LeRoy Neiman was — more than anything — a businessman. He knew how to make money with bright colors and call it “art.” I don’t really consider LeRoy a True Artist — and I don’t think he did, either — because he was sort of cynical about the Art Game and he played the corners and surrounded the edges of the business of squeezing as much profit as possible from his palette of colors. He was more publisher than painter. More printmaker than trailblazer. Yesterday, LeRoy Neiman died rich at age 91, and the Art community is left behind to struggle with the aftermath of his legacy of commerce over providence and the fact of how the bottom line can mockingly override original intention.
I had the opportunity to meet LeRoy a couple of times and he was always fun and entertaining and fully aware of his business status in the art community. He didn’t seem to care much about leaving a soulful legacy and appeared unconcerned about his place in the historic canon of artists. I guess that could be a good thing that he did his own thing and followed his own financial muse. If you had enough money, you could hire LeRoy to immortalize you in paint or print.
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.
What was so disappointing about LeRoy’s career was an idle cynicism masquerading as lightheartedness about the veneer of his “art” — and what he had to do to peak his pockets. Sure, he gave away a lot of his riches, but at what ephemeral cost to his aesthetic consciousness?
Did LeRoy Neiman ever suffer for his art? No. Are artists required to find misery in beauty, or can art be imitatively modelled that has no instinctual substance other than the surface tension something bright and pretty can create without anything substantial beneath depthless hollows?