The Neiman Phenomenon
A General Overview
By: F. Lanier Graham
Reprinted from The Prints of LeRoy Neiman, Volume I
The art of LeRoy Neiman is unique. It stands alone, without any real comparison.
It is an art which has become controversial because Neiman has broken the
barriers of many of the most hallowed assumptions of modern art history
and contemporary criticism. It is an art that is loved by millions of people
throughout America and around the world.
His remarkable commercial success simply doesn't fit the modern mythology
that "real artists" should be starving in an old attic or
basement somewhere impoverished, misunderstood and depressed. LeRoy Neiman
happens to be quite happy, very well understood, and wealthy.
Is it proper for an artist to be so appreciated? So easily understood?
So immediately clear? Something must be wrong, the critics tell us. How
could this be?
As if this were not enough, LeRoy Neiman has done some other things that
simply are not supposed to be done, according to the clearly defined rules
of modem art criticism.
His colors are so intense that they are "outrageous" to the eyes
of people raised on the cool, relatively subtle harmonies of the School
of Paris masters.
Moreover, he took hold of a very distinguished, very respected "High
Style" of painting called Action Painting (because of the action
of the painters who invented this style in the mid 1940's, especially Pollock,
Kline, and de Kooning.) Then he had the audacity to merge this semi-sacred
painting technique with the "Low Style" of figurative painting
from the so-called "minor" tradition of Social Realism.
Well, he wasn't supposed to do that. It goes against everything that the
modern art establishment thinks is correct. But LeRoy Neiman did it anyway.
And millions of people are over-joyed that he did. He has brought art into
the lives of more people than most post-war American painters put together.
Surely, something must be wrong somewhere? But where? There is another
way to ask the question, of course. Is it possible that something is right
But let's go on. Let's forget his style for a minute. Maybe we will find
what's wrong if we
look at his subject-matter.
Many critics have been surprised to find that Neiman actually believes
in the story-telling importance of figures responding to real life situations.
Why are they surprised?
Well, there are some people to whom the painting of human figures in an
effort to portray social situations is a totally unacceptable practice,
and cannot be considered "art" no matter how well it is done.
That is not what "real painting" is about. Such activities
are best left to illustrators, photographers and filmmakers whose media
require figurative magery.
As an historian, I find it very strange that this formalist point-of-view
became so widely established in the contemporary art community over the
last 20 or 30 years.
Not everybody feels this way of course. But the prejudice has been pervasive.
This attitude has been so widely held by so many of our leading critics
throughout the East Coast art establishment over the last generation that
I sometimes wonder if the structural principles of criticism are still flexible
enough to recognize and deal with figurative painting in a meaningful way.
How did this anti-figure attitude establish itself? The evolution of the
formalist position in America is clear, and will be documented in the following
essay. In brief, the story (highly simplified) goes like this.
The most advanced painters since Impressionism (a hundred years ago) have
not been very interested in the human figure, or in the rendering of clear,
coherent "stories." The artistically interesting problems became
formal questions of abstract composition and private symbolism.
So, not many important painters of the 20th century have engaged in narrative
(story-telling) picture painting since way back when Cubism fragmented,
and then shattered the human figure until nothing was left to relate to
with our minds and hearts except the non-figurative elements of an abstract
So it has been difficult (psychologically) for some critics to consider
figure painters important no matter how good they may be.
The masterpieces of The Modern Tradition are extremely rich in symbolism,
and deeply powerful in their visual intensity.
Some of these abstract works of art have such an overwhelming emotional
impact that people have been known to kneel in their presence. A major canvas
by Pollock or Rothko or Motherwell tends to be regarded with a reverence
that our tribal ancestors reserved for their most sacred images of The Tribal
If art of such intense spiritual quality can be achieved by non-figurative
means, the critics have tended to say, "why bother with a pictorial
form that is as antiquated and unnecessary as the human figure?"
One reason why some artists from Picasso to Neiman have insisted on the
use of the human figure is so that the general public can understand what
they're doing. One of the tragedies of The Modern Tradition is that so few
people have been able to understand and appreciate it.
As far as the general public is concerned, it is as if the most modern
of modern art has become inaccessible, as if the non-figurative masters
have created a completely private imagery which (try as they might) they
simply cannot understand.
