The Art of LeRoy Neiman
A Stylistic and Socialogical Analysis
By: F. Lanier Graham
Reprinted from The Prints of LeRoy Neiman, Volume I
CONCLUSION: Man, Myth, and Magic
The role of the realist painter has become quite complex since the advent
of Abstract Expressionism. In one form or another, Social Realism has been
the backbone of American painting for most of our nation's history. Suddenly
it was not. For decades now, the majority of our most distinguished critics
have convinced the art world that the mainstream of American painting is
non-figurative. And most art historians would agree that between the late
1940s and the 1970s it has been non-figurative work that has occupied the
hearts and minds of the majority of our most important painters. What the
art magazines and the art museums have most consistently celebrated during
this period is Action Painting and the Color Field painting from Still,
Rothko and Newman, to Frankenthaler, Louis, Noland, Reinhardt, Stella and
all the others.
Realism quickly became unfashionable. Social Realism changed media. Photojournalism
took over from painting the social function of portraying our collective
reality. The only images we as a people have had of our social being have
come to us by means of newspapers, magazines, TV, and the movies.
When the traditional desire of Americans for realistic images reemerged
in the form of Pop Art in the 1960s, it was generally considered a side-current
rather than part of the new mainstream. It was many, many years before The
Museum of Modern Art finally, reluctantly decided to exhibit Pop Art. Over
time, the remarkable artistic achievements of Rauschenberg, Johns, Oldenburg,
and all the others forced the art world to reconsider. The magazines and
the museums gradually gave the New Realism more and more respect. During
the course of the 1970s, various forms of Super Realism and Photo Realism
started to become quite popular, and respectable. Realism is coming back
in style, and probably will be even stronger in the reality-oriented 1980s.
So it is not only in the area of style that Neiman has been between categories.
The same is true from the point of view of mythology. The modern myth is
that "real artists" are poor, struggling, usually misunderstood,
frequently in pain, and generally spurned by the general public. Neiman
does not fit with any part of this modern myth. Everything seems to be exactly
the opposite with him. All the evidence points to him being happy, healthy,
well-fed (in fact, wealthy), and very much liked by millions of people who
feel they understand him completely. And this is all quite disconcerting
to those who believe in the modern myth. On the other hand, he fits quite
well with the traditional idea of what an artist should be: one who can
be understood by all social classes. No painter has ever appealed to everyone.
But the range of Neiman's audience is extremely large, from the taxi-driver
to the aristocrat.
Artists have not always been thought of as starved individuals barely
stay-ing alive in garrets at the outside edges of society. This modern myth
did not start until the 19th century. For the vast majority of human history,
the artist has been a highly honored, respected member of society because
of the artist's ability to provide magical services - because of the capacity
of the artist to visualize those aspects of life that are most meaningful
to the society they are serving. More often than not, this has been story-telling
of one kind or another, usually stories of mythological heroes and heroines
whose values are those of the people.
It was the duty of the traditional artist to perpetuate the Sacred Myths.
Keep in mind that the word "Myth" is not being used in the popular
sense of being an untruth. Here we are talking about Myth in the traditional
sense of being a statement of what are considered eternal truths that work
as a binding force of unquestioned assumptions for society as a whole. As
Joseph Campbell, the distinguished mythologist, has said, "each of
us has private dreams. Myths are the public dreams that all members of a
During the European Middle Ages, for example, when a master painter completed
an altarpiece it was an occasion for public rejoicing, as the most sacred
images of the community were carried through the streets from the Guildhall
to the Cathedral. It was a collective, unifying value-system that the artists
and the people were celebrating together. And that's the way things have
been in the traditional world for thousands of years, in fact, for more
than 99% of human history.
It was not until after the Industrial Revolution, and the political revolu-tions
that followed, that traditional agrarian society fell apart, and had to
be constructed all over again. The modern industrialized urban society that
was built up in Europe and the United States in the 19th and 20th centuries
decided that art and artists were not very important - decorative, yes,
but not extremely valuable. And so things have tended to remain until quite
recently. In the language of psychophysiology, modern society became left-brain
in its orientation, stressing "readin', 'ritin' & 'rithmetic" in
the schools in order to produce citizens who are logical, aggressive, and
oriented towards the values of our individual reality. In this society much
less attention is paid to the right-brain's capacity to be visual, emotionally
receptive to aesthetic experience, and oriented towards the values of our
The result is a very unbalanced world. Art remains a very low priority
in our schools and in our homes. Only a small percentage of society has
any direct contact with original works of art. Very few painters are actually
able to earn a living by painting. So the problem is much deeper than the
bias of East Coast critics. But critics who recognize only one kind of art
in a democratic society do not help the social situation as a whole.
