LeRoy Neiman: Artist dies at age 91

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“For an artist, watching a (Joe) Namath throw a football or a Willie Mays hit a baseball is an experience far more overpowering than painting a beautiful woman or leading political figure,” Neiman said in 1972.

With his sketchbook and pencil, trademark handlebar mustache and slicked back hair, Neiman was instantly recognizable.

At a New York Jets game at Shea Stadium in 1975, fans yelled, “Put LeRoy in,” when the play wasn’t going their way.

Neiman’s decades-long association with Playboy began in 1953 following a chance meeting with Hugh Hefner. It was the start of what he called “the good life” and inspiration for much of his future work.

He regularly contributed to the magazine’s “Man at His Leisure” feature, which took him to such places as the Grand National Steeplechase and Ascot in England, the Cannes Film Festival in France and the Grand Prix auto race in Monaco.

Neiman was a self-described workaholic who seldom took vacations and had no hobbies. He worked daily in his New York City home studio at the Hotel des Artistes near Central Park that he shared with his wife of more than 50 years, Janet.

“What else am I good for?” he said in 2008. “I don’t think about anything else.”

To prove it, he said he was working on a large scale project for a Louisville, Ky., horse festival planned for 2010.

Another later project, a 160-foot-long sports mural, hangs in the Sports Museum of America in New York that opened in 2008.

Neiman was also a portraitist who captured some of the world’s most iconic figures, Frank Sinatra and Babe Ruth among them, in a style that conveyed their public image.

“I am less concerned with how people look when they wake,” he said. “A person’s public presence reflects his own efforts at image development.”

One face he recorded over and over again was that of Muhammad Ali. Those painting and sketches, representing 15 years of the prizefighter’s professional life, permanently reside at the LeRoy Neiman Gallery at the Muhammad Ali Center in Louisville, Ky.

Over the years, Neiman has endowed a number of institutions, donating $6 million in 1995 for the creation of the LeRoy Neiman Center for Print Studies at Columbia University and $3 million to his alma mater, the Art Institute of Chicago, where he taught for a decade.

He also donated $1 million to create a permanent home for Arts Horizons, a community art center in Harlem.

His works are in the permanent collections of many private and public museums. The Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., was selected by Neiman to house his archives.

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