Who’s Our Grooviest Living Artist?It’s Femlin’s Papa, LeRoy Neiman

What makes New York artists–especially the straight ones–think they’re so totally groovy? Julien Schnabel, Mathew Barney (who’s dating Björk), Damien Loeb, David Salle, Jeff Koons–who or what gave these high self-esteem sufferers the idea that they are so unimpeachably hip, and why are they so desperate to be groovy in the first place? Are these happening heteros being sucked into the vacuum left by the effortlessly groovy–but tremendously fey–Andy Warhol? Whatever the reason, these testosterone trendoids seem locked in a permanent clinch to out-groove each other, and I, for one, feel compelled to stop the shenanigans before they end in tears. I have decided that the only way to cut the cackle is to choose a winner.

The envelope, please … ladies and gentlemen, my GLAM (Grooviest Living Artist in Manhattan) Award goes to … not Tom Sachs, he of the Prada box toilet and Chanel-logoed guillotine. (F.Y.I., Mr. Sachs is currently sequestered in his studio while completing his grooviest and most monumentally top-secret kunstwerk to date–clue: It involves race cars–for a May 2002 unveiling.) No, not him.

The 2001 GLAM goes to … LeRoy Neiman.

Yes, I’m talking about the palette-knife-wielding bon viveur with the bright colors, buckskins and barrier-reef-sized mustache … the king and current sole proponent of wildly unfashionable Social Realist painting. Before you accuse me of excessive irony, do yourself a favor and run to the Hammer Galleries (33 West 57th Street), where a complete spectrum of his work permanently occupies the third floor: You can buy everything from a $300,000 oil of Mike Piazza to a $75 Sinatra poster. At the very least, pick up a copy of LeRoy Neiman: Art and Lifestyle (a bargain at $60), his 1974 stunner of a coffee-table book. Naysayers claim his palette-knife excesses resemble congealed Technicolor vomit, but–duh–that is precisely what’s great about them! My faves: his beautiful impromptu sketches! Da Vinci and Lautrec, bonjour !

My adulation started in 1981, after viewing a visionary combo show at the Los Angeles Institute of Contemporary Art entitled LeRoy Neiman, Andy Warhol: An Exhibition of Sports Paintings . But it was only after a recent probing interview at his 67th Street studio, above Café Des Artistes, that I came to the full realization that Mr. Neiman was the only possible candidate for the soon-to-be-much-coveted GLAM award.

Here are 10 reasons why:

1. LeRoy started out as a tattooist: In the 1930’s, this son of St. Paul, Minn., earned extra cash by tattooing the forearms of grade-school mates with cartoon characters. LeRoy filled me in: “Mickey Mouse and Popeye were big at the time–I got one penny or two cents per image. The nuns would slap me around if they caught me, so I learned to work fast.” Subsequent early–and equally groovy–commissions: touching up the freak-show canvas for Ripley’s Believe-It-or-Not (“I remember the bearded lady, the nude in the fish bowl”), designing V.D. posters and painting Army-kitchen murals.

2. LeRoy took sacrilegious shortcuts. In 1954, his pal Hugh Hefner recruited him for the 1954 launch of Playboy in Chicago. “The Archdiocese was on Hef’s case from the beginning about morals and dignity–the whole bit,” said Mr. Neiman. “Hef’s office was in a brownstone on Superior Street, and my studio was on Wabash. If the weather was bad, I used to cut through the cathedral clutching my latest immoral contributions.” What did they wear at the time? “This was before Hef’s robe. He wore a white shirt, black slacks and black loafers with white socks. I wore coveralls and a straw hat.”

3. LeRoy invented bedscapes. Bedscapes? “The Playboy mansion outside Chicago had a dormitory where the bunnies and Playmates could stay when they were in town. They would lay around naked on the white sheets and I would do charcoals. I called them bedscapes.” These are rare: Gentlemanly LeRoy invariably gave these sketches to his sensual subjects. Groovy enough for ya?

4. LeRoy also invented the Femlin. She’s the sexy, sexist, subservient happy-go-thumbelina icon that adorned the pages of Playboy . The devoted Femlin is invariably depicted tying a shoe or jamming tobacco into the giant pipe of her master. This prankish pocket-sized charmer was created by Mr. Neiman at Hef’s request “to perk up the Party Jokes page.”

5. LeRoy hung with Muhammad Ali, Joe Namath, Reggie Jackson, Sonny Liston, Jack Nicklaus, etc., etc. He attended and recorded every sporting event of any significance in the second half of the last century, including the fabulous Ali-Frazier fight in 1971. He immortalized and glamorized boxing events in his inimitable way, but he also–and these are my absolute faves–sketched the fabulously attired African-American crowd. “These black dudes would come from all over, with their women, and strut,” said Mr. Neiman. “Fedoras, velvets, sequins, feathers. Ali loved it, but he himself was conservative–he didn’t want anything to detract from his beauty.”

