Millions of people watch sports programs, read Playboy and will take any amount of glib, abstract-expressionist slather as long as it adorns a recognizable and pert pair of jugs.
—ROBERT HUGHES, art critic, analyzing the popularity of LeRoy Neiman's paintings
In the timeless neon twilight outside the Riviera Hotel in Las Vegas, Middle America's own Michelangelo smoothes the ends of his upswept ear-to-ear mustache and squints through an elegant curl of smoke rising from the enormous Jamaican panatela stuck between his teeth. Against this blinking, garish backdrop, LeRoy Neiman is the embodiment of serenity and taste. He is wearing an exquisitely cut eggshell-white Italian suit, black-and-white wing tips, a fuchsia silk shirt and is sans cravat. Of course, he is quickly recognized.
A gaggle of saints and sinners drifts over from the slots and forms a ring around Neiman. "Hey, I got a bunch of your tennis stuff in my rec room," brays a doughy guy with gold chains visible in the open neck of his shirt. "I can afford you, LeRoy."
"I got your Steve Garvey hanging in my bar," yells the doughy guy's pal. "Ever done stud poker, LeRoy?"
Neiman gives a wry smile. He is unfailingly friendly, charming, courtly, even kindly to these butter-and-eggers. "Let's put it this way," he explains. "These people are my collectors."
People who wouldn't know a Picasso from a tag-sale poster are collectors of the art of LeRoy Neiman. He is both the best-loved and the most-reviled American artist of our time. He is a brand name, practically an industry unto himself. He and his publishing company turn out paintings by the dozens, lithographs, etchings and serigraphs by the hundreds, $100 coffee-table books by the thousands. His paintings have sold for as much as $350,000 each, and he is said to gross more than $10 million a year. He has made celebrity an art form.
Neiman makes art for people who don't like art.
—JOHN RUSSELL, art critic
Now 58, Neiman became famous more than 30 years ago when he started turning a seemingly endless series of paintings called "Man At His Leisure" for Hugh Hefner's then new Playboy magazine. Mainly, the series consisted of Neiman's multihued depictions of life and leisure among the filthy rich and wholly shameless. The exposure in Playboy plus later appearances before huge audiences watching various Olympic-and Super Bowl-size sports telecasts have served to make Neiman's works every bit as pervasive in the neighborhood saloons and hometown bars of America in the 1980s as Norman Rockwell's work was in the nation's barber shops of the '30s and '40s.
Of his familiar, now frequently imitated slash-and-splash style, which he first laid on canvas in 1953 for a painting of sailing yachts moored in Belmont Harbor in Chicago, Neiman says, "I made my paint move. I was flooding a neon look on something others saw naturally. To me, it was like an explosion."
Although the public has subsequently enshrined the shrapnel from that blast and hung it in its rumpus rooms, art critics have never stopped cringing. They have branded Neiman the art world's high priest of tackiness, America's No. 1 wallpaperer, the nation's foremost purveyor of dentist office perk-me-ups. His technique has been variously described as gaudy, cheesy, vulgar, schlocky and Holiday Inn expressionist. And then there are those who don't like his work. Neiman says he isn't troubled by the critical grenades lobbed in his direction. "In a way," he says, "criticism is an acknowledgment that I've been effective and have reached that person. I reach out, other artists don't."