Best known for his brilliantly colored, stunningly energetic images of sporting events and leisure activities, LeRoy Neiman is probably the most popular living artist in the United States. The artistic style of the fabulously successful Neiman is familiar to a remarkably broad spectrum of Americans --"rich and poor, black and white, urban and rural, educated and illiterate," and young and old alike. He was the official artist at five Olympiads. Millions of people have watched him at work: on ABC TV coverage of the Olympics,as CBS Superbowl computer artist, and at other major competitions, televised on location with his sketchbook and drawing materials, producing split-second records and highly developed images of what he is witnessing. "Before the camera, such reportage of history and the passing scene was one of the most important functions of painters and draftsmen of all sorts. Mr. Neiman has revived an almost lost and time-honored art form," Carl J. Weinhardt observed in the catalog for the exhibition of Neiman's 1972 Olympics sketches, which was mounted that year by the Indianapolis Museum of Art. In the Christian Science Monitor (May 2, 1972), Nick Seitz wrote that Neiman, who has been labeled an American Impressionist, "has the journalistic talent, as well as the artistic ability, to convey the essence of a game or contestant with great impact, from the Kentucky Derby to Wilt Chamberlain, from the America's Cup to Muhammad Ali, from the Super Bowl to Bobby Hull."
A teacher at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago for 10 years early in his career, after studying there, Neiman also gained wide recognition as contributing artist for Playboy, in the 1950s. Many of his images of what he calls " the good life," have appeared in the form of etchings, lithographs, silkscreen prints, and sculptures as well as paintings, in the permanent collections of public and private museums and other institutions worldwide. These institutional acquisitions, along with sales of approximately 150,000 of his silkscreen prints to individuals, attest to the enormous appeal of his work. "Whether one approves of Neiman's work or not,... one must agree that he is a work of art himself," Stan Isaacs declared in New York Newsday (March 27, 1968), in a reference to Neiman's colorful public persona. "I guess I created LeRoy Neiman," the artist once said. "Nobody else told me how to do it. Well, I'm a believer in the theory that the artist is as important as his work."
Of Turkish and Swedish descent ("as near as I can figure out," as he has said), LeRoy Neiman was born on June 8, 1921 in St. Paul, Minnesota to Charles Runquist, an unskilled laborer, and Lydia (Serline) Runquist. His surname is that of one of his stepfathers; during his childhood his biological father abandoned the family, and his mother, whom he described to Jerry Tallmer for the New York Post (May 9, 1981) as "a very spirited woman, ahead of her times," later remarried twice. Raised in a rough blue-collar St. Paul neighborhood, early on LeRoy Neiman became a "street kid," in his words.
He attended a Roman Catholic primary school, where, he told Max Millard for the New York City Westside TV Shopper (January 27-February 2, 1979), he "was always drawing pictures and getting special treatment... showing off, copping out of other things." During recess periods he would inscribe pen-and-ink tattoos on his classmates' arms. A painting of a fish that he made in sixth grade won a prize in a national art competition. Starting in adolescence he earned money from local grocers by painting calcimine images of fruit, vegetables and meat as sale items, and portraits of the shopkeepers themselves on the windows of their stores. As a high school student, he created posters for school dances and athletic events. He participated in boxing matches in the basement of his church, which started a lifetime interest in prize fighting.
In 1942, Neiman quit school and enlisted in the United States Army. While serving as a cook for four years, with two years of combat in Europe, he painted sexually suggestive murals in military kitchens and dining halls that reportedly generated enthusiastic responses from women as well as men. He also painted stage sets for Red Cross shows under the auspices of the army's Special Services division. "If nothing else, the army completely confirmed me as an artist, " he wrote in his book LeRoy Neiman: Art and Life Style (1974). "During this period I made my crucial discovery of the difference between the lifestyles of the officer and the Pfc [private first class]. This was to become the basis of my later mission in art, to investigate life's social strata from the workingman to the multimillionaire. I discovered that while the poor I knew so well are so often pitiable, the rich can be fools."
