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LeRoy Neiman — Life, Inspiration, and Controversial Legacy

Sketchbook in tow, Neiman could at any given moment see reality through rainbow-tinted glasses.

By Arts & Culture, Uncategorized

“After a long run the engine is slowing down, but the phone still rings daily: a call for a commission on the other side of the world, a fan reporting that his daughter whom I painted as a baby is getting married…an athlete passing through town who wants to chew the fat and pick up another sketch for his collection.”

— LeRoy Neiman, “All Told: My Art and Life Among Athletes, Playboys, Bunnies and Provocateurs”

Published just weeks before painter LeRoy Neiman died of natural causes on June 20 at the age of 91, the artist’s memoir provides a final intimate account of a dramatic journey from the wrong side of the tracks in pre-World War II St.Paul, Minnesota to the top of the world of celebrity and wealth as one of the most popular artists in the second half of the 20th century.

Immediately recognizable by his musketeer-style mustache (which he grew upon the advice of Salvador Dalí’s wife, Gala), his signature cigar, and his perpetual mischievous smirk, Neiman ingeniously played up the “eccentric artist” persona that undoubtedly contributed to his mainstream success as an illustrator and painter of celebrities, athletes, and stylized scenes of popular culture. In Neiman’s formative art school years during the late 1940s the pervasive tendency among artists was toward an inward-looking, solitary perspective, however, Neiman was compelled to find his own utopia by looking outward at the spectacle of society at play. Ironically, his idiosyncratic style forever branded him a purely commercial artist.

Art school gave him the freedom to find his unique vision and Neiman generously gave back to the various institutions that influenced his work throughout the course of his life. He and his wife of over 50 years, Janet Byrne Neiman, have donated large sums of money to schools and art programs, including their most recent gift of $5 million to the School of the Art Institute of Chicago for the newly completed Neiman Center. He and his wife are alumnus of the school, but according to Neiman’s memoir, they met years later while working at the Carson Pirie Scott building in downtown Chicago — Byrne as a copywriter and Neiman as an illustrator. Incidentally, this is where Neiman met Hugh Hefner, who would prove to be a seminal figure in Neiman’s life.

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