The Art of LeRoy Neiman
Jackson Pollock, No. 2, 1949 (1949), Munson-Williams-Proctor Institute
The mature work of LeRoy Neiman had indeed begun. He now had all the elements he needed to create his own synthesis of color, form and motion. But he did not achieve this synthesis all at once. Moving in a direction that no one else was moving towards, he had a great deal of experimenting to do before the alchemy of his art could produce the gold he was after. There were years of groping uncertainty and self-doubt.
During the 1950s his palette remained relatively dark and he continued to make use of a number of compositional formulas that had nourished his work for years. There was little else to help him through his voyage toward an unknown goal. Along the way, he felt entirely free to quote passages from other painters, just as Shakespeare borrowed plots from fellow authors. He can "quote" with uncanny accuracy - an accuracy that infuriates many of his critics, and delights many of his supporters such as Andy Warhol who said in a 1978 interview with New Times: "I think he's wonderful. I watched him on the Olympics... every night from start to finish.... He was terrific. I'm doing sports figures myself now."
By 1960 the art of LeRoy Neiman could no longer be associated with that of his forerunners. He had become himself. He had become himself both as a person and as a painter. We don't think about it very much in quite this way. But the fact is that artists and the art they create are inseparable in many ways. This is one of the most rigorous aspects of what it means to become an artist. And this is one of the major reasons why few people ever dare to become artists, and why even fewer succeed. It is one of the most difficult challenges a human being can face. In the process, one must be able to become a highly integrated individual. Otherwise, there is no hope of being able to achieve one's own style.
George Bellows, Both Members of this
Club (1909) National Gallery of Art,
Gift of Chester Dale
Between 1954 and 1959, Neiman managed to shake all of those influences that had played such a large role in his development. He achieved uniqueness. By 1960 he was his own man. In the process of becoming his own man, at the psychological level, he created a radically new kind of style. The results of this style are filled with a new kind of light, much brighter colors, and a robust enthusiasm for portraying the highest points of human achievement in all fields of endeavor, or what Neiman calls "the winners." As a rule, his subjects are the people whom the public most admire - the sports stars, the music stars, the movie stars, the political stars - that glittering galaxy of people who have made it into America's living Hall of Fame.
A representative list of names of people he has portrayed includes: President Carter, Brigitte Bardot, Frank Sinatra, Jack Nicklaus, Mickey Mantle, Louis Armstrong, Muhammed Ali, Beverly Sills, Margaret Mead, Salvador Dali, Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker, Martin Luther King, Sr., Gina Lollobrigida, Art Buchwald, Joe Namath, Mark Spitz, Bobby Fischer, Leopold Stokowski, Duke Ellington, Jack Dempsey, Leonard Bernstein, Diana Ross, Bobby and Ted Kennedy, Reggie Jackson, Pele, Abdul Jabbar, Mae West, The Beatles.
But the fact is that artists and the art they create are inseparable in many ways. This is one of the most rigorous aspects of what it means to become an artist. And this is one of the major reasons why few people ever dare to become artists, and why even fewer succeed. It is one of the most difficult challenges a human being can face. In the process, one must be able to become a highly integrated individual. Otherwise, there is no hope of being able to achieve one's own style.
By the early 1960s, Neiman had started to become a star himself. He and his wife Janet moved to New York City. He began to exhibit at The Hammer Galleries where he has been exhibiting ever since. As his innovative style became more and more appreciated, the prices of his paintings gradually grew from the three-figure level, to the four-figure level, the five-figure level. According to the last issue I saw of Time Magazine (31 March 1980), he has now broken through to the six-figure level. In the American art world, that is stardom.
Many attempts have been made to put a name around his style, to classify it. Some have simply labeled him an Impressionist, which is inaccurate even though he employs some of those techniques. Some have called him a Social Realist, which is an accurate statement but one that is incomplete. His work does not resemble any of the Social Realists who preceded him, even though his heart may be in the same place. Many have called him an Expressionist, which is not too far from the mark. It is the Expressionists who acted as a major influence. But again, his work usually does not resemble Van Dongen or Kokoschka except in its deep emotional intensity. Those who have referred to him simply as an Abstract Realist seem to be very close to the target. But that term really doesn't tell us much, except that he is certainly involved with realism and does it in a very abstract way. Those who call him a Pop Artist also are correct as to subject, but not style. Some have gone so far as to call him an Abstract Expressionist.
