LeRoy Neiman exhibit part art, part sports, all energy

LeRoy Neiman was there on Jan. 10, 1982, when wide receiver Dwight Clark caught a Joe Montana pass in the end zone with 51 seconds left in the game for a San Francisco 49ers’ NFC Championship win over the Dallas Cowboys.

That play is known in NFL lore as “The Catch.” Neiman also was in London in 2000 to witness professional tennis’ sibling duo Venus and Serena Williams win their first Wimbledon doubles championship.

And he was at Madison Square Garden in 1970, where “Pistol” Pete Maravich led the LSU Tigers to basketball battles with Army and Marquette University in the National Invitational Tournament.

Proof?

It’s found on the LSU Museum of Art’s gallery walls in “LeRoy Neiman: Action!” The show runs through football season, ending on Jan. 17, just shy of Super Bowl weekend. It’s the first museum exhibition of Neiman’s works since his death at age 91 on June 20, 2012.

“We wanted an exhibit that would reflect the energy of football season,” says museum curator Katie Pfohl. “We hope this show will attract both art and sports fans.”

Neiman represented both worlds. He is considered among the most virtuosic American sports illustrators of the 20th century.

Neiman’s models were always in action. He drew his illustrations from sidelines of football fields, basketball and tennis courts, baseball dugouts, Olympic and rodeo arenas and even ringside at boxing matches. Athletes and sports fans alike could easily pick out his handlebar mustache and ever-present cigar.

“Imagine being an artist who had that kind of access to any sports team,” Pfohl says. “He was always sketching, and he was always in demand. He was even the artist-in-residence for the New York Jets during their historic 1969 season.”

Joe Namath was the Jets’ quarterback at the time. His celebrity earned him the nickname “Broadway Joe,” and Neiman’s action portrait of Namath hangs near that of Montana, both introducing the exhibit’s gallery of live sketches.

These aren’t the largest works in this show, but they tell the biggest stories. Photographers are able to immortalize big plays with the snap of the shutter, but even they can’t capture Neiman’s sheer energetic movement or the artistry of one player melding into another with the action emerging as the main character.

It happens in the drawing, “Holding Hands,” where New York Giants linebacker Lawrence Taylor reaches for the football while tackling Dallas Cowboys running back Herschel Walker. And it’s there as Dallas quarterback Troy Aikman barely gets off a pass while being pummeled by a Pittsburgh Steeler defender in Super Bowl XXX in 1996.

And the blending of action with legend is mystical in Neiman’s 1969 sketch of Johnny Unitas. The Colts were based in Baltimore when Unitas became professional football’s first quarterback icon.

Then there are the sketches of Pistol Pete, poised for action in his purple and gold, signature gray athletic socks flopping at his ankles.

Maravich appears a little pensive in these drawings. He was known as “Mr. Showtime” on the national level, but as William F. Reed wrote in the March 30, 1970, edition of Sports Illustrated, Maravich’s show was upstaged, hence his angsty disposition in Neiman’s drawings.

Neiman was there, and he wouldn’t have drawn it any other way. It’s a style, Neiman once told interviewer Max Millard, that “came into being very suddenly.”

Neiman was born LeRoy Leslie Runquist on June 8, 1921, in St. Paul, Minnesota. Neiman’s father abandoned the family, and the artist took his stepfather’s surname when his mother remarried. He realized early that there were advantages in having artistic skills.

“He attended a Roman Catholic primary school where, he told Max Millard for the New York City Westside TV Shopper in 1979, he ‘was always drawing pictures and getting special treatment ... showing off, copying out of other things,’” states the artist’s biography at leroyneiman.com. “During recess periods he would inscribe pen-and-ink tattoos on his classmates’ arms. A painting of a fish that he made in sixth grade won a prize in a national art competition.”

Neiman enlisted in the U.S. Army in 1942, where he worked four years as a cook while painting sexually suggestive murals in military kitchens and dining halls before the era of political correctness. The murals generated praise from both sexes.

“If nothing else, the army completely confirmed me as an artist,” he wrote in his 1974 book, “LeRoy Neiman: Art and Life Style.” “During this period I made my crucial discovery of the difference between the lifestyles of the officer and the Pfc (private first class). This was to become the basis of my later mission in art, to investigate life’s social strata from the workingman to the multimillionaire. I discovered that, while the poor I knew so well are so often pitiable, the rich can be fools.”

Neiman’s style emerged in 1953 when he was given several partially used cans of enamel paints. Experimentation led to the discovery of fast-moving strokes from free flowing paint.

Meanwhile, Neiman’s friend, Hugh Hefner, had begun publishing Playboy magazine. The two met when Neiman was freelancing for a Chicago department store where Hefner was a copywriter. Hefner commissioned the artist’s illustrations for a short story, which led to Neiman’s 15-year Playboy feature, “Man at His Leisure,” featuring his impressions of sporting events and social activities. His career would blossom with one-man museum shows, numerous awards and a five-time stint as the official artist for the Olympics.

Though the majority of Neiman’s paintings focus on sports, the museum has dedicated part of the exhibit to another dimension of Neiman’s work: live action drawings of dancers and musicians, including jazz trumpeter Miles Davis and New Orleans’s own Wynton Marsalis.

The overall show is made up of more than 80 pieces, which includes acrylic paintings and signed serigraphs, or silkscreen color prints that exact the qualities of fine art paintings. The LSU Museum of Art Store is offering one such serigraph, Neiman’s depiction of former LSU basketball great Shaquille O’Neal, for $6,000.

“All proceeds from that sale will go to the museum,” Pfohl says.

And blitzing visitors in the main gallery are three 16-foot reproductions of football drawings from Neiman’s sketchbooks, which will be digitized in locations throughout the gallery with a seating area where visitors can draw their own sketches.

“With its affiliation to a school whose athletic program is one of the finest in the nation, the LSU Museum of Art sought to marry athletics with excellence in art,” says Jordana Pomeroy, the museum’s executive director. “LeRoy Neiman: Action!’ explores the work of an artist who was an acute observer, embedding himself with athletes on the playing field .”

As Neiman wrote, reflecting on his star-studded artistic career, “I’ve met and sketched most of the great (American) athletes … and their movement, grace and energy have kept me captivated.”

Neiman once said he was good at capturing on-the-spot action and making it jump off the page. Now it jumps from the walls in the LSU Museum of Art.