The actor Robert De Niro established his cinematic legacy playing taciturn characters whose individual standards, expectations, and inarticulateness place them in conflict with assorted American subcultures. In his break- through leading role as Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver (1976), the neglected war veteran and volatile, puritanical drifter is at sea amid the squalor and decadence of 1970s Manhattan. As boxer Jake LaMotta in Raging Bull (1980), De Niro’s pugilistic rage turns on itself, destroying his boxing career and his self-respect, while in his turn as Jimmy ‘the Gent’ Conway in GoodFellas (1990), an Irish temperament and paranoiac obsession over details put him on the losing side of a slovenly post-Godfather mafia. The list of De Niro’s taciturn outsiders is longer than any in Hollywood film his- tory. Having branched out into supporting roles in generic comedies while running a film production company and overseeing the annual Tribeca Film Festival, De Niro, now seventy-one years old, has turned a documentarian’s attention to his most elusive, real-life character – his late father, the accomplished painter, Robert De Niro Sr. who died in 1993.

Remembering the Artist, directed by Perri Peltz and Getta Gandbhir, screened at The Sundance Film Festival this past February and premiered a few months later on both sides of the Atlantic on HBO, coinciding with this past summer’s exhibition, Robert De Niro Sr: Paintings and Drawings 1948-1989, the most comprehensive retrospective of his father’s artwork to date, at New York City’s DC Moore Gallery, a show of twenty-nine major works.

The portrait of the artist that emerges from this film documentary is that of an enigmatic prodigy and introspective, lovelorn man. His early fame in the New York art scene of the 1950s was followed by a steadily declining pub- lic profile and diminishing sales, even as De Niro père continued to work tirelessly in his Soho studio, specializing in lyrical figurations, effervescent landscapes, and evocative still lifes, increasingly estranged from the various art movements that went on raking in Andy Warhol-sized sums.

Emerging from both the film and the recent exhibition at DC Moore Gallery are pressing questions than cannot possibly be answered by either of these two watershed events. Yet they are urgent issues, not the least for our digitalized present, in which reputation and status are refreshed and revised by the minute. Filtering through the experience of the two Robert De Niros, the HBO film and the gallery’s retrospective ask, ‘What is more significant to an artist, a brief name-in-lights popularity, or the long-term recognition derived from aesthetic integrity?’ And, in the peculiar case of De Niro Sr., ‘What happens to a visionary who innovates through a classical disposi- tion, while the contemporary ‘avant-garde’ recycles last century’s tropes of Dada and Surrealism?’

If there is a heroism within the pseudo-martyrdom of artist Robert De Niro Sr., that valour might be attributable to how nobly De Niro Sr. continued to paint even as he lived through these agonizing doubts.

The painter was born in 1922 and grew up in Syracuse, New York, in a family headed by an Italian father who largely rejected his talented son. As De Niro Jr. euphemistically puts it in the film, his father, even as a young man, was ‘not conventional’ and was ‘different, not just for his art, but for other reasons.’ While his closeted homosexuality clouded his personal future, his talent launched him. While still in his late teens, he studied at the experimental school Black Mountain College near Asheville, North Carolina, learning from the Bauhaus master and colour theorist, Josef Albers. Soon afterwards he enrolled in painter Hans Hofmann’s workshops in New York City and Provincetown, marrying fellow painter, Virginia Admiral. The marriage produced the now-famous son. But by the time De Niro Jr. was a toddler, the couple had split up and his father had moved out. Living in one another’s periphery, the artist father and the growing son saw each other occasionally, when the painter took his son to the movies or when they ran into each other in the city’s mean streets.

Perhaps as problematic as his secret and mostly unfulfilled romantic life was the painter’s Francophile bias. While the postwar New York scene stressed rugged originality, De Niro overtly emulated Fauvists like Henri Matisse, André Derain, and Georges Henri Rouault. The screen siren Greta Garbo was a longtime idol and a frequent subject of his portraits, and he completed an impressive series of large-scale, expressionistic depictions of Christ’s crucifixion that further stoked his critical and commercial acclaim in the 1950s. Even the ornery critic Clement Greenberg was a fan, writing that the ‘origi- nality and force of [De Niro’s] temperament demonstrate themselves under an iron control of the plastic elements such as is rarely seen in our time out- side the painting of the oldest surviving members of the School of Paris.’

