Washington, DC, June 8, 2012 — LeRoy Neiman, whose paintings, posters and famed handlebar mustache make him one of the most recognizable artists of our time, has written an autobiography that we celebrate today on his 91st birthday. He tells it all in All Told: My Art and Life Among Athletes, Playboys, Bunnies and Provocateurs.
In his new book, Neiman gives us the powerful story of his creative journey through rejection, along with his scoops on the famed and storied folk he’s met, cavorted with, and, yes, painted.
We journey along with him from his early years as a scrappy kid in Saint Paul, Minnesota, through his decision—before he even finished high school—to join the Army during the second great war, to his celebrated career as the “Playboy artist in residence,” as he calls himself; and from thence to see his work regularly featured on TV’s Wide World of Sports and to become the man who met and painted Muhammad Ali and virtually every sport and movie legend of his time.
To ring in a Frank Sinatra favorite—yes, he painted him too—he did it his way.
This book is superb, and not only for its incredible images. The real story that Neiman reveals—the one that makes this autobiography worth reading—is the struggle that underlies his extraordinary success, with sales of his prints that still bring in $10 million a year. Rejection was the name of the game that most of us would argue he won.
Neiman’s life struggle began at home with his beloved mother. “My mother never praised or encouraged me,” he writes, noting that once she even threw out his paintings. She opens and closes this book like a gossamer yet unbreakable thread that both held him and challenged him throughout his career.
In 1957 he was invited to the Corcoran in DC, was on display at Chicago’s Art Institute and traveled on to the Big Apple with the likes of Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg.
But Neiman’s work did not pass muster with the elite New York critics’ club.
In spite of them, he sold paintings faster than he could paint them. And he was off to the races, literally and figuratively: His paintings of jockeys and thoroughbreds are now the stuff of urban legends.
As far as Neiman was concerned, let the critics be damned. He resolutely refused to “defer” to those he dubbed “the art elites.”
LeRoy Neiman knew what he was about. “Imagination comes of not having things,” key words he used to describe the creative soul. “Paintings were windows …” Lessons like these inform the fullness, the speed of the images that flash off his canvases.
Insert “artist” for writer in these words by Henry James and you have LeRoy Neiman: A writer is someone on whom nothing is lost.
Consider these facts culled from his curriculum vitae:
He goes AWOL briefly from the Army but comes home with an honorable discharge and five battle stars. Neiman notes, “The most significant designation on those discharge papers of November 20, 1945 was Army T/4 Artist.”
He learns his craft at the School of The Art Institute of Chicago, where he also taught, as well as at the University of Chicago and the University of Illinois. He studies his peers. The power of Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning seems to him “like witnessing a powerful switch from one way of seeing the world to another,” words that provide a key to the invention that marks his work.
His love of fine art in music, literature and painting is in stark contrast to the paradoxical underbelly of his story: The low and high life he led in pool halls and bars and his self-acknowledged lifelong “affection for the hucksters.”
This candid autobiography also describes the author’s private collection that includes an evocative sepia and brown ink on paper of Leonard Bernstein, drawn in his presence. Neiman may not have been welcome in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, but the doors to the rehearsal halls at the Metropolitan Opera and Avery Fisher Hall were always open to him.
We who admire his work and his story know that “the doppelgänger, the white bearded Monet” who lies hidden in his paintings lives in Neiman’s heart and lies at the heart of this telling.
LeRoy Neiman reveals how to overcome adversity, how to live on the margin of the fine-art world and at the center of the high life, the low life and all that’s in between while never forgetting who you are.
Following are LeRoy Neiman’s answer to questions about his life, his love—married 50 years to Janet Byrne—and his art.
Q: You candidly describe being seen by the critics as “the urchin clambering over the gates of their exclusive world.” Who is a painter the so-called critics have not recognized?
Neiman: What a challenging question for me. One of my young artist friends, James de la Vega, has had some recognition in New York City but currently considers himself more of a philosopher/artist. At both Columbia University in New York City and at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, I have a presence in the art departments. In both these schools there are many talented young people training and experimenting in areas that are brand new. I have always said to young artists that scholastic training and the studying of art history are crucial to fully developing as an artist. I also tell them it is essential to draw or paint every day as I have done for decades now. As I turn 91 this June 8th, I have to admit my hours at the easel have diminished.
Q: Through your mother’s piercing insight, you realized “photographs are realistic but static” and so you’ve met virtually everyone you painted. Who gave you insights into the soul that you incorporated in the painting?
Neiman: Perhaps Muhammad Ali who I drew and painted for so many years in many different settings. I really followed his entire career from the workouts to dressing room to the square ring in the big arenas. He was always a compelling subject. There is also a watercolor I did in 1969 that reveals Joe Namath at that moment as he is walking off the football field. His posture says everything about him at that moment.
Q: We have here one fashion illustration of your wife Janet. Have you painted Janet or is she hidden in paintings like your Monet figure?
Neiman: My lovely wife Janet has been in a few paintings. She is basically a reserved woman who has never sought the limelight. She has always been there throughout my career and continues to be at my side.
All Told: My Art and Life Among Athletes, Playboys, Bunnies, and Provocateurs by LeRoy Neiman (Lyons Press, $29.95; June 8, 2012)
Mary L. Tabor is the author of the memoir: (Re)Making Love: a memoir and The Woman Who Never Cooked. Her novel Who by Fire will be published in the fall. She says, “I ferret out the detail, love the footnote, am never bored and believe it all leads to story. Best advice I ever got? ‘Only connect …’ E.M. Forster.” Find out more at http://www.maryltabor.com
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