6. LeRoy celebrated all the activities that are now the fodder of 12-step programs, especially gambling. He hung with the Rat Pack and gambled in Vegas when “the hookers were really bawdy and there was sawdust on the floor.” Though aware that it has lost its sizzle, Mr. Neiman’s fascination and connection to Vegas continues. “I’m all over Vegas,” he said. I interviewed LeRoy in front of a spanking new Muhammad Ali portrait that will be unveiled at the Paris Hotel in Las Vegas on the weekend of Oct. 19. Artist and subject will be in attendance. This project, like so much of ultra-generous LeRoy’s work, has a philanthropic angle: Proceeds from print sales benefit the Muhammad Ali Museum in Louisville, Ky. (For Paris rezzies, call 888-266-5687. High rollers can request the ultra-groovy LeRoy Neiman suite–I’m not kidding!)

7. LeRoy is literate, eclectic and classy. He has sketched a staggering range of 20th-century celebs, from the Kennedys, T.S. Eliot, Edith Sitwell, Brigitte Bardot (Saint Tropez 1960!) and Martin Luther King Jr. to Leopold Stokowski and Fellini (with Mastroianni on the set of 8 1/2 –each with more Lautrec-ish panache than the last.

8. LeRoy is mod. “In the 1960’s, I sketched the Beatles at a club called Dollies and bought my clothes at Hung-on-You in Carnaby Street,” said LeRoy without braying or boasting. “When the twist first started, I sketched people doing it in London and in Paris at Regines–the French were more nifty and classy. I liked discos. By the time Studio 54 opened, it seemed over.”

9. LeRoy is un homme du peuple . His obsession with The Good Life has not precluded him from noticing the blue-collar guy– au contraire . “I am as conscious of stable boys and dishwashers as I am of the wealthy horseman and the imperious maître d’,” said Mr. Neiman. The working class “keep their elegance. Hat-checks, chauffeurs, sommeliers–in so many of my pictures the rich people are all drunk and messed up, but the impeccable croupier is at the center.”

10. LeRoy is unshockable. Mr. Neiman is familiar with today’s punky, post-skill Damien Hirst-ish artists, but is not overly impressed. “Artists have been doing nasty stuff for decades. When I ran with the bulls in Pamplona in the 1960’s, I met a Swedish sculptor. He strangled cats with his bare hands and did weird things to them.” Non-blasé Mr. Neiman eagerly attended the Sensation show at the Brooklyn Museum. “It wasn’t much of a shock. The big shock of my life was Abstract Expressionism–Pollock, de Kooning, those guys. It changed my work. I was an academically trained student, and suddenly you could pour paint, smear it on, broom it on!” And lo, just as the screech of John Coltrane electrified the arty world, LeRoy’s palette knife turned into a ginsu and the dynamic signature Neiman style was born.

Join me this time next year for the 2002 GLAM’s. Don’t be surprised if Mr. Neiman wins again!

Simple white shirts are O.K. if you’re as beautiful as Muhammad Ali or as charismatic as Hugh Hefner. But guess what? You’re not. The solution: flamboyant shirts from Etro. The fall men’s collection has arrived at the Etro Store (720 Madison Avenue, 317-9096) in a Technicolor blaze of Neimanesque swagger, specifically the fabulously overdesigned shirts. I’m talking gaga colors, two-and-a-half-inch double-button collars (the Pietro), diagonal stripes, contrast plackets, paisley-lined cuffs, etc., etc. These almost-ghetto-fabulous shirts range in price from $190 and up and are the brainchild of color-lovin’ Kean Etro, son of founder Gimmo.

Wide-brimmed classy chapeaux are an intrinsic part of the Neiman look. Caution: You may not be distinguished enough to carry it off. Tall, elegant, beautifully groomed Mr. Neiman is never upstaged by his Stetsons, biltmores or fedoras. Why? Because he’s vain–and proud of it. “When I sketched Martha Graham, she told me vanity is very important,” said Mr. Neiman. “It makes you proud of what you do. I totally agree.” If you feel you’ve got what it takes then, head over to Arnold Hatters (620 Eighth Avenue, 768-3781) and try on a wide-brimmed, soft Shantung lindy ($100).

Though Hugh Hefner is a self-acknowledged sandwich-munching philistine when it comes to food, LeRoy Neiman is not quite as plebeian. “I’m not a champion of unusual preparations, but I like good food,” he said. “I go to the same places and order the same things: Elaine’s, 21, Le Cirque, Rao’s and the Patio at the Tavern on the Green.” Mr. Neiman is definitely kicking it old-school, but how much groovier is that than rushing–with Grubmanesque ardor and velocity–to all the new monosyllabic trendy restaurants?

P.S.: I’m convinced that 1950’s African-American names–LeRoy, Rufus, Elmore, Carson, Dwight, etc.–are poised for a comeback. Who’s Our Grooviest Living Artist?It’s Femlin’s Papa, LeRoy Neiman