LeRoy Neiman’s Gift to the School of the Arts Provides Hands-on Printmaking Expertise

November 18, 2013

A printmaking shop endowed by an artist best known for his sketches in Playboy and at sporting events like the Super Bowl and the Kentucky Derby has become an important fine art venue at Columbia. Today the LeRoy Neiman Center for Print Studies, home to the LeRoy Neiman Gallery, is known as a place that supports artists. It was founded in 1996 by a $6 million gift from Neiman and his wife, Janet, to Columbia’s School of the Arts. In an age of digital reproduction, the Center offers a convincing argument for the enduring appeal of printmaking by hand and is notable for its nonprofit status and affiliation with a major university.

“We are able to fulfill LeRoy’s mission here, which was to promote printmaking education and encourage innovation in the field of contemporary prints,” said Tomas Vu-Daniel, artistic director of the Neiman Center and a visual arts professor at the School of the Arts. “The artists who come to the center don’t feel a commercial pressure or a time constraint to produce a product. We give them the freedom to explore and experiment.”

The Neiman works in collaboration with artists who are picked by a selection committee that invites them to produce an individual work or a portfolio. The result of these partnerships can be seen in the many limited editions produced at the center that are now in the collections of major museums and galleries. Students have worked alongside such renowned artists as William Kentridge, Shahzia Sikander, Eric Fischl, Ellen Gallagher and Kara Walker, a professor of visual arts at the University. This year’s group features another School of the Arts professor, Sanford Biggers; Josephine Halvorson (SOA’07), David Altmejd (SOA’01), Cecily Brown and the returning Sikander.

“It’s a two-way street,” added Marie Tennyson, the Neiman’s assistant director. “The Neiman fellows—graduate students in the visual arts program at the School of the Arts—feel this creative energy, plus they get to do their fieldwork right here on campus.”

The first artist to work at the center was sculptor and printmaker Kiki Smith. Vu-Daniel recalled Smith’s desire to make a series of prints incorporating the moon, a project that involved visiting Rutherford Observatory atop Pupin Hall. “At midnight on the first full moon in January of 1998, with the temperature outside at 5 degrees below zero, two graduate students and I huddled in that drafty dome as Kiki photographed the moon with a camera attached to a telescope,” he said. Later that year, Smith and Vu-Daniel traveled to Coney Island with fellow School of the Arts faculty member Thomas Roma so that she could photograph the ocean with Roma’s famous panoramic camera—the subject of a recent exhibition, "Pannaroma," at the Neiman Gallery. That work became the basis of the first print editions published by the Neiman: "Three Moons and Tidal," both complex, haunting studies in velvety blacks, whites and grays of the lunar cycle and its inexorable effect on tides.

Sarah Sze, a School of the Arts professor whose installation, "Triple Point," represented the United States at the Venice Biennale this year, produces all her prints at the Neiman. For Notepad, a large, three-dimensional work evoking a composition pad, she used offset lithography to print lined sheets of “paper” that unfurl over a delicate, open-work fire escape and ladder.

The Neiman is housed on two floors in Dodge Hall. Undergraduate printmaking classes in a variety of media—serigraphy, lithography, relief, intaglio and photogravure—are taught on the lower level. On the upper floor is the gallery and print shop, where visiting artists are assisted by graduate students, master printer Douglas Bennett and print shop manager Gregory Santos. The processes available range from offset and stone lithography to etching and laser engraving. The gallery hosts a year-round schedule of exhibitions, showcasing work by students, faculty and visiting artists, many of whom the students stay in touch with long after they’ve graduated from Columbia and established their own careers.

Neiman, who died last year at age 91, was a flamboyant artist with a handlebar mustache and a fondness for long cigars whose enormous popularity originated in his 1950s drawings for Playboy. Later, he was celebrated for his drawings and paintings from the Olympics and other sporting events, as well as portraits of celebrity athletes such as Muhammad Ali and Joe Namath.

—Story by Eve Glasberg

—Video by Columbia News Video Team