Thursday, June 21, 2012

RIP, LeRoy Nieman

When I heard today that artist LeRoy Neiman had died at 91, my first reaction was surprise that he wasn't already dead; I haven't thought about him, nor heard anything about him, in years.

That's not to say I haven't ever thought about him, though: My father, who passed away in 2005, was a big fan of Neiman, who was most famous for his brightly colored, kinetic sketches, paintings, and serigraphs of athletes and sporting events. Serious art critics and aficionados typically wrote him off as "garish and superficial," when they weren't ignoring him altogether, but Neiman's work was wildly popular in its day, and he lived a flamboyant, globe-trotting public life: Imagine the commercial success of Norman Rockwell, facial hair to rival Dali, and the lifestyle of a happy version of Hemingway.

And then there was, of course, Playboy.

My father genuinely loved Neiman's painting style, no matter what the critics said, and even consciously emulated it in a couple of his own amateur paintings, one of which hangs in my upstairs hallway. But in the 60s and early 70s, Dad was also one of those white-collar suburban sophisticates for whom a subscription to Playboy was a point of pride. It can't have hurt Dad's opinion of him that Neiman had been involved with the magazine since its first year of operation; had created Femlin, the iconic "curvaceous brunette who cavorted across the [Party Jokes] page in thigh-high stockings, high-heeled shoes, opera gloves and nothing else" [NYT, 6/20/2012]; painted the running Man at His Leisure feature; and was generally more closely associated with the Playboy lifestyle than any nonphotographer not named Alberto Vargas.

As I learned researchingGoogling stuff for this post, Neiman's memoir All Told: My Art and Life Among Athletes, Playboys, Bunnies, and Provocateurs was published earlier this month, and I'm thinking it might be worth a look. Maybe it's time for another look at his art, too, now that his personal celebrity and commercialism no longer obscure the view. Personally, I always found the energy and dynamism of his images appealing. Much of it is "merely" illustration (but you could say that about plenty of other great artists, couldn't you), but not all. This image, for instance, is oddly reminiscent of one of my father's other favorite artists, Winslow Homer (compare):

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