Though Remembering the Artist traces the nebulous outlines of the familial story, the details of the artistic career featured in the film are absorbing enough. On screen his peers testify that De Niro Sr. was an accidental rebel, by turns touchy, solitary, and playful. While fellow artists like Fairfield Porter, Alex Katz, and Jane Freilicher worked successfully against the New York orthodoxy of non-representational art, De Niro had bolted out of that gate earlier and more forcefully than they did, and, so, in most respects, he singlehandedly led this charge, ahead of the coming deluge of Abstract Expressionism. In 1946, De Niro earned his first one-man show through kingmaker Peggy Guggenheim’s prestigious annual Art of the New Cen- tury at the astonishingly early age of twenty-four. By contrast, the soon-to- be-more-famous contemporaries, such as Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning were both in their thirties or forties by the time they were awarded their own solo shows.

De Niro was a poet and gifted dancer, and his brushwork is correspond- ingly dexterous and buoyant. The documentary’s most memorable footage consists of home movies of De Niro starting on a new painting, his hand moving the brush upon the canvas like a magic wand, tracing out inky curves, arabesques, and glissades that underpin his compositions. Indeed, given his wide exposure at the time, he may have taught the New York avant-garde masters a thing or two about the balletic wristwork that goes into handling a paintbrush.

The paintings and drawings included in the DC Moore Gallery show demonstrate how, for over fifty years, De Niro never wavered from creating large, diaphanous and saturated imagery that seems stunningly fresh. His paintings deploy polychromatic palettes and dramatic positioning to depict unassuming subjects. Otherwise recognizable, outlined features – faces of women, classical busts, fleshly torsos, flower vases – float upon – or melt within – underlying fields of pronounced, fluid colours.

Figure in a Hat with Rubber Plant (1976) exemplifies De Niro’s mysteriously pleasurable effects. A thickly built, abstractly coloured male figure slouches in a ladder-back chair, looking aristocratic in a silvery white jacket yet crowned with an anachronistic peasant’s field hat. To his immediate left, lush green ovals of the rubber tree dangle languidly, while, to his right, the red facade of a building, punctuated by white cut-outs, looms nearby, as if the external city’s incandescence could shatter the atelier’s invisible window.

De Niro’s drawings and paintings evoke and preserve this riotous interiority, a world that is both ours and not ours. Even his landscapes seem housed within a kind of encasement. Blurring the lines between interior and exterior space, he opens metaphorical doors and windows and invites the viewer to rethink paradise as right there within the ordinarily visible.

In Still Life (1959), viewers recognize the red flowers, green petals, and bulbous blue-green vase. Yet all around that quaint domestic object shoot horizontal and vertical flourishes of red, navy blue and beige, invading the yellow tablecloth and filling the room’s backdrop, as these colours and out-lines exceed representational functions. Meanwhile the push-and-pull of the painting’s stabilizing fields of yellow and blue imbue the still life with a serene, symbolic air.

In the mostly black and white masterpiece, Lola Montez with a Cigarette, (1958-59) the cold, geometric multi-perspective effects of portraiture perfected in Cubism are unified, rounded and softened by De Niro’s carefully executed whirlwind of unbroken curves, undulations, and circles.

And no matter how unrealistic their colouration, his multi-layered paintings never lapse into coy fantasia. Still Life with Greek Head (1955) displays this balance between lusty realism and poetic abstraction. The magenta-coloured outlines and egg-white coating of the statue’s head and hair are so thickly applied that they seem to have the same effect as the sculptor Pygmalion’s chisels upon on his imaginary Galatea, transforming the white stone into the head of a living woman, a metamorphosis that only just begins, for it is somehow averted by the allure of what sits just beyond that Greek profile – the blue cloth at its base, a red ceramic object near a yellow box, all of these grounded still life elements dwarfed by a spacious background of grey, slate, aquamarine and sea-like greens, a configuration that suggests both a fading ancient wall and an open, indefinite expanse.

Given his rapid fame and consistently penetrating vision, the film Remembering the Artist repeatedly asks, what, then, went so wrong for De Niro Sr.?

Based on the decades of work at DC Moore Gallery, the short answer is, apparently, not too much. During much of his long career, he continued to exhibit in group shows and garner critical praise in the pages of Art News and Art in America. Even his near impoverishment was ultimately remedied by his son’s Hollywood fortune.

Still, throughout the film, the thespian-son wistfully echoes his father’s lifelong belief that great artists are better recognized after they are dead. Here lies a problem of tone about which the filmmakers seem unaware. There is a mournfulness to the documentary jarringly out of step with De Niro’s lifelong artistic vitality. Further complicating the presentation of the both the life and the work, the painter’s personal demons lurk on the margins yet are never quite spelled out by the short film.