Happily, things have improved somewhat since World War II. As Dore Ashton
observed in The New York School: A Cultural Reckoning (1972), none of the
famous Abstract Expressionists were able to earn even a modest living from
their work until the 1950s. Today, most of the best known Pop Artists and
Color Field painters are earning comfortable incomes. Several have become
millionaires. This is a striking sociological fact. Never before in the
history of American painting has this much financial recognition been given
to living American painters. This has happened because of a combination
of good art and good business practices. Now, across the nation, and around
the world, there is something that can really be called a Fine Arts Industry,
in the same way that there is a Publishing Industry, or a Theatre Industry.
And the truly popular artists have begun to command the same kind of incomes
as popular writers, movie-stars, and professional athletes.
None of this could be happening if it were not for the fact that the general
public has started to demand that there be more art in their lives. The
idea that art is important to family life is coming back. The idea that
art is important to community life is coming back. The idea that art is
important to corporate life is coming back. Art is coming back towards the
central place (at the very middle of life) which it has occupied for 99%
of human history. The art museums which served only a few thousand people
a year two decades ago, now are serving tens of millions of people a year.
Indeed, art museums are now a major part of the multi-billion dollar Fine
Arts Industry, as business managers start to replace art historians as museum
Nevertheless, in spite of all this new art world of advertising and merchandizing,
no American painter of 60s and 70s has been catapulted into the semi-shamanic
status of Popular Hero except LeRoy Neiman. So he must be touching something
down deep - a depth that almost seems to be at the "archetypical" level
of traditional heroes and heroines, the dwelling place of the Image Maker
who also is the Myth Maker.
Each generation has had its own set of heroes and heroines. At the turn
of the century, there were those very popular book illustrators from N.C.
Wyeth to Maxfield Parrish who were the last to illuminate the heroes and
heroines of agrarian mythology. In the 1920s and 1930s, there was Norman
Rockwell on the covers of The Saturday Evening Post celebrating the values
of a recently urbanized nation that was still longing for its agrarian roots.
Then came Andrew Wyeth in the 40s and 50s with his haunting realism infused
with the kind of penetrating insights into the psychology of individual
human beings that usually is found in the writings of our best poets and
novelists. Wyeth is as rural and as sophisticated as Steinbeck or Faulkner.
The imaging of social values is important. Unless values are symbolized
they cannot be exchanged. Unless values are visualized continuously they
cannot be lived by a society of people.
All the artists mentioned in this chapter have been in touch with the
peo-ple to some degree, or they wouldn't be making so much money. As Alfred
Frankenstein reminds us in his preface to this book, artists since the Stone
Age have been offering value-laden images to the fellow members of their
society. Only by being connected could they fulfill their public purpose
- to render images of such power that Truth can be illuminated. The same
connection between the artists and the people continued through the ages
of Egypt, Greece and Rome; continued through the Middle Ages, and the Renaissance
of Europe; and continued through government-supported Public Works of the
1930s and 40s.
Then, when the human figure suddenly vanished, the psychological connecting
link was broken. The American public was left with little to identify with,
to empathize with, until a new artist-hero emerged who was able to "tell
the stories" they could understand and love. During the 1970s, America's
best-known artist-hero has been LeRoy Neiman. The people he paints are the
heroes of the totally urbanized middle classes: The athletes, the musicians
and movie stars, and those colorful members of various social classes who
are in love with joie-de-vivre and passionately in pursuit of happiness.
For the first time in the history of American art, a city boy has become
an artistic hero to millions. Neiman renders the lives of the people as
they would like to be.
So it should not be surprising that Neiman-loving urbanites like neon-flavored "shocking
pink," or that the experience of "Neiman Green" is as shrill
as a high jazz note. There are the sights and sounds of the city. It would
be surprising if there were not a lot of flash and glitter in his palette
and in his legend.
The people love what he does with powers they believe are truly magical.
And he loves doing it. "For me," says Neiman, "communication
is what it's all about. Art is simply the means by which it happens. It's
something that just passes through me and on to them." What he is communicating
are images of enormous social power-images that embody and reflect the people's
collective value-system. And the gratitude of the citizenry has been overwhelming.
The intensity of this popular admiration and respect is a remarkable phenomenon
in itself. Neiman is not only the best known artist in America (with the
possible exception of Andy Wyeth who also received very little attention
from major critics until recently). He also is the first American painter
to have risen from poverty to become a multi-millionaire.