Willem de Kooning, Excavation (1950),
the Art Institute of Chicago, Gift of
Mr. & Mrs. F. C. Edgar Kauffman, Jr.
and Mr. & Mrs. Noah Goldowsky
This particular attempt to label him is the most provocative of all. It gets us into the heart of the matter. The term "Abstract Expressionist" was coined by Alfred Barr of The Museum of Modern Art, and used by Robert Coates in 1946 to identify the close relationship between what Kandinsky and the others were doing earlier in this century and what Pollock and the others were doing after World War II. Both groups of painters were involved with a kind of Expressionism, but one that is totally abstract - nonfigurative. So this term is hard to apply to a figurative painter such as Neiman. And yet the action of Action Painting is very much a part of Neiman's art. This is why some critics have been tempted to use the term.
None of these attempts to name his style have worked very well for one simple reason. What LeRoy Neiman has done falls between all the established categories of art-historical and contemporary criticism. It simply does not fit. And that fact is something that upsets people who want things to fit into clear, trustworthy, well-established categories to guide their response to the world.
To be able to understand the exact nature of his stylistic achievement, let's consider how Neiman was thinking at the time of his final breakthrough. Then we will compare how he thinks with how he works.
Many hundreds of articles have been written about Neiman in magazines and newspapers over the years. His scrapbooks are bulging. The first major article on Neiman in a national art magazine appeared in the April 1961 issue of American Artist. It was the result of an interview with William Caxton, Jr., a critic who was quite moved by what he called the "sense of immediacy" in Neiman's work. That same spring, Neiman wrote a letter that appeared in the body of the article. It actually is a manifesto which explains very clearly what the artist was trying to do, and how he was doing it. It is the longest and most complete statement the artist has published about his philosophy and the most concise explanation of his technique.
Here is the substance of that document:
"The transformation activity of today's artist stems from our culture which aims more at transfiguring the world than in adapting itself to its environment, or even accepting certain chosen elements of it. This is nothing new in art where there never has been nature imitation. All great art has declined to imitate life and insists on transforming or transcending it."
"In everyday life the impression apparent to the senses when one comes upon a scene for the first time is far different from that experienced through familiarity. When I allow myself the total impact of new surroundings, the initial effect remains, while details become clear, describable and different only upon adjustment. The appearance of shapes and objects immediately or quickly experienced compared with those realized and studied is extraordinary. Here lies the prime objective of my work - this phenomenon of change."
"The spectator looking at a painting of mine must deal with this condition of change. Areas are broken up at close range and fit together only at a distance. Ready recognition of key elements is difficult because of a certain lack of clearness. Important elements are frequently repressed and the unimportant often stressed in order to bring out the main elements in a hidden way. The idea is not to be unclear but to make clarity look like an accident. An averted or shadowed face may contain a chief expression."
"I seek to make the task of the spectator increasingly difficult. I set traps for him. Modeling takes place where emphasis does not lie; accents are subordinated; foreground and background merge up close, and then expand with distance. As one advances on my painting it becomes more abstract, more fluid, and as one moves away it falls into focus and is realistic. By venturing into and penetrat-ing the painting, the spectator discovers for himself new substances and has a prolonged contact. At no two distances will the painting appear the same. This gives the spectator more room for conjecture, and his contribution to the visual image, upon contemplation, adds to its provocative possibilities. These plastic qualities of my painting coincide with the realities of contemporary society and its rapidly moving, shifting and ever-changing panorama. today's man accepts many casual observations, and oft-times the real truths escape him if he doesn't take the time to look beneath the surface."
