The Art of LeRoy Neiman
Raoul Dufy, The Opera, Paris (ca. 1939),
The Phillips Collection, Washington, D.C
The officers liked it. The enlisted men liked it. The nurses liked it. Everybody liked it. And Neiman liked doing it. So he decided to become an artist when he returned to his home town in 1946.
His first teacher was a colorist named Clement Haupers who was a leading artist in the city, and taught at the St. Paul Art Center (which is now the Minnesota Museum of Art). Haupers had studied with Andre Lhòte at the Académie Montparnasse in Paris. He took Neiman into the country to paint landscapes and drilled him in the mechanics of rendering a convincing three-dimensional image. He also taught him the basic compositional principles of Cezanne. Then he suggested that Neiman go on to study art and art history at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.
In the fall of 1946, using the GI Bill, he did just that. Here, at the age of 20, Neiman had his first real introduction to the history of art. Until then, all he had actually experienced was American art of the traditional kind that could be found in the portrait gallery of his State Capital or on the streets. Now he could wander through one of the largest and most complete art museums in the world. Most of the major styles of human history were at his fingertips. It was an exhilarating experience, and he was wide open to all of it.
His primary guide to all these mysteries was Boris Anisfeld, a Russian painter who had come to the United States with the Diaghilev Ballet in 1918, and had taught at the Art Institute since 1928. Neiman studied with him for two years. Anisfield was large, strong, fastidious, and (during the 20s) famous. He had catholic tastes, liking both the most ancient and the most modern, and regarded himself as the follower of no one.
He was not so fashionable when Neiman became his student. But he was the sort of teacher to whom students naturally became devoted. The psychological connection between student and master was so close that Anisfeld provided a role model. This is how Neiman remembers it:
"In the beginning I was totally undisciplined. Haupers and Anisfeld were important because they acted like artists, looked like artists, and felt like artists. They taught me the craft of painting, and also the notion of being totally involved with and dedicated to art; you need to know that the artist really exists and is something beyond the picture itself."
Van Dongen, Shepard's Hotel
Restaurant at Cairo (1928),
photograph courtesy of Lenoir
M. Josey. Inc.
His influence on young Neiman was considerable, both as an artist and as a person. Anisfeld was a passionately sensuous man who lived and worked in a world of intense color, and was deeply in love with opera and the dance. His work for Bakst, Diaghilev, and the Metropolitan Opera in New York are rich explosions of color. As a teacher of anatomy, life drawing and painting, he stressed that his students would be free to do anything they wanted, said his daughter, in a recent interview, "once they had discipline and a background in true craftsmanship."
Neiman feels indebted to him primarily for what he taught him about the psychology of color, and the potential of dramatic juxtapositions of color, as well as his attitude towards art and life. Neiman once told me that, "the most important thing this warm and wonderful old Russian mystic told me is that I should paint from the heart. That's where everything should be coming from."
But what comes from the heart must go through something else before it can reach the heart and mind of another. What was the structure of the art into which Neiman wanted to pour his heart? At that point, Neiman did not know what his style would be. He had a lot to choose from, and was busy considering all the possibilities.
Anisfeld was not his only teacher at the Chicago Art Institute, only the most influential. By the early 1950s, all the major art movements were represented on the faculty. At first (in the late 1940s) Neiman was involved with the traditional mainstream of modern urban art especially the American realists. The ethical, sociological orientation of this art was stressed by a faculty made up almost exclusively of East European Jews who had recently migrated to Chicago. Neiman joined this faculty in 1951 teaching drawing and fashion illustration, and stayed for ten years.
Everett Shinn, London Hippodrome (1902),
The Art Institute of Chicago,
Friends of American Art Gift
In the early 50s, came the explosion of Action Painting, and the arrival of the "Hans Hoffman School" of Abstract Expressionists who perpetuated the lurid color combinations which many non-expressionists find so vulgar. Both kinds of painting had a strong influence on Neiman. The central problem of his work became how to synthesize these two very different ways of seeing and thinking. It was a problem that he would struggle with for years.
Who were the artists whose work was particularly important to Neiman at the time? What were the primary formal influences on him when he was just beginning to find himself?
When I asked him this question, in the summer of 1979, this was his first reply: "Leonardo and Rubens for spirit. Tintoretto for space, and Fragonard for brushwork." As we went on to talk about color as line, he spoke of the whole genealogy of Romantic Realists from Goya and Delacroix and Daumier, to the Impressionists, Post-Impressionists, and Fauves, and especially the East European Expressionists Van Dongen and Kokoschka.
At first he was shy to tell people how much he responded to both the cool, clear lyricism of Dufy, and the deep, soul-searching intensity of the Expressionists. Usually, it is expected that one likes one or the other. Neiman, who has both of these psychological polarities in himself, liked both.
For color as field, for pure color as an arena in which to act, he is quite conscious of his close relationship with Action Painters, particularly the work of Pollock, Kline, and de Kooning.
For certain kinds of color, Neiman also reached back into his earlier American heritage. Neiman was especially drawn to the subtle overlays of Inness, and the rich Wagnerian color dramas of Moran. He also liked Homer and Sargent and Remington, all of whom rendered energetic bursts of human activity. Eakins he found too silent and too still.