Studies have been conducted, and the estimate is that only about 1% of
the American people are able to understand and appreciate non-figurative
painting. That means that the vast majority are completely cut off from
the profound spiritual power of contemporary American art - a body of art
that is widely considered the most important in the world today.
It is as if only a small priestly class knows the meaning of the secret
symbols. The Tribe has been cut off from its Totems.
When we take a long look back over the history of art as a whole, it is
very strange to find a situation in which most of the people in a society
are disconnected from the inspiration that is offered by the most respected
artists of the time.
Indeed, there is no reason to believe that this state-of -affairs has ever
existed before: Not in the tribal times of our most distant ancestors. Not
in the Middle Ages, or the Renaissance. Not in 17th and 18th century Europe
when paintings and prints were purchased by many classes of society. Not
even in 19th century France when Daumier's work was in the magazines, and
Lautrec's work was on the lamp-posts.
Not in 19th century America when people bought contemporary paintings and
prints from our leading artists by the thousands. Only in the last several
decades have 99% of urban societies been disconnected from the vitality
of contemporary art.
This fact is of profound social importance. There are good reasons to believe
that this fact plays a role in putting millions of people on the mental
health rolls of the U.S. Government. It is hard for mental health to maintain
itself when there is so little color to eat, when there is so little access
to the magic that only art is able to provide.
We all have our own window on aesthetic experience, of course. No two people
have quite the same taste. Our taste is as unique as our individuality.
Groups, and subgroups, and cultures and subculture s all have slightly different
kinds of aesthetic experience. But all human beings regularly have intense
aesthetic experiences of one kind or another. At least until lately, when
entire national societies got out of touch with the practice of contemporary
The brain scientists and social anthropologists are telling us that one
of the reasons why whole classes of people are sick is because they are
not using the aesthetic side of their brain - the right hemisphere. Here
is a report from Dr. Colin Blakemore, Director of Medical Studies at Cambridge
University in England. His book, Mechanics of Mind (1977), has
become a standard reference. "The left-hemisphere is our intellectual
side. The...left talks, writes, does mathematics, and thinks in a logical,
serial way; the right recognizes shapes and faces, appreciates music...and
works in a global, intuitive fashion. (From the right comes)...spatial perception,
pictorial recognition, intuitive thought (and) emotional reaction."
This information about how our mind actually works is not entirely new.
The Double Brain/One Mind concept has been around, in one form or another
for thousands of years. But it is only in the last generation that what
the brain scientists considered a theory was confirmed by experiments conducted
during open skull surgery.
So the scientific fact is that our cerebral cortex has two hemispheres
which have complementary functions. The left hemisphere is what we use when
we are using our capacity to read and write, plan logical plans for the
future, and think about things in particular. The right hemisphere is what
we use when we are using our capacity to see color, be aesthetic, be emotional,
and have a feeling about things in general. Each of us has the capacity
to be both, of course: logical and aesthetic, intellectual and intuitive.
The biological system itself is perfectly balanced, as a rule. As Pogo
used to say in the comic strips: "The enemy is us." Our individual
psychologies keep us out-of-balance. Most personalities tend to lean one
way or the other. The stereotype is that males tend to be one way, and females
another. Our social system as currently structured reinforces this duality,
as is well known.
But this polarized stereotype is not a very healthy concept, according
to the scientific and spiritual leaders of today. Mental health and physical
health tend to increase together as we learn to develop our capacity to
use both sides of ourselves at the same time (in a balanced way), as we
learn how to think and feel simultaneously.
Art is one of the best means known to develop the right side of our brains.
It is a powerful and painful fact that people who are out-of-touch with
any form of art don't have much of a chance to succeed in their Pursuit
of Happiness. They probably will remain unbalanced in spite of their Constitutional
Enough of science and social philosophy. Let's get back to art - the art
of LeRoy Neiman. This artist and those who respond to his art are passionately
involved with the Pursuit of Happiness. They will not be denied. Well, all
this is very interesting you might say. But, so what? What does all this
mean? Let's go back to where it all began. First let's take a careful look
at the stylistic evolution of the art of the most popular painter in America,
and then try to figure out what the Neiman Phenomenon is all about.
F. Lanier Graham