LeRoy Neiman: Generous, Complex, Larger Than Life

We might say of LeRoy Neiman what they say about the Rocky Mountains: He was so big, so grand, so unpredictable that he made his own weather. Born poor and neglected by his father, all his achievements were his own and came from his joie de vivre, street savvy, innate and cultivated talent, and openness to life. He knew how to get attention and thrived on the approval of those he admired. He was interested in people in action in the world: that simple, that complex.

Much has been written about LeRoy Neiman since his death June 20: There were those who knew him and adored him. Those who encountered him and were taken with his generosity of spirit. Those who loved the work and collected it, if they could. And those who have always damned the work as not enough of the art world and too much of the world. "Mr. Neiman, who died this week at 91, was not an artist whom anyone in what I will here call the serious art world would ever have cared about," wrote Ken Johnson in the New York Times on June 23, 2012.

But I do care about LeRoy, and I am lucky that my life intertwined with his in various ways over decades. I first met him because he stayed close to the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, where I was Dean of Faculty for some time. He studied there under the GI Bill, then taught at the school for 10 years and later became a great financial supporter. Some years ago, he insisted on coming to Chicago to teach underserved children from high schools on the city's South Side. We helped to arrange it. His goal was to get these students to draw subjects they'd normally never be able to access -- great racehorses at the track, boxers in the ring and famous athletes up close. One of his last acts was to fund a new Student Center for the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, which now bears the Neiman name.

We even had a Playboy connection. He spent many years drawing for that publication and hanging out with Hugh Hefner in the Playboy Mansion. I recalled LeRoy's time there when, decades ago, that 70-room building, with its heart-shaped waterbed, bowling alley, pool overhung with plastic fruit and underwater bar, was given to the School of the Art Institute because zoning regulations made it hard to sell on the market. Although the neighbors feared that rowdy artists were moving in and tried to stop it, we put the mansion to good use as our first dormitory. It was hard for us to believe that they had such anxiety about shy art school freshmen after years of Hugh Hefner chasing Bobbie Benton down the street in his pajamas.

Then I came to Columbia University as Dean of the School of the Arts, where, in 1996, LeRoy had gifted the LeRoy Neiman Center for Print Studies -- a $6 million endowment to develop a professional print studio where artists such as Kara Walker, Sarah Sze, Shahzia Sikander, Kiki Smith, William Kentridge, Jasper Johns and LeRoy himself could work while students apprenticed, took classes, and learned to be printmakers beside such accomplished artists. Work sold by the center helps support student scholarships.

He was a man of fascinating contradictions, most of which he articulated himself in his recently published page-turner memoir All Told.

He loved the super-accomplished in show business, sports and art. Some of the people he most loved to paint were, and are, true giants. Muhammed Ali is a great example of someone championed by Neiman. Ali is revered for his phenomenal athletic prowess but also for his keen and unpredictable verbal brilliance. LeRoy saw all this and loved him for it. They were close. LeRoy designed a pair of purple shoes for Ali. I think there were only two pairs made -- one for Ali and one for LeRoy, who wore them when we awarded him an Honorary Professorship of the Arts at Columbia University School of the Arts.

LeRoy also loved the self-made, the marginal, and the eccentric, some with large personalities and, at times, dubious professions. He was close to Sinatra and told stories about hanging out with the "Rat Pack" -- all the time drawing them and their buddies. When he recounted these stories, he liked to imitate tough guys demanding the drawings he did of them, even sending their bodyguards to threaten him if he didn't fork them over. "Hey, LeRoy, don't make trouble. Jake here wants his drawing." But he wasn't afraid of local hoods or even big-time ones. Having known poverty as a kid, he could handle himself on the streets.

He loved those characters, and he cavorted with and enjoyed the life of the rich and famous, but he also cared deeply about the average person struggling to make a life. Nothing made him happier than being recognized on the streets of New York City, especially when workers popped out of manhole covers to say hello, or people shouted to him from passing cars. He was always recognizable, which was part of the image he cultivated--the people's artist.

A serious student of the history of art, admiring such masters as Delacroix, Goya and Kokoschka, he nonetheless chose to identify mostly with those artists who were populist in their subject matter and in their reach -- Toulouse-Lautrec, Daumier and, later, Warhol. He wanted to be admired by the "art world" as an artist worthy of critical attention, and yet, in his career choices, he constantly thumbed his nose at the gatekeepers empowered to make such judgments. He was well aware that his subject matter, boldly colorful aesthetic and years spent traveling around the world recording the "good life" for Playboy Magazine while drawing athletic events on television at Super Bowls, the Olympics, World Cups and PGA tournaments, would exclude him from the world of "fine art."

Two days after LeRoy's death followed by the extravagant New York Times obituary, writer Ken Johnson in his piece "Achieving Fame Without a Legacy," made it painfully clear that the "serious art world" had always made fun of LeRoy as a hack artist that no respected gallery or museum would dare show. What was it that made the work so unacceptable, one might ask? Was it the house paint he preferred to use? The bright palette -- his trademark? Or the popular subject matter to which he always gravitated? It turns out the real criticism was that he wasn't commenting on the society critically enough, wasn't representing popular culture with the necessary edge of scorn those of us raised in the 1960s and later understand how to do so well. The article is a plea for someone to appear who, like LeRoy, is able to reach out beyond the narrow art world parameters and embrace popular culture, but, unlike LeRoy, also provided a built-in critique. I think we already saw that person in Andy Warhol, someone LeRoy liked and admired and who liked LeRoy as well. Warhol understood that LeRoy was on to something, when he chose celebrities as his subject matter.

Because of his flamboyant style -- cape (early on) and Dali-esque mustache (always) -- LeRoy appeared to some as a parody of the artist, enamored with his own image. In truth, he was vulnerable, generous, compassionate and always openhearted. His years with Hugh Hefner might have led some to view him as sexist, but, if that were the case, I never saw it. Oh, when he told stories there were plenty of "leggy dames" and "bombshells" (the memoir is filled with such phrases), but I never took offense at these comments. They always seemed more generational than ill-intended. And, as he grew older, his love and respect for women also seemed to deepen. He certainly surrounded himself with some strong and smart female studio assistants and aides-de-camp. They catered to him, of course, but teased him unmercifully as well. Janet Neiman, his terrific wife of 55 years, is definitely a woman of her own mind. He admired intelligence wherever he found it; gender, race, class had no importance for him. And he abhorred racism.

What I already miss about LeRoy: His sense that the world is infinitely interesting. His desire, right up until the end, to work everyday in his huge Manhattan studio, where nothing had changed in many decades. His ability to capture anyone in a quick line or two -- not unlike Picasso's drawing brilliance. And, finally, his enthusiasm for art -- all kinds of art -- and his unqualified support for young artists.

It was LeRoy's generosity and genuine respect for the uniqueness of all his subjects, his understanding of their greatness in the worlds they inhabited, that allowed him to come in so close, get the gesture so right. Had he critiqued their role in society and popular culture in general, as Johnson suggests might have made him a "serious" artist, they would have smelled that stance of superiority miles away. He'd never have put that first foot inside their ring.