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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

Though his story, as written in his memoir, is one of inspiring self-invention, the artist also faced his share of tribulation, from his unstable childhood to his lucrative career as an artist whose life’s work was nonetheless considered largely irrelevant by art critics. Neiman was born in 1921 in St.Paul, Minnesota. He and his older brother Earl (b.1920) were raised by their free-spirited mother after the boys’ father left when they were young. A modest farm girl turned “flapper” in the big city, she remarried several times, labeling her a “wanton woman” by those who didn’t approve of the era’s counterculture. Neiman admired how easily she brushed off the harsh and rampant criticism. “She’d say, ‘Ah, they’re just jealous because we’re having so much fun and they’re not,” he recalled.

The “Roaring Twenties” had a lasting effect on Neiman, as he became enamored with images of the hedonistic parties that played out night after night in the basement speakeasy of his family’s home. Years later, Neiman would be re-captivated by the wonderfully raucous and indulgent decade via the writing of F. Scott Fitzgerald and the paintings of Reginald Marsh. He would go on to illustrate a character called “Our Guy,” his own vision of the modern American “society man” (à la Jay Gatsby), who appeared frequently in Playboy Magazine. Neiman created a similarly alluring vintage-inspired female persona for the magazine’s “Party Jokes” section. Affectionately named “the Femlin,” the pixie-sized but voluptuous nymphet with big hair, black stockings and gloves became almost as recognizable as the “bunny” herself. Before these defining achievements among many others, Neiman overcame numerous hurdles.

The Stock Market crash of 1929 brought extreme economic turmoil through the 1930s, and with it a pervasive sense of misery throughout the Midwest. But Neiman, always the optimist, made the best of his situation and later poured the experience into his art. He began drawing to pass the time and observed how people fixated on fantasy to divert their minds from the desolate reality of the times, a perception that would later influence his choice of subject matter. “Our lives were aimless and dream-laden,” said Neiman of those years, “Imagination comes out of not having things.”

After two decade of drifting through life, Neiman was provided a sense of purpose. In 1942 he was drafted into the army and subsequently sent overseas, fighting in notable battles including the “D-Day” invasion of Normandy and the “Battle of the Bulge.” When not in battle, Neiman sketched soldiers’ girlfriends, wives, and mothers from snapshots to send back home, and painted stage sets and bandstands for visiting USO performers. The twenty-four year old returned to America in 1945, discharged as an official Army Artist. “I’d seen a world beyond my imagination…but there was no time to look back,” he said.

With the newly implemented GI Bill, which granted wartime servicemen a year of college for each year served, Neiman imagined a future he previously never thought possible. He was now intent on going to art school. At the recommendation of the artist Clement Haupers, with whom Neiman spent time in St.Paul during the months following his return, Neiman applied to SAIC. In the fall of 1947, he piled everything he owned into his car and moved to Chicago, the city where he would invent the style that would seal his fate as an artist loved by the public, but wholly written off by the art critics.

Neiman entered the school at a crucial moment for modern art — The New York School of Abstract Expressionists burst onto the world’s stage, shaking the art world to its core. In the late 1940s, the Art Institute of Chicago held its first Abstract Expressionism exhibition, which included the work of soon-to-be superstars Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning. “It sent shock waves through the school,” recalls Neiman in his memoir,“The jolt it gave me was both frustrating and invigorating.”

Though he recognized the revolutionary character of the “Ab-Ex” movement, Neiman gravitated toward less current artists from various eras and stylistic schools. He had a profound connection to the scintillating colors used by the French “Fauves” and German Expressionists, as well as to the quick, painterly brush strokes of the French Post-Impressionists and Dutch genre painters. In terms of academia, he read the prominent intellectual figures of the time, but was less attracted to the existentialist theorists who held sway in critical theory, like Jean-Paul Sartre. Instead, Neiman reveled in the work of the Dutch cultural theorist Johan Huizinga who defined man as the “playful animal” in the 1938 book “Homo Ludens.”

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