He is also an artist whose geometric abstractions, many large in scale, have been exhibited widely throughout the world over a period of 45 years.
His co-author, partner, and husband, Gregory White Smith, battled a rare brain tumor for four decades, dying in 2014 at the age of 62.
Naifeh was born to U.S. diplomats George Naifeh and Marion Naifeh in Tehran, Iran, on June 19, 1952. In addition to several cities in the U.S., he lived with his parents during their postings in Baghdad, Iraq; Baida, Libya; Benghazi, Libya; Lagos, Nigeria; Karachi, Pakistan; Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates; Muscat, Oman; and Amman, Jordan.
He began painting at age ten in Libya, studying with a Dutch-born artist, Catharina Baart Stephan. He later studied, at age fifteen, with Bruce Onobrakpeya, one of the leading Nigerian artists of the twentieth century. He had exhibitions in both Kano and Kaduna, Nigeria, and in Karachi, Pakistan. In 1974, he had an exhibition at McCormick Hall, site of the Princeton University Art Museum, and, in 1975, he had an exhibition in Abu Dhabi, the first exhibition of art created there in the city’s history. “An Exhibition in Abu Dhabi is a rare happening,” Barbara Hughes wrote in the U.A.E. News. “But an exhibition of work mainly created in Abu Dhabi is probably unique.”
Naifeh graduated summa cum laude from both St. Andrew’s School in Middletown, Delaware, in 1970 and Princeton University in 1974. He graduated from the Harvard Law School in 1977, and received a master's degree in fine arts, also from Harvard, in 1979. His undergraduate thesis on the New York Art World was published by Princeton University in 1976. and his Ph.D. dissertation on the artist Gene Davis was published in 1982.
Naifeh received honorary doctorates from the University of South Carolina Aiken in 1998 and the Juilliard School in 2012.
In 1989, along with Gregory White Smith, he purchased the Joye Cottage in Aiken, South Carolina in 1989. Together, they restored the historic Whitney-Vanderbilt house, a creation of both Stanford White and Carrère and Hastings. The story of that renovation is told in their book, On a Street Called Easy, In a Cottage Called Joye, which The New York Times called “wry and gentle … house-and-garden renovations gone delectably awry.” They are leaving the house as a residence for artists in music, drama, and dance.
Since 2009, Naifeh has served as co-chairman of Juilliard in Aiken Festival, a performing arts festival that brings dozens of artists to Aiken each year for performances and has provided educational outreach to more than 16,000 students in an area covering parts of Georgia and South Carolina. The 2014 Festival culminated in an early-music performance of Bach’s St. Matthew Passion that was presented not only in Aiken but in Spivey Hall in Atlanta and Alice Tully Hall at Lincoln Center. James R. Oestreich wrote in The New York Times that the performance contained “flashes of brilliance, all right. But what made the event so deeply satisfying was mainly the consistent excellence of all its parts.”
Naifeh married Gregory White Smith, his co-author and partner of 40 years, in 2011.
Naifeh worked as an intern in the office of Congressman Charlie Wilson, as a docent at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., and as an associate attorney at the law firm of Milbank Tweed.
He was the author—all, except for the first book, co-authored with Smith—of many books including five New York Times bestsellers.
He published Jackson Pollock: An American Saga in 1989, which won the 1991 Pulitzer Prize for Biography or Autobiography and was also a finalist for the National Book Award.
Interview Magazine said of the book, “For once, with this intense, engrossing, and indeed brilliant work, we have a biography that justifies its length. Seldom have the history of an artist, the development of his imagination, and the fevers of his soul been more grandly yet intimately described.”
The book was adapted into an Academy Award-winning film by Ed Harris in 2000, Pollock (film). Harris said the biography was “the bible for the project and remained so until filming was completed.” The biography also served as an inspiration for John Updike’s Seek My Face. “It would be in vain,” Updike wrote, “to deny that a large number of details come from the admirable, exhaustive 'Jackson Pollock: An American Saga.'"