Vegas Blackjack, oil on canvas, 30 x 48", 1959,
collection of Mr. & Mrs. Milton Krishbaum
For subject matter, the artists who inspired him most - who validated his desire to render urban life as a whole - were members of the Ashcan School, and those who followed in the mainline American tradition of social realism on the heels of the New York Realists.
Contrary to the belief of many critics, Social Realism is not a "minor" tradition. Art that focuses on the life of people and comments on their daily activities has been the mainstream of American art throughout most of our history. It was the New York Ashcan painters (Henri, Sloan, Glackens, Shinn, and Luks) in the early years of the 20th century, who first painted The Urban Scene in America - the life of the streets and the nightclubs and the boxing rings. This focus on city life was continued by Henri's younger students, George Bellows and Edward Hopper, as well as Reginald Marsh, Raphael Soyer, and Ben Shahn. Mainstreams move slowly. Abstract painting did not start to become "mainstream" until the 1950s, when Neiman already had finished his academic training.
To assimilate all of these influences at once is a very difficult thing to do. But it is what young art students in America are asked to do. In every major metropolitan area of the United States since World War II, this is the way art students are educated. Most of their time is spent in studio work. In a semester or two, they are exposed to the entire history of art.
For young art students who have known only traditional kinds of portraiture and genre painting, being exposed to the whole history of human imagination is a transformative experience. No one is quite the same afterwards. For Neiman, it was as if the Armory Show went off in his head like a firecracker.
Jack Levine, The Feast of Pure Reason
(1937), The Museum of Modern Art,
New York on extended loan from the
United States WPA Art Program
As his student years ended, and his teaching years began, he had what he needed to work with: his own solid grounding in the figurative tradition, and the idea that color is free, totally free to do with as he wanted. What did he want to do with all this? What was his purpose? What was his philosophy? Where was he coming from?
He recounts: "If nothing else, the army completely confirmed me as an artist. During this period I made my crucial discovery of the difference between the lifestyles of the officer and the Pfc. This was to become the basis for my later mission in art, to investigate life's social strata from the workingman to the multimillionaire."
He was a good, solid American, was raised on the realism of movies, and comics, and figure painting, and the true life drama of the streets. He is proud of being a "street artist." Representational art was fundamental to his nature. He had no desire to depart from the story-telling potential of figures in action. But he had to find out what to do with all those surges of color that continued to pulsate through his mind.
What did he want to do with all this color? To work with he had the naturalistic color of the American tradition, and the symbolic color of the European tradition. He also had the background of a society that has very little color in its daily life. Until after World War II, American painting is not very colorful, as a rule, when compared with contemporary Europeans. The paintings have color in them. But most are not intensely colorful. The parallel fact is that American cities are not very colorful. In the living spaces, and working spaces of most Americans, there is a pervasive grayness. The only time the average American sees a great deal of color is while shopping or watching TV (as Madison Avenue knows very well).
Ben Shahn, The Passion
of Sacco and Vanzetti
(1931-32), The Whitney
Museum of American Art,
Gift of Edith and Molton
Lowenthal in memory of
Part of this is due to our Puritan heritage. Since the 17th century, our Puritan ancestors have been opposed to the use of color as something that is sinfully sensuous. Neiman, however, is not a puritan. He loves color - huge quantities of color. He swallowed Expressionist color whole, and decided to try to integrate it with his solid American sense of the human figure.
That was an enormous ambition. He did not realize his ambition all at once. It took years. In the meantime, he worked his way through all of the post-cubist figure painters who had the most dynamic visual surfaces before he was able to generate his own idea of how to make colored forms in motion become people in action. Following this time-honored tradition of learning from other artists, Neiman's style in the early 50s is indebted to the mainline Social Realism of Reginald Marsh, and Jack Levine, as well as the jazz-like compositions of Ben Shahn.
As he wrestled with the problem of integrating symbolic coloration with naturalistic figuration in the early 50s, he did it by doing just what he set out to do in the first place - painting the people of the urban world that he knew best. At this point in his life, the slice of city life that he knew best was the night-life of the back streets of the big city: the jazz clubs on Chicago's Southside, the strip joints on Clark Street, Rush Street, and the twinkling lights on those luxurious yachts that moved softly up and down the lake front.
From the window of his modest basement studio, Neiman's eye was fascinated by the neon glitter of the city alive at night - color in motion. When we look at the world through artificial light, something begins to happen to our sense of color. For centuries, all art was done under natural light. The effort was to capture natural color. But in the last few generations, most American painting has been done under artificial light. The result has been the widespread use of curious kinds of artificial color. This expanded range of colors gave Neiman a great deal of freedom to discover just the kind of color symbolism he wanted to use. His regular association with Playboy Magazine, from its beginning in 1954, gave him an unlimited opportunity to study "The Good Life" (usually the Night Life) in all the major cities of the world.
