Leroy Neiman, the Academy’s 2007 Sport Artist of the Year, will be remembered as the artist who invented the genre of Contemporary Sport Art. He died Wednesday in New York at the age of 91.
Neiman, a colorful and entertaining artist instantly recognized by his handlebar mustache, became widely known with his appearances on live television painting athletes at the very moments that they were competing in the Olympics. He painted brilliantly colored, stunningly energetic images of the sports world, capturing its motion and emotion in his brushstrokes.
Academy President and CEO Dr. Thomas P. Rosandich, who founded the American Sport Art Museum and Archives in 1984, praised Neiman for his ability to portray sport action quickly through a variety of mediums. Several pieces of his artwork are displayed at ASAMA.
“His name is synonymous with sport art,” Dr. Rosandich said. “When anyone would talk about sport art, they would inevitably mention his name. No one contributed more to sport art than he did with his presence on TV turning out great art. He was just as colorful as his paintings.”
Neiman was the official artist at five Olympiads, including creating on-the-spot images on live television during the 1972 Summer Games in Munich and the 1976 Games in Montreal. In 1972, he also sketched the world chess tournament between Boris Spassky and Bobby Fischer in Reykjavik, Iceland, for a live television audience. He was the official computer artist of the Super Bowl for CBS.
Neiman was named official artist of the Olympic Winter Games in Lake Placid in 1980 and in Sarajevo in 1984, as well as the Summer Olympics in Los Angeles in 1984.
Neiman found a niche in sport art that was untouched and pioneered the genre with great enthusiasm.
“For an artist, watching a Joe Namath throw a football or Willie Mays hit a baseball is an experience far more overpowering than painting a beautiful woman or leading political figure,” Neiman once said. “Concentrating on sports has helped me because I couldn’t refer back to past movements. There hasn’t been any sports art to speak of. I’ve had the field pretty much to myself.”
His role in pop culture spanned for decades, creating works for Playboy magazine since its inception in 1954. His illustrations for a short story in Playboy, “Black Country,” in 1954 earned the magazine an award from the Chicago Art Director’s Club. The series “Man at His Leisure” appeared in the magazine for 15 years, and included his impressions of events, such as the Grand Prix in Monaco, the Beatles in London and the running of the bulls in Pamplona, Spain.
Neiman’s powerful imagery of boxing, especially of Muhammad Ali, earned him induction into the International Boxing Hall of Fame in 2007. His paintings and sketches of Ali during 15 years of the prizefighter’s boxing career permanently reside at the LeRoy Neiman Gallery at the Muhammad Ali Center in Louisville, Ky.
He was so closely identified with the world of boxing that actor/director Sylvester Stallone tapped Neiman to appear in four of his “Rocky” movies.
During his career, Neiman 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 many private and public museums, including The Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., which Neiman selected to house his archives. In addition, he has received numerous accolades and honors.
The St. Paul, Minn., native, who was in the invasion of Normandy and fought in the Battle of the Bulge during World War II, said he preferred to think of himself simply as an American artist.
“It’s been fun. I’ve had a lucky life,” Neiman said in an Associated Press interview in 2008. “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.”
Founded in 1984, ASAMA is dedicated to the preservation of sports art, history, and literature. The ASAMA collection is composed of nearly 1,700 works of sport art across a variety of media, including paintings, sculptures, assemblages, prints and photographs. The museum is open free to the public from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. weekdays.