Thursday, June 21, 2012

LeRoy Neiman - Dead at 91

LeRoy Neiman [1921-2012] was a popular, almost iconic, American artist in the post-War era. Rarely considered seriously by the art establishment, he nevertheless became immensely successful, and wealthy with his work. The simplest defense of the special kind of place his paintings, drawings, serigraphs, watercolors, etchings, etc., occupied, is that, looking at them, you never felt moved to criticize them on the basis of technique, or meaning, or purpose. They were clearly, unashamedly, within the tradition of illustration, and needed no higher purpose to be appreciated.

Even "serious artists" of course, such as Picasso, or Andy Warhol, routinely cranked out third-rate work, exploiting their reputations, once they had been widely accepted as certifiably collectible. But Neiman never aspired to that degree of seriousness, and once he'd made a niche for himself, he stuck with it happily, only augmenting his signature style in minor ways along the way. Employing the sophisticated reproduction techniques in the 20th Century, commercial artists were able to produce stunning facsimiles or knock-offs in limited runs, which--though not worth a fraction of original unique pieces--could still command impressive prices, and allowed ordinary people to possess decorative artifacts that were just as thrilling as originals; and Neiman made a whole career out of selling runs of his bizarrely bright limited reproductions.

Neiman's career paralleled the life of Playboy Magazine. Hugh Hefner, its founder, met Neiman while the two were working for Carson Pirie Scott department store in Chicago in the early 1950's. Hefner had an eye for art and layout, and his association with Neiman would last for the rest of the artist's life. (Other artists and cartoonists who got their start with Playboy, or found a welcome venue would include Shel Silverstein, Alberto Vargas and Gahan Wilson.)

Neiman's freewheeling style coincided with the liberalization of values which occurred throughout the 1960's and 1970's, and his work seemed an expression of that period, much as Pop Art did. Its uninhibited splashes of color, unbridled action, and candid spontaneity captured perfectly the spirit of post-War America, enjoying a spurt of prosperity and indulgence that swept its puritanical reserve aside in favor of pure pleasure, conspicuous consumption, and vicarious delight. The life-style implied by Hefner's vision of the good life--a mixture of expensive indulgence, guiltless sex and middle-brow taste--was realized in Neiman's subject-matter: Sporting events, European café society, fast cars, safari animals, fancy watering-holes frequented by beautiful people--in short, all the usual accoutrements of the imaginary world ordinary working-men might dream about.

Neiman's work was of the kind you would find in gaudy galleries in Las Vegas, or Los Angeles, or Florida, where nouveau riche on vacation, with nothing to keep them company but their boredom and their credit cards, might accidentally wander in by mistake and impulse-buy a Neiman serigraph. Those big overblown action scenes went very well with modern interiors, and you could hang them in big living rooms where guests, sipping cocktails, would notice and comment on them.

Neiman's style, of course, was not exactly new. Sophisticated illustration had been a staple of magazine and newspaper media for decades by the time Hefner started Playboy in 1953.

As with the Fauves, or the early Modernists, like Matisse or Bonnard, we're acutely aware of the unreality of the representation, of the up-front in-your-face counter-intuitively reverse pigmentation of the images, but it's completely in keeping with the spirit of the enterprise. The color exaggerations express an attitude towards subject-matter which is flagrantly outré, and yet still conditioned to our apprehension. Far from being grotesque, or freakish, they are playful and light-hearted.

In Neiman's world, things are bathed in a kind of elegantly brilliant wash of dazzling superimposition. They are like fantasies, and yet the fantasy is always grounded in a firm perception of balanced action, and the colors are organized into a jiggling mosaic of complementary tones, which, though initially jarring, become less and less conflicted the more you look at them.

Neiman's work clearly comes out of an earlier illustration tradition, but he combines that with all the brash, eccentric, extravagant tendencies of the Modernists and Post-Modernists, incorporated into a straightforward representational style that is individual, timely, and gently nostalgic. The style is nostalgic, and sentimental--dated. But the subject matter flows and veers through it as through a dream-like atmosphere. Neiman wants his canvases to be seen as decorative, but they're also recognizable idealizations of a time and a place. They are the product of a dilettantish mind, unchallenged by any higher calling, content to be understood and appreciated at the level of mild attention.

Is Neiman's work philistine, or schlock, or low-brow, or camp? Undoubtedly, in a sense, it is all of these things. It's napkin art. With a few dramatic flourishes, and a certain sense of the improbable, Neiman can set up a simple scene with tense--though predictable perhaps--values stretched to the limit of expectation. Neiman's art isn't of the sort that sets about to reinvent itself at each turn. Having found a method of releasing a certain kind of energy through the deft reconfiguration of the palette-wheel, he is content to repeat that trick over and over, subtly altering the effect for each study, never drifting very far away from that strongly conceived signature.

His personal style was that of the dandy--garish, accommodating, dressed in outlandish suits of yellow, or light green, or white, with a large handle-bar mustache, often nursing a large Havana. When on queue, he would dash off candid sketches and quick portraits like a street artist. By late middle-age, he had become a sort of minor celebrity, and his presence was enough to stir interest and attention in any proceedings.

Nevertheless, his work had a studied finality about it. It wasn't unsure, or timid art. It was confident, unashamed, and respectful. Its borders were clear, its edges without regrets. His work belongs to another age, and like all nostalgic art, there is a sadness to it, as of a golden age, which of course never existed, but which is pleasant enough to contemplate, when you're in the right mood. For those who demand more of art, it was trivial and meretricious--all true, but somehow beside the point. It was very much the best of what it was. With his death, we quietly close another door to our past.

1 comment:

Sunny West said...

Thanks for the images of Neiman's work. I think they're wonderful...full of color, full of energy and joy!