Wednesday 2 December 2015

Robert De Niro: Remembering his Father the Artist

American actor Robert De Niro talking about his artist father: "You never know. His art could last longer than my films." Portrait by Hedi Slimane. Click on photographs for slide show.

Robert De Niro has produced a documentary about his artist father's life and work during the celebrated 1940s and 50s New York School. The American actor visited Rome for its European premiere and to talk about his relationship with Robert De Niro Senior and his oeuvre, writes Jeanne-Marie Cilento

ROBERT De Niro’s rugged face crinkles into a smile when he is talking about his father’s paintings but tears well up when he speaks of him as a man. The actor is quiet and thoughtful in person, even delicate, without a hint of the robust and menacing characters he has famously played on screen. He talks knowledgeably about the post-war art scene in New York and how his father's figurative expressionist work, inspired by European Modernism, at first flourished but was then eclipsed by Abstract Expressionism and later Pop Art in the 1960s.

Woman in Red 1961
The actor says for years he wanted to make a film to record his father's work and life and use the Super 8 footage from the 1970s recording De Niro Sr's art world: “I wanted to put it to use in a documentary. I wanted to interview his contemporaries while people are still around." Launched at the the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year, Remembering the Artist Robert De Niro, Sr, was directed by Perri Peltz and Geeta Gandbhir and produced with HBO Documentary Films.Looking at the faces of the two men together it is striking that De Niro looks direct and determined while his father’s expression is softer, more undecided and uncertain about life. And Robert De Niro Sr did struggle with his personal identity and success as an artist.

Robert De Niro Sr & son in New York:
"We had a strong connection."
De Niro says he didn't have a traditional elationship with his father: "We were not the type of father and son who played baseball together, as you can surmise. But we had a strong connection."

Robert De Niro’s on screen characters from Vito Corleone in The Godfather:Part II and Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver to Jake La Motta in Raging Bull and Pat Solatano in Silver Linings Playbook — have earned the actor two Oscars and his reputation as one of the best actors in the world. Yet after making 100 films over five decades, this documentary offers more insight into what moves De Niro himself.

Today, he still keep his father’s studio exactly as he left it in New York’s Soho when he passed away in 1993 at the age of 71 years old. The studio is located in a nondescript building, up six flights of stairs and contains two big spaces. One is covered in shelves containing art books and writers such as Appollinaire, Ibsen, Valery, Proust and O’Neill. The other room has painting easels, tubes of paint and palettes and the walls are covered in his drawings and paintings.

Robert De Niro Sr painting
at his beloved Soho studio in New York
"I like things that don’t change. I like consistency," De Niro says, explaining the decision to leave the valuable real estate in SoHo as it was. “My mother lived here, and then she moved to another studio and gave this to my father. He was here at least 15 years. I changed a couple of things, but it’s about 90 percent the way it was. I preserved it mainly for my kids, especially my younger kids, because I wanted them to be able to see what their grandfather did and how he worked.”

Robert De Niro Sr was born in 1922 in Syracuse, New York to an Italian American father, Henry Martin De Niro whose parents emigrated from Ferrazzano, in the province of Campobasso, Molise, and an Irish American mother, Helen O'Reilly.

Already showing artistic ability as a child, De Niro Sr began attending art classes at the Syracuse Museum from age eleven to fifteen. In the summer of 1938, he studied with the artist Ralph Pearson in Gloucester Massachusetts. Later he was a student of two of the 20th century’s leading abstract painters, Josef Albers and Hans Hofmann. 

Henri Matisse was a life-long 
inspiration for the artist
In 1939, he won a scholarship to Black Mountain College in North Carolina. A decade later he studied with Hans Hofmann’s Eighth Street school in New York. De Niro met his wife there, fellow painter Virginia Admiral, and they were part of  an artistic circle in Greenwich Village that included Anaís Nin, Henry Miller, Robert Duncan and Tennessee Williams.

In 1943, when his father was 21 years old, Robert Jr was born but his young parents continued to study and paint and summer in Provincetown. Virginia and Robert only stayed togther until he was three years old but the actor says they were always on friendly terms.

De Niro's exceptional training helped to launch his career, highlights included his solo debut in Peggy Guggenheim's Art of This Century Gallery in 1946, regular shows alongside de Kooning, Rothko and Kline at the Charles Egan Gallery in the 50s  and later at Virginia Zabriskie's gallery. He received a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1968 and he held exhibitions of his work throughout his life. Unlike many of his better-known peers, De Niro never totally abandoned the high-art tradition: nudes, still lifes, and idyllic landscapes were his preferred subjects.

Three Women 1968
He mixed abstraction and representation, bridging the gap between European modernism and Abstract Expressionism, inspired by painters from Delacroix to Matisse. With his wide knowledge of art history, he sought to maintain the tradition of representational painting, eschewing the tide of abstraction that was championed by many of his contemporaries. He followed his own vision of painterliness and experimentation.

By this time, De Niro had arrived at his distinctive mode of painting, which he continued to explore and develop for the next forty years. His works from these decades are expressionistic and show his signature post-Fauve palette with freely brushed areas of colour defined by strong outlines.

