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Famed artist LeRoy Neiman, who got his start here, dies at 91

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Updated: July 23, 2012 7:41AM

LeRoy Neiman, the artist best known for turning moments of time in sporting events into images of flash and brilliant color, died Wednesday. He was 91.

His longtime publicist Gail Parenteau confirmed his death but didn’t disclose the cause.

A teacher at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago for 10 years early in his career after studying there, Mr. Neiman never forgot where he came from, and made that evident when he presented a $5 million gift to the institution to help create a new student center.

“Contributing to SAIC is important to me because the care and support of students is essential,” Mr. Neiman said of the contribution at the time. “Now I have the opportunity to give back to the institution that helped me become who I am today.’’

Who he was could be seen in every painting, whether it was the popularity he gained as a contributing artist for Playboy in the 1950s or the man who captured Muhammad Ali’s life, both in and out of the ring, in his paintings and sketches.

It was in 1972 that Mr. Neiman displayed his talent before a live television audience as he captured images in real time, sketching the world chess tournament between Boris Spassky and Bobby Fischer in Reykjavik, Iceland.

He was the official computer artist of the Super Bowl for CBS, and also produced live drawings of the Olympics for TV, being named the official painter of five Olympiads.

Mr. Neiman’s “reportage of history and the passing scene . . . revived an almost lost and time-honored art form,” according to a 1972 exhibit catalog of the artist’s Olympics sketches at the Indianapolis Museum of Art.

A native of St. Paul, Minn., Mr. Neiman’s critics felt he dipped into the commercial world far too often, but it was that commercial world that embraced him.

His work with Hugh Hefner and Playboy led to the creation of Femlin, a well-endowed nude that could be seen in the magazine’s “Party Jokes’’ since 1957.

What he could do with a live sporting event, however, was what transcended Mr. Neiman’s popularity.

“For an artist, watching a [Joe] Namath throw a football or a Willie Mays hit a baseball is an experience far more overpowering than painting a beautiful woman or leading political figure,” Mr. Neiman said in 1972.

And as far as his critics, “I can easily ignore my detractors and feel the people who respond favorably,” he once said.

It was his work with Ali that stands out, however, as all of the paintings and sketches he did of the “Greatest of All Time’’ permanently reside at the LeRoy Neiman Gallery at the Muhammad Ali Center in Louisville, Ky.

Mr. Neiman was a self-described workaholic who toiled daily in his New York City home studio, which he shared with his wife of more than 50 years, Janet.

“What else am I good for?” he said in 2008. “I don’t think about anything else.”

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