We are all saddened by the loss of our dear friend LeRoy Neiman. Here are my remarks from Commencement in May of 2010 when we named him Honorary Professor of the Arts.
—Carol Becker, Dean of the School of the Arts
LeRoy Neiman is an artist known to millions for his images of athletes, sports celebrities, musicians, singers and important leaders of society. Official artist at five Olympic games, he has also been televised while drawing electronically for the Superbowl on TV. He has had an extremely enviable record of success and recognition with retrospectives, museum shows and enormous sales of his paintings and prints throughout the world.
Interested in the public arena and those who inhabit it, he has always cared about the way in which race and class determine people’s lives. No matter how many fabulous venues he visited while employed for Playboy Magazine and other publications, recording the “high life” or the “good life” as he calls it, around the world, he has never forgotten his own roots or the struggles he and his mother as well as other working people have had to contend with. It is his fundamentally egalitarian nature, the subject matter he has focused on, and his apparent generosity of spirit that has made him beloved to so many and has kept him motivated to make work that is accessible and meaningful.
The list of celebrities who he has portrayed in images known to us all is enormous. It ranges from former Presidents Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan, to Frank Sinatra, Margaret Mead, Dizzy Gillespie, Martin Luther King, Duke Ellington, Leonard Bernstein, Bobby and Ted Kennedy, Muhammed Ali, Brigitte Bardot and the Beatles. I have heard there are now images of President Obama, but he has not yet made these public.
Another great fan of celebrity, Andy Warhol admired Neiman and became interested in athletes as a subject for art as a result of observing him at work. An artist who moves around the world with his sketchbook, he captures the moment in the moment, the gesture as it is enacted.
Neiman has had great success as an artist for many reasons, but surely one of them is his interest in the way every day people sometimes become celebrities and then have great symbolic meaning thrust on them for generations. He has represented such figures with accuracy, flair and style. Muhammed Ali is a great example of someone championed by Neiman. Ali is also a person revered for his phenomenal athletic prowess but also for his keen intelligence and political courage. His flamboyance is only matched by Neiman’s own.
For our Visual Arts Thesis Show dinner two weeks ago, Neiman arrived in a remarkable pair of purple-tipped shoes—the only other pair like them were those he had designed for Muhammed Ali. LeRoy wore a purple scarf to match.
Living the life of the artist to the hilt, Neiman’s charismatic presence, enormous mustache and elegant dress has helped make him a celebrity. Of this Neiman says, “ I don’t actually do anything, except be conspicuous. It keeps me revved up. My performance is part of my success.” There is no doubt that Neiman’s own elegance and joie de vivre are part of his notoriety, but it is also true that he is very loved and admired by all those whose images he has rendered. He has the ability to go right to the essence of an action, a gesture, a posturing, and capture a personality. In so doing he expresses the vitality of genius, whether it be Bobby Hull, Joe Namath, or Salvador Dali—also known for a fabulous moustache.
Many have written about Neiman’s style, comparing him to various artists and citing many influences. The truth is that in the history of art, no one has been as engaged with either public figures or athletes to this extent. But his own influences range from Goya and Delacroix to Daumier, to the Impressionists, Post Impressionists and the Fauves. But of course he is also part of the tradition of artists like Ben Shahn and Jacob Lawrence who pick nonacademic content for their work and are concerned with the public sphere. Like Sargent and Remington, he has been fascinated with human activity and vitality. Early on he recognized the concept of action painting and also the painting of action. Like Jackson Pollock and others, he achieved these effects by moving away from traditional oil paint to the use of enamel house paint, which allowed him to move quickly and in broad strokes and to “hit his stride” as he has said. He also loves artists like Cezanne, Toulouse Lautrec and Dufy, as well as Kokoshka.
But unlike other modern artists, Neiman did not abandon the figure for symbolic representations. He continued working with the figure as the embodiment of humanity. He does not make art for the art world but for the world, and it is the larger population that has loved and appreciated his work, bringing him both fame and fortune. He is recognized wherever he goes and there are those who collect his work exclusively and with great enthusiasm.
LeRoy Neiman was born in St. Paul Minnesota and by all accounts, including his own, was of a humble background, and although he knew his father, and even speaks with love for his father, his father did abandon him and his mother. In his own terms, he was a street kid, recognizing early on that drawing and painting were his strengths and probably his vocation. This was confirmed during WWII when he served as an army cook and when he could, painted rowdy and bawdy murals for the soldiers. After the war he returned to the Midwest using the GI Bill to study at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. There he truly learned his craft and after his studies, stayed on to teach for a decade. It was in Chicago, where he met and collaborated with Hugh Hefner at Playboy. And it was in Chicago, most importantly, that he met Janet Byrne now Janet Neiman, clearly his best friend and life collaborator. Janet Neiman is also an artist and they have been married for 52 years in what seems a true union of love and aesthetics.
In 1995 LeRoy and Janet Neiman made the largest single gift ever given to The School of the Arts—the Neiman Center for Print Studies. And it has proven to be one of the School’s greatest assets. Working in this space are Neiman Fellows. These fellowships reflect LeRoy and Janet’s deep love, devotion and understanding of the needs of young artists. At the Center for Print Studies, artists such as Kiki Smith, Sarah Sze, William Kentridge, Shahzia Sikander and Neiman himself have made fabulous work. Artists who are chosen, come to the Center and are given access to the brilliant art direction of Tomas Vu-Daniel, himself a wonderful artist, as well as master printers able to assist them to actualize their concept for the print, however unorthodox that may be. A perfect artist-created space, it caters to the particularity of each artist, allowing each to create a body of work that might otherwise never be made. Because of its generous endowment, the Center does not need to worry about its own operating expenses, as a result it can take risks and brilliant, unexpected work has resulted. Next week a retrospective of this work will open in Bejing and will then move on to Shanghai and possibly to other venues around the world.
LeRoy Neiman has been a great friend to the School of the Arts and to young artists in many parts of this city and the country. He respects their process and their ideas. His spirit is adventurous, playful and full of life. This big heart, depth of care for others, and his concern for social injustice, is why we love and admire him as much as we do.
He is recognized by people all over the world for the joy his work has brought them. And so, we honor him today, as the wonderful artist and person that he is, with our first ever award of the title, Honorary Professor of the Arts.
Carol Becker wrote more about LeRoy Neiman for the Huffington Post in "LeRoy Neiman: Generous, Complex, Larger Than Life" ►