Such subjective testimony as the foregoing points up the undercurrent philosophy that prompts Neiman to continually think about his intentions, but it does not preclude his delight in the vicarious experience he constantly extracts from an active fraternity with people in all walks of life. He states: "I love people and like being surrounded by them yet I try to paint life as an objective observer. Even though my rendering is sometimes satirical, I want the receiver of my painting to create his own emotion.
Neiman puts in long hours in his studio often working at his easel from eight in the morning till late at night. He admits to working intermittently on five or six paintings at a time, for when he is interrupted by telephone or callers, his immediate mood is broken, and on resuming his painting he often goes to work on a different panel.
There is nothing puny about Neiman's scale of painted surface, for many of his pictures measure 4 x 6 feet! Instead of canvas he normally paints on large panels of Masonite or Upson board which he surfaces with a thin coating of polymer ground. His large areas of color patterns are painted over this irregular surface with commercial enamels, in both dull and glossy finish. On top of these areas he reverts to glazes of oil to complete his color orchestration - certain passages are heightened in color and others subdued. Generally his method progresses from a transparent film body of middle tones to an overpainting of opaque ones. This may be easily seen in the highlighted areas of the color reproductions. Concerning his procedure the artist reports: "At first the entire surface of a painting is covered with color, then shaped into forms and values, the key and temperature of the painting is generally established at this stage. My preliminary drawings are used as reference, but these are not necessarily followed religiously unless an attitude or gesture is indispensable. More often than not, a color psychologically employed does the better job than a calculated rendering.
"Extremely important in my painting is the use of the same color for both positive and negative purposes. An example of this is a red used for a waiter's jacket, the red foil on a bottle of wine, a tomato in a salad, a lady's lipstick, and a vaporous object such as a cloud of smoke. The same color can be used for a hard or soft object, for a liquid or dry one. This is accomplished by deliberate selection of the adjacent colors, possibly a complement or an opaque if the red is transparent, which permits the same red to be flat, fall back or stand out, highlight, outline and describe whatever is emotionally necessary for its intended function in the picture."
"Understanding the possibilities of one color next to another gives the artist complete control over the psychological impact he is striving to achieve. I believe that the use of color orchestration makes it unnecessary to think about the values (light and dark) in painting, for by working with color intensities in tonal relationships, the darks and lights automatically take care of themselves."
"Inventive color is essential - like a deep, dark orange in shadow and a cool pink in light, or a dark green or dark purple object in light, and light blue objects in shadow - all winding up equal in value. Artificial light will do this sort of thing. The scale of the objects creating the space and the amount of description or detail determine their importance. Perhaps the more cursory-treated area will in the end be the most important. Line can flow through the entire composition changing color and value according to pictorial need."
Finally, Neiman sums up his goal, and one I feel he is presently reaching out to attain in a highly independent and creative fashion, by saying:
"Today's artists, in attempting to execute a convincing painting, representative of subject matter around him, must strive for a quality and excitement that holds up to the powerful and expressive pictures by his contemporaries. The realist has a greater task than ever before...he must be well-grounded in the same basic fundamentals required of artists since the Renaissance…."
Stretch Stampede, oil and acrylic on canvas,
9 x 16", 1975, collection of the artist.
We could not ask for a more complete statement from a painter-writer who thinks in words as he paints, and paints actual words almost as often as he paints people. (He also is the author of two books ). His manifesto reflects a very democratic attitude built on a deep respect for people as people. It is the same kind of concern that is held by the novelists and play-wrights for whom Neiman has such respect and feels such kinship: Steinbeck, Dos Passos, Hemingway, Lawrence, Becket, Brecht, and Kafka. Neiman is both a story-teller and a painter. And story-telling painting requires realism. What is the vocabulary of Neiman's realism?
The artist informs us that his primary objective as a painter is rendering the "phenomenon of change". That is a very difficult thing to render. Who had ever done it? Well, Duchamp and the Futurists did it just before World War I. But they did it (more often than not) without using images of real people, only non-recognizable figures, or non-figurative colorations. That's not hard. Any third or fourth generation Abstract Expressionist can do that. But how do you do that with real people doing real things in real life?