However, at its most compelling, Remembering the Artist, frames De Niro’s career as complicated by forces that most of the featured commentators attribute to different, though not incompatible causes. For instance, the legendary art critic Irving Sandler convincingly blames De Niro’s marketplace fadeout on what he calls the immediate cultural ‘bloodbath’, after the peak of Abstract Expressionism, namely the collectors’ turn, by about 1962, away from painterly textures and emotive content, to a preference for the cool, flat surfaces and philosophical enigmas ushered in by movements like Pop, Hard-edge Abstraction, and Minimalism. Taking a more biographical approach to explaining De Niro’s declining stock, a few of his surviving and loyal peers implicate frequent self-sabotage – tetchiness, snobbery, reclusiveness. We learn that De Niro Sr. never deigned to enter the famous watering hole, the Cedar Tavern, where dominant critics, influ- ential curators, tastemakers and rising stars of New York painting regularly convened. In the film, his peers attribute that refusal to De Niro’s elitism. Yet that refusal may have a more personal explanation that the film touches on but never directly probes: De Niro Sr. was a forlorn homosexual in a homophobic, heterosexually dominated painting scene. Perhaps his aver- sion to barroom camaraderie stymied some of his momentum, but no less a figure than experimental musician and composer John Cage also avoided the Cedar Tavern for its patrons’s homophobia. De Niro’s abrupt move to France for most of the 1960s further hastened his declining presence in the New York scene. De Niro Jr. recalls rescuing his father from that long European misadventure, and the actor references his father’s subsequent obstinacy and bouts of depression.

Yet other explanations for his fall from the graces of the New York art world might reside in the strengths of De Niro’s artwork itself. Jackson Pollock’s drip paintings, Jasper Johns’s painted flag, Robert Rauschen- berg’s combines, and Andy Warhol’s soup cans, are, to paraphrase poet William Carlos Williams, pure products of America gone crazy. By con- trast, De Niro’s art is about symphonic magnitudes and quiet intensities of pleasure and reflectiveness, quite apart from the multifaceted – and often contrived – ironies and superficialities of AbEx, Pop, and Minimalism. His painting accentuates tenderness and peaceful harmonies over catchy dissonance or neon ostentation, creating a kind of spiritual French Rivi- era within a mercantile post-war America. Furthermore De Niro’s lack of self-consciousness or psychologizing of his painted subjects remains out of step with the contemporary art world’s demands for social ‘statements’ and hyper-reflexive content. He painted people’s forms without particularized features and he seems to have mostly avoided self-portraiture. In studying his large, vibrant paintings, no easily discernible personae of the living painter emerges. In this respect, he is a late Modernist dedicated to the qualities of the medium: the paint absents the personality. The viewer is left, as it were, unambiguously alone with the painting, where the syn- chronized labour of the eyes and the hand sinuously produce content that dares us to feel deeply even as we might be trained to pull back and think categorically about their meanings.

As its title suggests, Remembering the Artist, is equally about the son’s memory. Robert De Niro Jr. has a myriad of regrets about his relationship to his father that move him to tears. When his father was riding high in the New York scene, he did not attend his art openings, and, throughout the years, he declined to pose as a model for his father. In ill health, De Niro Sr. let prostate cancer spread mostly unabated and the son laments the fact that he did not push his father to get treatment earlier than he did.

Though it is nearly impossible to imagine the graceful and sensitive De Niro Sr. settling into a bustling multiplex to watch one of his son’s star turns in, say, a Martin Scorsese gangland flick, their respect for one anoth- er’s work is an unspoken biographical fact that runs throughout the short documentary and infuses the story with optimism.

These two De Niros’ chosen artistic paths are not so separate as they seem. De Niro Jr. acknowledges that his father’s tireless dedication in producing his art provided a role model for his stubborn, perfectionist approach to acting. Both the painter and the actor set out against the loose revolutionary spirit of the period to produce highly concentrated, intense idioms in their respective media. Each artist maintained a captivating secrecy about the motivating forces behind the work.

In Remembering the Artist when the actor reads from the many, touchingly candid diary entries penned by the elder De Niro (‘If God made me a homosexual …’) one might be indirectly reminded of Taxi Driver’s cinematic journals, also intoned in brooding voiceover by De Niro Jr., as Travis Bickle wrestles with his self-professed status as ‘God’s lonely man’. Of course, the means and ends of these figures stand in absolute contrast. The fruitful solitude of De Niro the painter enlarges our given world with an abundance of colours, feelings, perspectives, and energetic forms, in inverse proportion to how the incompetent American loners, so memorably played onscreen by De Niro Jr., resort to the deadly forces of their fists, boot heels, or shotguns.

In these vigorously rendered states of being, the two De Niros can still show us how it’s done. In the case of the father’s art, the sequels were long overdue.



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