Neiman has cited as especially influential in his development as an artist the work of the artists Leonardo da Vinci and Rubens, "for spirit"; Tintoretto, "for space"; and Fragonard, "for feel," as F. Lanier Graham quoted him as saying in The Prints of LeRoy Neiman: A Catalogue Raisonne of Serigraphs, Lithographs, and Etchings (1980). Others include various Romantic Realists, Impressionists, Post-Impressionists, and Fauvists; the French master of light and color Raoul Dufy; the Eastern European Expressionists Kees van Dongen and Oskar Kokoschka; George Bellows and other members of the Ashcan School of art; and the Abstract Expressionists, especially Jackson Pollock and other practitioners of action painting, in which paint is applied directly by such means as splattering and dribbling.
During his interview with Max Millard, Neiman said that his painting style came into being "very suddenly." The catalyst that sparked its emergence was Neiman's acquisition, one day in 1953, of partially used cans of enamel paints that were being discarded by the custodian of the apartment house adjacent to his. As F. Lanier Graham pointed out, "Freely flowing paint makes possible fast-moving strokes. With fast-moving strokes, one can render the impression of fast-moving action." "That was when I hit my stride," Neiman has been quoted as saying with regard to his initial experiments with house paints. Idle Boats, one of his earliest works in that medium, won first prize in oil painting at the 1953 Twin City Show. That same year it was bought by the Minneapolis Institute of Arts and thus became the first of his paintings to be purchased by a museum. Also in 1953, Neiman had his first solo shows, at galleries in Chicago and Lincoln, Illinois. He was among the artists featured in "New Talent in America 1956," in Art in America (February 1956). In 1957 one of his paintings was included in the "American 25th Biennial Exhibition" at the Corcoran Gallery of Art, in Washington, D.C., and a Neiman work displayed at the Chicago Art Exhibition, which drew 25,000 visitors, won the prize for most popular painting.
Earlier, while freelancing at a Chicago department store, Neiman had made the acquaintance of Hugh Hefner, who was then a copywriter there. In December 1953 Hefner began publishing Playboy. A few months later, after a chance meeting, Neiman showed Hefner some of his paintings. Much impressed, Hefner brought Art Paul, Playboy's art director, to Neiman's apartment to see them. Paul immediately commissioned the artist to illustrate "Black Country," a short story by Charles Beaumont about a jazz musician. His creation of those illustrations, which earned Playboy an award from the Chicago Art Directors Club in 1954, marks the inception of Neiman's ongoing association with the magazine.
By his own account, LeRoy Neiman works very hard, has no hobbies, and does not take vacations. He paints in a double-height studio in the Hotel des Artistes, a landmark New York City building across the street from one of his favorite subjects--Central Park. In the same building he maintains an office; a penthouse pied-a-terre; and an apartment that he shares with his best friend--his wife, the former Janet Byrne, whom he married on June 22, 1957. His archives, which he is currently assembling for preservation at the Smithsonian Institution, in Washington, D.C., are also kept there. His signature black handlebar mustache and luxuriant slicked-back hair are now peppered with gray, and he is seldom photographed without his trademark prop, a long cigar. Described by Malcolm Lein as quiet and warm, for many years he cultivated a reputation as a flamboyant man-about-town. "I like being outrageous. . . ," he acknowledged to Pete Dexter for Esquire (July 1984). "I don't actually do anything, except be conspicuous. It keeps me revved up." In the New Yorker (February 5, 1979), he was quoted as saying, "My performance is part of my success."
A member of the New York City Advisory Commission for Cultural Affairs since 1995, Neiman has received four honorary degrees and, among other honors, an Award of Merit from the American Athletic Union (1976), a Gold Plate Award from the American Academy of Achievement (1977), and a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Muscular Dystrophy Association (1986). Through the years he has donated scores of his artworks to charitable organizations, and in 1995 he gave the School of the Arts at Columbia University, in New York City, a gift of $6 million to create the LeRoy Neiman Center for Print Studies.