In short, there was no contemporary visual vocabulary to express what he wanted to express. So, he had to invent one. To invent a new visual vocabulary is an extremely difficult thing to do. How did he do it? By the fusing with what he already has synthesized (color, form, active surface) with the realistic, action-packed rendering of motion itself.
During the 1950s, Neiman succeeded in synthesizing his own sense of figuration with his own sense of symbolic color. He did this by integrating what was meaningful to him about Expressionism and the School of Paris, with the American Social Realism of Bellows, Shahn, and Levine. These were the most recent "Schools of Art" that painted people as people interacting with each other. But it is not until the 1960s that the action-packed seeds planted in him by the Action Painters flowered into full maturity.
Until 1959 his paintings contain a great deal of visual movement. But there is not a great deal of the sensation of actual motion. The aesthetic surfaces are quite active due to his fluid brushwork, but all of the compositional elements are not equally active. After 1959 every element in the composition actually seems to be in motion. All of the colored lines and planes interpenetrate continuously creating a wholistic sensation of dynamic action. To understand the full significance of this extraordinary accomplishment, we must back up and see how action was represented before Neiman.
Action is not a subject that painters focus on in the pre-industrial cities of the western world. Most subjects are rendered standing still. When motion is suggested, it is arrested motion. It is not until the 19th century that action enters the picture.
Before that, artists did portray activity, but only as if we were seeing the single frame of a stop-action movie sequence. The technique of painting permitted little else. So until the second half of the 19th century, and the true beginnings of modern art, we do not have the kinesthetic feeling of activity itself, of motion-in-action. For example, when Eakins painted a man diving off a rock into a pond, the painted form itself is as static as a stuffed pig.
The French led the way in the rendering of the feeling of motion. Delacroix and Daumier started the process by surrounding their figures with vibrating lines suggestive of action. Monet and Renoir developed brush-strokes that retained the spirit of the actual motion of the hand that brought the forms into being. Degas and Lautrec made dramatic distortions in the figure-forms, and their relation to the picture plane, in order to convey a sensation of the experience of people moving.
The Ashcan School was the first group of American painters to deliberately render the sensation of motion: the motion of the ferry boat, the motion of the subway, the motion of people in night clubs, the endless motion of "high intensity" city life.
Between the 1920s and the 1950s, the most active visual surfaces in America were painted by the post-cubist Social Realists such as Shahn, Levine, and Evergood. Then came the Action Painters in the late 40s and early 50s led by Pollock and Kline. They blew the lid off all previous assumptions.
We should keep in mind that they did not create non-igurative abstraction. Painters and sculptors and printmakers have been doing non-figurative compositions since the first decades of the 20th century. What the Action Painters did was create non-figurative compositions that are filled with a deep sense of immediacy, pervaded by a dramatic sensation of motion itself. How did they create canvases that always look as if they were just painted? That feel as if they are moving right before our eyes?
They did it by moving as they painted. Until then painters stood still as they worked, usually moving little more than their fingers, wrists and arms. The Action Painters moved everything, walking around and across the canvas, stroking and/or dripping paint as they moved. Looking back, easel painters can be seen as something that is more cerebral than corporeal. In their traditional stance, painters can easily render the idea of motion. But they rarely can render the feeling of motion itself.
Like the old Zen masters of Japan (whom Pollock and Tobey admired), America's Action Painters were not content with rendering the concept of motion. They wanted the feeling of motion itself. This can be done most effectively if the action of the paint on the surface is the direct result of the body in motion, the action of the body in motion.
Franz Klien, Untitled (1956),
However, as a rule, it was not bodies that they painted. Instead they painted motion itself, the motion of their own internal rhythms. Generally speaking the first generation of the New York School eliminated the figure from its classical place at the center of the artist's iconography. Pollock, Kline, Newman, Motherwell, Still, Rothko wiped the canvas clean of figure forms. Abstract, symbolic forms became their subject-matter. De Kooning is a partial exception to this rule; but only a partial exception. He was much more concerned with the action of the paint than he was with the action of the human figure.