His many TV appearances, (especially his painting of Olympic events live
as they happened), in addition to his 25 years of regular monthly contributions
to Playboy, has made his name a household word from coast to coast,
and all around the world. And all this happened without much help from art
museums or art magazines. Neiman is a truly popular phenomenon - a grass-roots
phenomenon - a Popular Hero with as much fan mail as a Hollywood Super Star.
The American people have always loved the art of the concrete, or what
E. P. Richardson calls "the poetry of fact Neiman has been able to
give this to the American people, just those concrete qualities for which
they have been thirsting for many years. As Andy Warhol said (in effect)
when he painted his satirical images of Abstract Expressionist brushstrokes
in the early 60s, "beautiful colors and beautiful brushwork are not
They are certainly enough for some people, but not enough for most people.
As noted in the Introduction, it has been estimated that only about 1% of
the American people are able to appreciate non-figurative painting. These
are people who see the world very differently from most people. They look
at the world, and at art, from an extremely high level of philosophical
The vast majority of Americans have absolutely no interest in non-figurative
abstractions, no matter how "beautiful" they might be. The basic
psychosocial fact at work here is that if a work of art does not have a
figure in it, the world at large is psychologically unable to relate to
it. A world full of people is what most people see when they look. As Neiman
expresses it, "the human eye is universal." They
want to see images of the world that correspond with the way their eye actually
perceives the world, with the sky up and the earth down and most of us in
And this Neiman (quite magically) is able to provide. He is so concrete
in his precision that one is able to tell just about what temperature it
is, how much smoke is in the room, and how much salt is in the air, whether
at ring-side, on an Olympic ski-slope, or the sunlit beach of Cannes.
As a committed artist-of-the-people, Neiman has used a wide range of media
in order to reach as many people as possible. In addition to painting and
sculpture, he has worked with both traditional and contemporary media. His
experience includes books, magazines, TV, and computer graphics, as well
as several kinds of techniques that range from etchings and monotypes, to
lithographs and silkscreen prints. The serigraphs are organic extensions
of his paintings. They have the same look and feel. Similarly, his etchings
are natural extensions of his draftsmanship, and include some of the best
work he has done in any media.
This catalogue is dedicated to his accomplishment as a graphic artist.
It is a fitting way to begin to record his life's work, since it is by means
of his serigraphs that he has been able to offer tangible works of art to
the greatest number of people. During the 1970s, Neiman executed over 170
limited editions of serigraphs with an average of 300 prints in each edition.
That means that over 50,000 original works of art have been made available
to his avid audience.
As the collective eye of the modern art establishment begins to re-focus
on realism, it is difficult to overlook Neiman's achievement. And recently,
some highly respected critics and artists have begun to take a second look
at his work - work that is now in the permanent collections of such institutions
as the Baltimore Museum of Fine Art, the Art Institute of Chicago, the Indianapolis
Museum of Art, the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, the Minnesota Museum of
Art, the Museo de Bellas Artes in Caracas, and the Hermitage in Leningrad.
During all those years when anyone who painted figures was viewed with
suspicion by the modern art establishment, Neiman went on only doing his
own thing. He was confident of his direction, and supported by enormous
public approval. While none of the critics were looking, this pop artist/action
painter was able to single-handedly bridge that giant gulf which separated
the general public from the most advanced stylistic developments of the
The sociological fact is that Neiman did what no other American artist
was able to do. He made the profound stylistic innovations of Action Painting
available to the general public by providing the psychological bridge of
the human image grounded in everyday reality. This is not to overlook the
important contributions of other American painters who also were experimenting
with the synthesis of Abstract Expressionism and figure painting in the
1950s and 60s, such as Larry Rivers, and the San Francisco School of Park,
Bischoff, Oliveira, and Diebenkorn. But the point I am making is quite simply
that their work was not able to reach out and touch the hearts of the general
public, and Neiman's work does.
The people Neiman reaches are the people he set out to serve in the first
place - the General Public of the Big City. By doing exactly what he set
out to do, he has helped to re-invigorate figure painting in particular,
and Social Realism in general at a time when both were in danger of dying.
Social Realism is coming back to life again. This is a healthy sign. The
making and appreciating of the art of our own time is an important way of
coming to understand the whole of what it means to be a human being. A society
that feels cut off, alienated from its leading artists, is not a healthy
society. But Neiman has begun to help society to heal itself by putting
art back into the life of the people.
F. Lanier Graham
San Francisco, March, 1980