LeRoy Neiman: An American Artist

"We can forgive a man for creating something useless as long as he admires it intensely," said Oscar Wilde. "All art is quite useless."

Practically speaking, it's hard to argue with that quotation. After all, what use does art, in any form, really have, but to be admired?

The key for any artist then, whether he be a painter, filmmaker, sculptor, musician or writer, is to simply create a form and expose it either to admiration or ridicule. An artist can not be his own judge or critic, lest the art never be created.

I had a good chuckle at the movie theater the other night while watching the opening credits on the Antonio Banderas/Johnny Depp movie, "Once Upon A Time In Mexico." (search) It was billed as "A Robert Rodriguez Flick" and "Chopped, Shot and Scored" by Rodriguez. How about that? An auteur with a sense of humor about himself.

And by the way, the flick was pretty good too.

The theory holds true for journalism, in a sense, as well. Take the career of the late writer  George Plimpton (search) for instance, who died in his sleep last Thursday at age 76.

Few have braved the worlds of one's subjects so selflessly. Plimpton donned football pads to play quarterback on the Detroit Lions for his book  "Paper Lion." (search) He stepped into the ring with light-heavyweight champ Archie Moore -- and was summarily beaten -- for his book  "Shadow Box," (search) and he faced humiliation on the links while golfing on the PGA tour for "Bogey Man."

While Plimpton may have been born into a life of financial privilege, he wasn't the most gifted athlete in the world, which he made a career out of.

"You can't take yourself too seriously," said the artist LeRoy Neiman (search), sitting down for an interview at FOX News Channel today for this column and next weekend's FOX Magazine -- and who counted Plimpton among his good friends.

"He was a great writer and a great man," he said.

Neiman is famous for his paintings depicting legendary American athletes, politicians, entertainers and eateries. His latest book due out in October, "LeRoy Neiman -- Five Decades" (Abrams 2003), is full of colorful pages documenting his vast portfolio of work.

From ringside at a Muhammad Ali (search) title fight, to backstage at Marilyn Monroe's birthday serenade, to President John F. Kennedy, Neiman's artwork provides a unique view of events that helped shape American culture.

"I was the Playboy guy, traveling first class in airplanes, staying in suites at fine hotels, going to big events with beautiful girls," says Neiman, recalling the early days when he worked as a contributing artist for Playboy Magazine (search).

Over dinner one night, publishing pal Hugh Hefner devised a new feature titled "Man At His Leisure," which sent Neiman around the globe in search of the high life.

"I was bullied into it," he joked.

Neiman says he was born into a poor Chicago family and wasn't offered much direction in terms of what he should do with his life.

"I had heard of the good life," he said. "And each time I found myself approving of the atmosphere, and then little by little I began to fit in, and then I developed a need for it. But I never became one of them. I was always just an artist," he said.

Neiman was drafted into the Army during World War II and spent time painting in Paris. "Each day was a new adventure over there," he said.

An exhibit of Neiman's "A View From the Table" series, featuring scenes from world famous restaurants, will be open at New York City's Hammer Galleries (search) from Oct. 9 through Nov. 1.

While experiencing that good life which his talent has afforded him, Neiman said he had to challenge himself to find the flavor in each scene.

"Sometimes it's the proprietor," he said. "And sometimes it's the bartender, but starring in all of my paintings is the working man. You can't have a grand soiree without as many working people as guests."

Ain't that the truth.

See LeRoy Neiman's interview Sunday, Oct. 19 on FOX Magazine.

Mike Straka is the project manager for FOX News' Internet operations and contributes as a features reporter and producer on FOX Magazine (Sundays 11 p.m. on FNC) and as a reporter and columnist for Foxnews.com. 

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