God’s Lonely Men: The Two De Niro’s by Tim Keane

This is an extract from a review featured in our October/November issue.

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 breakthrough 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 history. 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 public 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 disposition, 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.

Figure in Hat with Rubber Plant, 1976,
Oil on canvas, 127 x 152 cm
© The Estate of Robert De Niro, Sr./Artist Rights Society, New York. Courtesy of DC Moore Gallery, New York.

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