More often than not, his oil and acrylic colors are the strangely fluorescent colors of the artificially illuminated night, realistic and expressionistic simultaneously. After years of being immersed in this phosphorescent ocean of colored light, Neiman finally found a way of using colors in a way that is both naturalistic and symbolic. This was a large part of the marriage he was work-ing for by bringing together two extremely different influences. This is how he explains it:
"I do not depart from the colors borrowed from life. But I use color to emphasize the scent, the spirit, and the feeling of the thing I've experienced. The behavior and interplay of these colors determine the psychological impact of the painting."
Irish American Bar, oil on board, 6' x 4',
1959-78, collection of the artist.
Neiman does not paint fantasies as a rule. He paints what he has experienced with his own eyes. Psychologically, he has a hunger for wholeness. His passion is to render the essence of the entire experience. Like most artists since the Renaissance (until a few decades ago), Neiman sets out to capture not simply what he sees, but the whole of the reality that he experiences at a specific time and place.
Throughout this essay, we are taking a careful look at the evolution of the artist's style. But we should be careful not to get caught in the trap that many art historians set for themselves when they forget that, to the artist, the subject is more important than the style in which it is rendered. One does not paint in order to develop a style. Style is the product of a purpose, the after-effect of an effort to communicate.
"For me," says Neiman, "communication is what it's all about. Art is simply the means by which I am able to do it." So he had to find a way of dealing with his subject-matter that would make his message easily available to as many people as possible.
What was his decision? What part of what he sees does he render in his effort to communicate a sense of the whole? What does he actually paint?
What Neiman decided to make his subject-matter is images - public images - the images we all carry around with us when we are out in the world. He never paints private moments, as a rule. He even admits that he can't.
"When I paint, I seriously weigh the public presence of a person - the surface facade. I am less concerned with how people look when they wake up or how they act at home. A person's public presence reflects...efforts at image development."
So he genuinely respects the quiet little visual arts of everyone. And he paints what people look like when they cover up their private bodies with clothes and jewels and scents. The image of all this is what he goes for. This is a subtle point. At first it may seem difficult to grasp. But it is very easy to see visually. Many of his critics call him "superficial." There is nothing wrong with using a word like this, if that is what we really mean. There's room for confusion if the word is not used correctly. "Superficial" is a tricky word.
John Sloan, McSorley's Bar (1912), The Detroit
Institute of Arts, Gift of the Founders Society
There are "superficial" things about Neiman's work. Some of his early serigraphs, for example, are thinly conceived and hastily executed. As I studied these early editions I wondered why the bodies are so thin, as if he were painting only the skins of these athletes instead of their whole bodies. Some of his portraits have some of the quality of caricature. Then he explained how he goes for both the actual look of people, and the image that is either self-projected or projected onto them by the general public.
Neiman's work in general is specifically superficial in a very special sense. Neiman's iconography, his actual subject-matter, is the symbolic surface of things, in their relation with each other. His interpretation is, by turns, sympathetic and satirical, but usually his attitude is quite positive.
Everyone has a certain look - a look that usually is quite carefully cultivated consciously or unconsciously. The "image" includes many things: how we cut our hair, how we dress, how we walk, and how our attitudes towards life have a way of carving themselves into the corners of our face. Groups of people also have images. Corporations have images. Nations have images. Our world is very much a world of images now-a-days. Image-building is a multi-billion dollar industry. Our national security depends on projecting a certain image. And so does the everyday psychological functioning of our individual personalities.
Neiman is only concerned with the people part of all this. He could be called an "Environmental Artist", in a certain way. He paints the look of people and their places. Unlike the existential Andrew Wyeth, Neiman almost never paints people alone. He paints people being together in public places. People who hang out in bars tend to look one way. People who attend museum openings tend to look another way. One of the unique achievements of Neiman's mature work is that he has been able to capture just this - the actual look of everyday reality in motion. This extremely realistic image is pervaded by colors that symbolically evoke a feeling of the entire physical and psychological environment.
Reginald Marsh, The Bowery (1932),
The Metropolitan Museum of Art,
Arthur H. Hearn Fund
And it works. It does not always work equally well, but it works. In spite of his freely admitted unevenness, his compositions work to such a degree that the public response is seldom casual. Usually the response is passionately favorable or passionately unfavorable. It would be instructive to do a sociological survey of who is pro, who is con, and why. To those who do not like Neiman's work, it is vulgar subjects that are merely "illustrational" in concept, and grotesque in coloration. His fans, on the other hand, love his work so much that they fill their homes and offices with many examples.
To his many ardent admirers Neiman captures both the look and the feel of the world as they see it working. This is what most people want art to be: as human as a story, as simply phrased as a poem by Robert Frost, as intense and colorful as urban life, and as visually moving as a movie. And this is what Neiman has devoted his life to doing - giving the people what they want by creating an art that is accessible to everyone.
This moral position about what art should be became quite unfashionable during the spread of Abstract Expressionism, and did not resurface until Pop Art in the 1960s. Neiman was ahead of his time. From the point of view of subject matter, he was a pop artist before Pop Art popped. But the style he was developing in the 50s to convey popular imagery was something quite different from the "hard-edge" approach of the classical Pop Artists. He was committed to Action Painting as the best possible means of communicating the action of light, the action of people, the action of life.
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