hipster tacky: goin’ for unadulterated hackdom

by Art Chantry:

all you uber-sophistcated tastemakers and purveyors of “hipster tacky” out there can HAVE your peter max, your walter keane, your dali, your glaser, your tikis, your ‘green lady’ and your ‘painter of light’. when it comes to pure unadulterated hackdom, no one,and i mean NO ONE holds a candle to the bull-goose looney of kitsch – LEROY NIEMAN (ta-daaaa…).


nieman was a third-string illustrator. looking though old magazines form the 50′s and early 60′s. his work pops up everywhere in the ‘lesser’ magazines and trade publications, in ads for companies that make everything from forgotten automobiles to hydro-electric power. his mainstream territory was sports. he eventually became THE illustrator of sports for over a decade. he did action images of jumping roundballers and images of brutish violence w/grace on the gridiron. he loved portraits of famous (and infamous) sports stars and power figures of the pop world. this portrait of JFK here is a perfect example of how lousy his work could actually be.

his best work, though. actually has a sort of patina of elegance to it. although his portraiture was clumsy at best, his FLUFF was without equal. he could slap more color an texture and implied motion into a painting than anyone. but, there is ZERO depth. his work has been accused of being “all frosting and no cake.”

his infatuation with pop stardom (his own) lead him into the world of Sports Illustrated and (more importantly) Playboy magazine. he became an accolate and true believer in the world according to hugh hefner. he was one of those clowns who hung around the Playboy mansion with an easel and some paint and did portraits of the bunnies in exchange for…? his appearance even became cartoonish – like a good pop painter should look. he wore white suits and panama hats and smoked contant stogies and grew a big silly handle bar-ish mustache. he became a constant background figure in all those newsreels and film footage of parties at the playboy mansion.

of course, this whole world he created for himself immediately made him ‘kool’ and enviable in the somwhat duller short-timer world of primo sports and bachelor pad “klass”. his prints sold for extremely high prices and he was considered essential among “real men” of the era. to have a nieman in your den was the very paramount of las vegas cool. and he USED it all to the max, laughing all the way to the bank.

but, the truth was, he knew he was a third (or even fourth) string talent. he wallowed in his fame, sold his paintings for enormous dollars, but never ever won over the mavens of higher culture. he was virtually shunned by all the museum and fine art world his entire life. he NEVER broke through to big regard in the blue hair world. he was strictly pop stuff of the lower order relegated to the lesser galleries and ‘also-rans’. even peter max and his icky copycat posters are considered a better investment. his work still sells, but each years it drops a little in value, it seems. fewer and fewer people want it as his memory fades away.

there was a restaurant in seattle (near the big now-gone ‘kingdome’ sports arena, of course) that commissioned nieman to do a painting for the bar. he was making some cool change doing hipster ‘portraits’ for all the ‘best’ bars in the world – a sort of “leroy nieman good housekeeping seal of approval.” when he expressed interest in doing one for this bar in seattle, they went for the bait – hook, line and sinker. they coughed up some healthy figures for the blessing. to top it off, they would be the only watering hole in the northwest with the honor of that nieman picture, too. it would guarantee a spread in the Playboy ‘hipster bars in america’ issue, right? maybe even get to meet miss september!

well, they sent all that money (in advance, ‘natch) and began to wait. like all TRUE artists everywhere, time means nothing when faced with achieving quality of lasting value. the bar waited an waited and waited. they sent pictures of the place to work from, they sent (lotsa) gifts, they sent worry letters, they begged. nothing. finally, when they threatened to sue his ass, he produced.

what they got was a BIG painting – but not very much nieman. he filled most of the image with bourbon and scotch labels soaked off of

les (which were supposed sent to him as ‘incentives/gifts’ for the piece – full). he dabbed paint around the labels in his cliched patented style. then he painted in a sort of ‘bar scene with drinking patrons’ around the edge as a sort of border/frame device. in short, they got less actual leroy nieman brush strokes per square inch for their money than any other bar in history.

but, hell. it was a nieman, right? hang it up! call the media! celebrate their excellent good taste! everybody still won. well, except the people who had to drink there and look at the damned thing….

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