Critic and editor-in-chief of Artnews, Thomas Hess wrote in February 1951: “De Niro succeeds in keeping every inch of the canvas alive...The result is a feeling of luxury, poise and affable richness, combined with a sort of nervous impetuosity." 
Still life with Vase, Lemons and Guitar  1989
Robert De Niro Jr. regrets not being more interested in art when he was younger, but he was attracted to acting from an early age. “My parents were supportive,” he says, “but they didn’t push me in any way. Nonetheless, they would have preferred my being an actor as opposed to, say, an insurance salesman.”

Artist Paul Resika, a longtime friend of De Niro Sr, recalls the late painter as truly standing out in a “rarified world” of Hofmann students aiming to upend the art establishment. De Niro was a “superior painter,” says Resika, “In New York in the ’50s he was the equal to Kline, Rothko, and De Kooning.” But Resika says De Niro was also “very poor. He taught art, as many of us did, to pay the rent. His wife helped him; she’d gone into real estate and bought property in SoHo.”

The documentary film, directed by Perri Peltz and Geeta Gandbhir, offers a moving account of the 22-year-old De Niro going to Paris in 1965 after his father had moved there to help him sell his work, since De Niro Sr. was struggling to make ends meet. “I felt responsible. I was his son; his only child,” says De Niro Jr today. “I saw he was in a rut over there; it wasn’t going well and he was unhappy, so I made him come back.” 
 Once the actor had achieved fame by the mid-1970s, he was able to help his father financially. Yet, when asked if his father had a favourite of his many now classic films, De Niro can’t recall a conversation about his career: “He was proud of me, of course, but we never had any discussions about it. He was supportive. I’d always invite him to film openings with my grandmother, his mother, and I would go to openings of his shows.” During the documentary, De Niro reads from his father's diaries: "I feel I hardly have the courage at this moment to wash my brushes, which have been standing in turpentine....The days can go on with regularity over and over, one day indistinguishable from the next.” 
As a successful actor Robert De Niro Jr
 could help his father
The film's director, Perri Peltz says the documentary not only reflects the artist's career, but also tackles the most intimate aspects of De Niro Sr's life through his personal letters and diaries, unpublished family pictures and interviews with the artist, his friends and art experts. Peltz pointed out that the film seeks to shed light on both his artistic and human qualities. 
De Niro says that the movie tackles his father's unspoken homosexuality, which was the cause of internal conflict while he was alive. The actor added that he couldn't discern his father's sexual orientation, but realised the truth later thanks to some subtle references his mother used to make. This subject was always considered a taboo, and was never discussed between him and his father.

In 2011, De Niro Jr established an award of $25,000 USD to be given annually to artists under the auspices of the Tribeca Film Institute. The Robert De Niro Sr Prize focuses on mid-career American artists pursuing excellence and innovation in painting and draws attention to artists whose work has been under-recognised by the art world. Catherine Murphy won this year while Stanley Whitney was awarded in 2012 and Joyce Pensato last year.

The actor says he felt his father never received the attention he was due during his life and the documentary was a way to preserve his legacy. "My father was successful in his life, as he did what he pleased and liked; he gained international recognition, but not the level he deserved. You never know. His art could last longer than my films." 

The actor at a recent exhibition
of his father's paintings this year
Robert De Niro Sr., Paintings and Drawings (1948–1989) was exhibited at DC Moore Gallery this July and prices at the show ranged from $14,000 USD for charcoal drawings to $250,000 USD for the largest paintings.

Today, Robert De Niro Sr is represented in many museum collections, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Brooklyn Museum, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Corcoran Gallery of Art, and Whitney Museum of American Art. In 2009, a retrospective of his work was presented at the Musée Matisse in Nice, France. 

Watch the trailer for the documentary here:

“My parents were supportive but they didn’t push me in any way. Nonetheless, they would have preferred my being an actor as opposed to, say, an insurance salesman," says De Niro Jr today.

Still Life with Vase of Flowers, Lemons, Chair and Guitar 1989 Oil on linen, 34 x 40 inches

Detail of  Still Life with Greek Head, 1951 Oil on canvas.

Woman in Red, 1961 Oil on canvas. Courtesy of the Estate of Robert De Niro Sr

Three Women 1968 Oil on canvas 72 x 78 inches.Courtesy of the estate of Robert De Niro Sr

Reclining Figure Reading a Book 1970 Charcoal on paper, 19 3/4 x 25 1/2 inches 

Moroccan Women, 1984. Oil on canvas.  Courtesy of the Estate of Robert De Niro Sr

Autumn Landscape with House 1968 Oil on canvas, 30 x 36 inches

Detail of Studio Interior, 1969. Oil on canvas

Detail of  Last Painting 1992. Oil on linen.

Flowers in a Blue Vase 1966 Oil on canvas

Still Life with Two Vases and Pitcher, No Date. Watercolor on paper, 18 x 24 inch caption

Robert De Niro Sr mixed abstraction and representation, bridging the gap between European modernism and Abstract Expressionism, inspired by painters from Delacroix to Matisse. 
Early etching by Robert De Niro Sr

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