Naifeh also wrote Van Gogh: The Life, which was called “the definitive work for decades to come” by Leo Jansen of the Van Gogh Museum, in 2011.
Time Magazine wrote: "Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith, whose 1989 biography of Jackson Pollock won the Pulitzer Prize, have written this generation's definitive portrait of the great Dutch post-Impressionist. … Their most important achievement is to produce a reckoning with van Gogh's occasional 'madness' that doesn't lose sight of the lucidity and intelligence – the profound sanity – of his art." The Boston Globe wrote: "Now, at last, with 'Van Gogh: The Life' by Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith, we have what could very well be the definitive biography … And how pleased we should be that Naifeh and Smith have rendered so exquisitely and respectfully van Gogh's short, intense, and wholly interesting life."
In addition to English, Van Gogh: The Life has been published in Dutch, German, French, Spanish, and Portuguese and is being translated into Italian, Polish, Russian, Chinese, Japanese, and Korean.
Naifeh also wrote several how-to books to fund the writing of Pollock, including (with Michael Morgenstern), the best-seller How to Make Love to a Woman, which sold several million copies in 29 languages. He wrote several true crime books, including the bestseller The Mormon Murders in 1988 and Final Justice in 1993. The latter was nominated for the Edgar Allan Poe Award for Fact Crime.
Naifeh and Smith's one book of humor, detailing the renovation of Joye Cottage, was well-received: “Page after belly-ticking page,” wrote The Washington Post. “Numerous adventures bordering on slapstick. … A delightful read.”
Together with Smith, Naifeh founded the legal publishing company Best Lawyers in 1981 which published The Best Lawyers in America, a peer-review list, in 1983. That list went on to become Best Lawyers, a global network linking lawyers and clients. In 2013, Best Lawyers ranked 74,965 lawyers representing 18,034 law firms in 75 countries. In 2009, the company partnered with U.S. News to produce rankings of law firms and in 2014 it gave out 61,138 rankings to 11,681 law firms in 120 practice areas.
The Best Lawyers list is widely respected in the legal profession. Kevin Maroney, Associate General Counsel of United Healthcare, has said, “I always review Best Lawyers and rely on its recommendations.” Bernd-Peter Bier, Senior Vice President of the Tax Division at Bayer AG, has said, “I have used Best Lawyers to locate lawyers in an area of law that I do not have retained counsel. I find it to be a great resource.” Kevin R. Hackett, General Manager and Chief Executive Officer of Rockefeller Group International, has said, “Best Lawyers is the gold standard in selecting a lawyer.”
Naifeh returned to painting and sculpting in 1998, creating works of geometric abstraction based on geometric formulas from medieval art from southern Spain to northern India but closely related to the works of such twentieth-century western masters as Frank Stella and Sol Lewitt. He had an exhibition at the Columbia Museum of Art in the summer of 2013. Humanities Magazine noted that Naifeh’s “tessellating works explore the threads weaving together traditional Islamic art and the Geometric Abstraction movement.” The Free Times wrote that the exhibition offered “many rich ideas for exploration: formal beauty, the nature of abstraction, how art and math intersect, and insights into the cultural expressions of” the Middle East. “This is, simply, a very important exhibition that deserves much more attention.”
Naifeh had an exhibition at the art foundation MANA Contemporary in Jersey City, New Jersey, and at the Leila Heller Gallery in 2014.
Naifeh's partner Smith was diagnosed with a rare brain tumor in 1975, which led to 13 brain surgeries as well as radiation and nuclear medicine treatments and experimental chemotherapeutic regimens. His search for cutting edge medical care was profiled on CBS’s "60 Minutes" and recounted in their book Making Miracles Happen. With Smith, he also founded Best Doctors, a company dedicated to helping others with undiagnosed or seemingly untreatable medical illnesses find the best medicine anywhere in the world. Although they sold the company in 2000, it continues to serve more than 30 million members worldwide.