Critic’s Notebook: LeRoy Neiman made art safe for Playboy-reading heterosexuals

On Nov. 13, 2003, New York Yankees pitcher Roger Clemens, right, talks to artist Leroy Neiman about baseball while signing limited-edition serigraphs based on Neiman's painting "The Rocket," above, of Clemens on the mound in pinstripes, at Neiman's New York studio.
(Kathy Willens / Associated Press)

Without Hugh Hefner’s Playboy magazine and its philosophy of unfettered heterosexual hedonism through stimulation of all the senses, there would have been no LeRoy Neiman. Usually mischaracterized as simply a sports artist, he was actually much more than that. Neiman was the painter of the “Playboy Philosophy.”

To be more specific, he was the artist for Playboy readers afraid that liking art was gay.

Obituaries of the artist, who died Wednesday in New York City at 91, have duly noted his friendship with Hefner and longtime work for the magazine, starting in 1954. They met while both were employed by Chicago’s Carson Pirie Scott department store — Neiman as a freelance fashion illustrator, Hefner as a copy writer. Shortly after Hefner launched Playboy, he recruited Neiman.

PHOTOS: LeRoy Neiman and his work


The artist designed the pert Femlin, a tousled female gremlin in thigh-high black stockings, heels and opera gloves that adorned Playboy’s party page. But the sexual dynamic that sustained the magazine — and its art — was largely ignored in accounts of the artist’s career.

Instead, the tension between critical disdain for Neiman’s paintings and their public popularity was prominent. Obituaries portrayed the clash as quaint art-world snobbishness, which looked down on his wild commercial success.

Thirty years ago, however, the old Los Angeles Institute of Contemporary Art threw that fiction about disdained commercial success under the bus. In “LeRoy Neiman and Andy Warhol: An Exhibition of Sports Paintings,” the commercial equivalence between the hugely successful artists, one critically acclaimed and the other not, stood front and center.

Stylistically, Neiman employed 19th century Impressionism’s broken brushwork, which he jacked up in vivid 20th century colors. Bright hues worked for the modern printing techniques used by competitive mass-market magazines.

He applied this cheery “pop Impressionist” style to sports subjects — boxing, baseball, football, horse racing, Formula One and more. It also came in handy to describe the convivial nightlife that, from 1958 to 1973, he recorded in “Man at His Leisure,” his regular feature for the magazine. In 1960 the column found its bricks-and-mortar realization in the birth of the Playboy Club.

The paintings are hackneyed, but Neiman became postwar America’s friendly Toulouse-Lautrec at the Moulin Rouge, its facile Degas at the Longchamp race track. Commercial art often cribs from popular artistic movements of the past, to appeal to what viewers already know. The been-there, done-that attributes of Neiman’s work didn’t hurt; they helped.


So did the Playboy Philosophy. Other men’s magazines of the day also featured photographs of naked women, but before Playboy those pictures required a specific context. “[You] couldn’t run nude pictures without some kind of rationale that they were art,” Hefner once said. “I put them into a context of a positive attitude on male-female relationships.”

Hefner targeted the magazine at young urban men. Its philosophy centered on a suave but stereotypic view of red-blooded male heterosexuality. The sexual revolution it championed was framed as an antidote to perversion.

“If we desire a healthy, heterosexual society,” Hefner said in defense of Playboy, “we must begin stressing heterosexual sex; otherwise, our society will remain sick and perverted.”

This, however, posed a bit of a problem for the sensual enjoyment of art. American society was steeped in Puritan tradition, whose deep suspicion of sex likewise extended to iconoclasm toward art — and mistrust of the artists who made it and the people who liked it. Avant-garde art’s flouting of norms, including middle-class sexual norms, had contributed to an implicit yet inescapable connection between art and homosexuals.

Hefner was no raving homophobe, but he did think homosexuality was a psycho-social maladjustment. The belief was no doubt reinforced by his college major at the University of Illinois — psychology, which listed homosexuality as a mental illness until 1973.

Cultural historian Steven Watts, writing in his well-received 2008 Hefner biography “Mr. Playboy,” noted that “like most of 1950s American culture, he saw homosexuality as an aberration — a barrier to healthy relationships between men and women.” In college Hefner had minored in art and creative writing. Separating art from homosexuality in the middle-class American mind consequently was fundamental to the pleasure principle of the Playboy Philosophy.


Enter Neiman, Hefner’s court artist. His dapper white suits and flamboyant handlebar mustache affected the licentious look of Salvador Dalí. Extolling nightclub seductions and the manly art of sports in spirited paint on canvas, he made Modern art culturally safe for the magazine’s target readership.

Neiman’s art — the underlying prejudice not withstanding — sent a pre-Stonewall signal: Liberated hedonism is healthy, not gay. The paintings are lousy, but the painter’s popularity soared.