Sidedoor: The Artist Critics Love to Hate

Talented, popular, successful—what’s not to love about LeRoy Neiman? Plenty, according to art critics.

Graphic for Sidedoor ep 10.7

LeRoy Neiman was a colorful man, both figuratively and literally. His handlebar mustache, long cigar, and sketchpad were fixtures at the sidelines of American pop culture: from boxing matches to jazz clubs and political conventions. His paintings, sketches, and prints papered the second half of the 20th century, highlighting American icons in his colorful expressionist style. He was rich, famous, and adored by many Americans… but not the art critics.

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Artist LeRoy Nieman was a fixture at the sidelines of American pop culture during the second half of the 20th century. From boxing matches to jazz clubs to political conventions, it was not uncommon to see his mustachioed face and long cigar in the crowd. His instantly recognizable renditions of athletes and celebrities have graced the pages of publications like Playboy, Time, and Sports Illustrated.

But while Neiman had all financial and popular success an artist could ever hope for, his work has been viewed far less favorably by critics.

This time on Sidedoor, join us on the artist’s 100th birthday to learn more about the colorful life and work of LeRoy Neiman. We’ll explore his splashy, star-studded oeuvre and ask: what makes a piece of art worthwhile… and who gets to decide?

Neiman poster for Ali-Frasier fight
Poster depicting Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier by LeRoy Neiman, 1975. Neiman sketched over 100 portraits of Ali over his lifetime, and counted the fighter among his close friends. National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution, NPG.83.34. Copyright LeRoy Neiman Foundation / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York


  • Eric Jentsch – Curator of sports and popular culture, Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History
  • Heather Byrne Long – LeRoy Neiman’s niece
  • LeRoy Neiman – Artist, philanthropist, and former instructor at School of the Art Institute of Chicago
  • Carol Becker – Professor of the Arts and Dean of Columbia University’s School of the Arts
  • Ken Johnson – Painter and art critic
  • Jerry Saltz – Senior art critic for New York Magazine
Lizzie Peabody posing in front of Big Band painting
Lizzie Peabody poses in front of “Big Band” by LeRoy Nieman, which is on display just inside the entrance to the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History. Painting on canvas, 2005. Gift of LeRoy Neiman Foundation, Inc.

Links & Fun Stuff

Neiman sketch self-portrait
A 1956 self-portrait of LeRoy Neiman with sketches of the Femlin, a character he created for Playboy magazine and drew for monthly issue for half a century. Image copyright LeRoy Neiman Inc.

What does art mean to you? Should LeRoy Neiman be remembered as one of America’s great artists? Don your critic’s hat and share your thoughts with us on Twitter @SidedoorPod.

Be sure to tune in again next week, when we’ll meet the talented entertainer, producer, and club owner who became the first Puerto Rican to perform on Broadway.  

Posted: 4 June 2021
About the Author:

Jessica Sadeq has worked in the Central Office of Public Affairs since June 2007. She is the Marketing Manager for the Office of Communications and External Affairs.

2 Responses to Sidedoor: The Artist Critics Love to Hate
    • Deborah Devan
    • I did not enjoy the podcast because it talks about paintings that I cannot see. Does not make sense to me to do that.

      • Alex di Giovanni
      • You make a great point! We’ve added some images, background information and lot of links and other fun stuff to the original post. We hope you’ll take another look (and listen!) https://torch.si.edu/2021/06/sidedoor-the-artist-critics-love-to-hate/