LeRoy Neiman, artist of sports world, dead at 91

LeRoy Nieman

Credit: Getty Images for USOC

Artist LeRoy Nieman autographs a painting in this 2009 photo. (Photo by Chris Trotman/Getty Images for USOC)

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by ULA ILNYTZKY

Associated Press

Posted on June 20, 2012 at 8:49 PM

NEW YORK (AP) — LeRoy Neiman, the painter and sketch artist best known for evoking the kinetic energy of the world's biggest sporting and leisure events with bright quick strokes, died Wednesday at age 91.

Neiman also was a contributing artist at Playboy magazine for many years and official painter of five Olympiads. His longtime publicist Gail Parenteau confirmed his death Wednesday but didn't disclose the cause.

Neiman was a media-savvy artist who knew how to enthrall audiences with his instant renditions of what he observed. In 1972, he sketched the world chess tournament between Boris Spassky and Bobby Fischer in Reykjavik, Iceland, for a live television audience.

He also produced live drawings of the Olympics for TV and was the official computer artist of the Super Bowl for CBS.

Neiman's "reportage of history and the passing scene ... revived an almost lost and time-honored art form," according to a 1972 exhibit catalog of the artist's Olympics sketches at the Indianapolis Museum of Art.

"It's been fun. I've had a lucky life," Neiman said in a June 2008 interview with The Associated Press. "I've zeroed in on what you would call action and excellence. ... Everybody who does anything to try to succeed has to give the best of themselves, and art has made me pull the best out of myself."

Neiman's paintings, many executed in household enamel paints that allowed the artist his fast-moving strokes, are an explosion in reds, blues, pinks, greens and yellows of pure kinetic energy.

He has been described as an American impressionist, but the St. Paul, Minn., native preferred to think of himself simply as an American artist.

"I don't know if I'm an impressionist or an expressionist," he told the AP. "You can call me an American first. ... (but) I've been labeled doing neimanism, so that's what it is, I guess."

He worked in many media, producing thousands of etchings, lithographs and silkscreen prints known as serigraphy.

But his critics said Neiman's forays into the commercial world minimized him as a serious artist. At Playboy, for example, he created Femlin, the well-endowed nude that has graced the magazine's Party Jokes page since 1957.

Neiman shrugged off such criticism.

"I can easily ignore my detractors and feel the people who respond favorably," he said.

Neiman was fascinated with large game animals, and twice traveled to Kenya to paint lions and elephants "in the bush" in his trademark vibrant palette.

But it was the essence of a basketball or football game, swim meet or cycling event that captured his imagination most.

"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.

"I just love what I do," Neiman told the AP. "I love the passion you go through while you're creating" and the public's "very thoughtful and careful studied and emotional reaction of what you're doing."

He added: "It's a wonderful feeling."

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Associated Press writer Tom McElroy contributed to this report.

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