Naturally I had these little sketches framed and they hang as a pair in Nick's office. Not until today, looking at them, did I realize that LeRoy misspelled "Manhattan" as "Mahattan" on Nick's sketch and "Freres as "Frers" on mine. But everyone knows artists can't spell. Good spellers use the left side of their brain for that skill and artists use the right side for their art.

In Saturday's Times, a couple of days after the obituary, Ken Johnson wrote "An Appraisal: Fame Without a Legacy -- The Art of LeRoy Neiman Made a Splash But Never Waves."

Johnson wrote that, when he went to art school, a popular criticism was "It looks like a LeRoy Neiman." "It referred to the splashy, garish, instantly recognizable style of illustration, a formulaic mix of impressionism, expressionism and realism, that Mr. Neiman used to make himself one of the most famous artists in America." Neiman's art, he said, was "All frosting, no cake."

The reporter went on to say that serious art critics considered Neiman, "the archetypical hack...With his ever-present cigar and enormous mustache, he was a cliché of the bon vivant and a bad artist in every way." The analysis goes on in this vein and points out that in the serious art world it was felt that, "Art should be in some way critical of mainstream culture" rather than celebrating it.

Toward the end of his appraisal, Mr. Johnson writes:

Mr. Neiman is not the only celebrated artist to be marginalized by the cognoscenti. Walt Disney, Salvador Dali, Norman Rockwell and Andrew Wyeth all incurred suspicion for the taint of kitsch attached to their work. But it is hard to deny the aesthetic and moral interest of what they did, so they have their high-minded apologists... Is the serious art world wrong to exclude and disdain Mr. Neiman and his art? I don't think so.

Well, I may be volunteering to be a high-minded apologist for LeRoy Neiman. As an artist myself -- and one who has taken a zillion figure-drawing classes -- I was always in awe of the skill with which he could capture the figure in motion.

In the olden days it was fashionable to scorn the art of Norman Rockwell because of the sentimentality behind it, but today people are taking another look at Rockwell and saying, "Damn, could he paint!"

Meanwhile, the New York Times and other serious art forums review very seriously things like the three piles of dirt that Yoko Ono is currently displaying at the Serpentine Gallery in London in her new exhibit "To The Light" and the endless series of pranks by famous artist Marina Abramovic who, when she was younger, would have herself videotaped naked, banging her head against a wall or hanging on a cross. Now that she's older, she captured the media's interest during her long stint at MOMA two years ago when she spent hours every day, (clothed in a long dress) sitting at a table staring, immobile, into the eyes of whatever art fan came to stare back at her. Many of these fans, overcome at being in her presence, burst into tears. I nearly burst into tears when reading the admiring reviews of her retrospective from all the "serious" art critics.

In the end, I'm not qualified to tell you if LeRoy Neiman was a "serious" artist or not, but I'm glad he managed to enjoy his art for 91 years and that the rest of us were able to enjoy it as well. Here's the response that LeRoy would always make to published criticism: "Maybe the critics are right. But what am I supposed to do about it -- stop painting, change my work completely? I go back into the studio and there I am at the easel again. I enjoy what I'm doing and feel good working. Other thoughts are just crowded out."