The work of Pollock, Kline, Motherwell, and all the others rapidly earned the deepest respect and highest praise of artists, critics, and historians all around the world during the 1950 sand 1960 s. The profound achievement of this first generation of Action Painters catapulted American painting into the Number One position in the international art world. Until then, much of America's art had been under the influence of Europe. We copied them for centuries. Now, for the first time in history, the rest of the world was copying American art. And New York City became the capital of the modern art movement.
The New York School of Abstract Expressionists moved the forefront of American painting into a very special kind of space and time. By removing any iconographic references to a past we might remember, or a future we might anticipate, the spectator is left with no choice but to experience exactly what is before the eye Right Now - a Right Now that is filled with the magical vibration of immediacy.
The visual result of Action Painting was a revelation not only to Neiman but also to many painters of the Chicago School. Many of his fellow painters in that region became Abstract Expressionists. Not all of them, however. Realism is very strong in the midwest. The Chicago School was also to foster the New Realism of Oldenburg and Robert Indiana after the first tidal wave of Abstract Expressionism had subsided. But while this tidal wave was cresting, what happened in Chicago happened all over the country. A radically new, nationwide value system emerged firmly in favor of non-figurative art. All of a sudden, there were thousands of little Pollocks painting from coast to coast, and in every major industrial city of every inhabited continent on earth. A whole aesthetic morality developed, along with a committed international establishment of artists, critics, curators, and dealers. As these assumptions cemented, a wall built up that was (consciously or unconsciously) opposed to figure painting in any form.
But LeRoy Neiman was not among them. His core values were not washed away by all this. He had had the privilege of listening to Ben Shahn talk once. And that was the tradition Neiman identified with. He held solidly to his conviction as to the importance of the human figure. And he was aware that the lesson of Pollock was not to paint like Pollock, but to paint directly from the very heart of where you are coming from, wherever that may be.
Even though the idea of abandoning the human figure never occurred to him, he loved the action of Action Painting. From the very beginning of his career, Neiman's primary interest has been color-in-motion, people-in-motion, the ever-present phenomenon of change. The technique of action-filled, corporeal painting appealed very much to a man who is always in motion.
So Neiman decided to make his figures really move, like they do in the movies, like they do in the Right Now of real life. He did this by first mastering the lessons of Action Painting, and then turning them inside out. By a remarkable leap of imagination, he was thus able to fuse traditional Social Realism with the highly animated techniques of Action Painting. After many years of effort, LeRoy Neiman was able to bring a whole tradition of rela-tively static figure painting into the dynamic world of Right Now.
He found a way of making his brush move as fast and as vigorously as an Abstract Expressionist without sacrificing a single ounce of figurative verisimilitude. And he found an extremely dynamic way of making the abstract - background and realistic foreground merge and separate simultaneously by alternately fusing and separating the two spaces. In this remarkable synthesis, he was able to make the action within the painting as intense as it actually is in our direct experience. The visual result stimulates a kinesthetic response in our own bodies.
The purpose of this essay has not been to proclaim that "LeRoy Neiman is the greatest painter in America!" I have simply attempted to provide a technical analysis of his style, to indicate what he has contributed to the history of American painting, and to offer a framework for beginning to evaluate the significance of that contribution. History is a record of the ideas, images, and objects that have been meaningful to people. What is no longer meaningful gradually disappears. The whole Renaissance tradition of realistic, figurative sculpture was in danger of disappearing in the 1950s. More than any other single factor, it was the "pop" sculpture of George Segal that kept this tradition alive. History makes her judgments very slowly, after all the little fads have flashed and passed away. But I think Neiman's work is going to last. And when I think about all of those other artists his work has influenced over the last twenty years, I find myself wondering if History might not remember the name of LeRoy Neiman (even before the names of Philip Pearlstein and Alex Katz), as having played a larger role than any other painter in revitalizing the native American tradition of figure painting as the vehicle of Social Realism, as the vehicle for imaging our collective reality as a society of human beings.
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