Remembering The Artist: Robert De Niro, Sr.
HBO/Tribeca Productions/G2P2 Films, 2014
Directed by Perri Peltz and Geeta Gandbhir
We know Robert De Niro as the famous, two-time Oscar winning actor who is synonymous with the expression, “Are you talking to me?” His father, painter Robert De Niro, Sr., however, could have said this expression without irony or bravado – an artist himself, but one who never achieved the fame of his contemporaries.
“He was the real thing, my father,” De Niro tells us, warning us not to mistake De Niro senior’s obscurity for a lack of talent or influence. Documentaries about well-known artists encourage us to see a familiar personality in a new light, or reveal a difficult truth behind a dazzling body of work, but in Remembering The Artist: Robert De Niro, Sr., which was produced by the subject’s son, we are taught about a mostly forgotten personality in the hopes of preserving him for posterity. (That is, after all, what the title is telling us to do.)
Born in 1922, De Niro was a member of a group of artists in the 40s and 50s who became the centre of the contemporary art world, himself and his friends de Kooning, Pollock, Rothko and Lee Krasner getting hands-on experience from European emigres who survived the war and, according to art advisor Megan Kelly, used these teachings to make themselves internationally famous. Kelly lists the many varied artists who inspired and influenced De Niro, and although it is not specifically stated, it could be that his remarkable ability to have an unremarkably noticeable style is the reason why De Niro never achieved the fame of Pollock. Digging deeper, his own conflicts with his sexuality, which he recorded in his journal as a gay man who tried to pass for “normal”, could be the reason for that constantly shifting (and therefore masking) identity.
Here it begs the question of the value of his voice: Is an artist abandoning the requirements of personal expression if he or she does not have a narrowly recognized style and, therefore, fits into a mould of their own making? De Niro is known for as many abstract as cubist paintings, as well as work rooted in expressionism; a recurring theme in his work was his obsession with Greta Garbo, whose figure, particularly her role in Anna Christie, figured prominently in a number of works. It’s one of the more delightful tales in the documentary that his meeting with her, and his disappointment with his own behavior, is included as a reminiscence. Was his palette bountiful or was he simply a copycat, dazzled by the same dreams promoted in movies that seduce so many other young people?
These are not issues that the film delves into very deeply for, at just over 40 minutes, it is a trip through De Niro, Sr.’s life that features no editorializing beyond what his son recalls and, in some cases, infers. He married fellow artist Virginia Admiral, Robert Jr.’s mother and a painter in her own right, who actually had her work exhibited ahead of her husband’s before choosing to focus on raising her son. “I think she went as far as she thought she could and decided to be practical in raising her son,” the famous actor states, though just why she thought she had reached her limit is a debate that, again, is left unexamined. Virginia and Robert Sr. separated when their son was two and made it official when he was 12, but the separation was amicable – it’s likely she was not in the dark about who he really was either – and she remained supportive of his career. Robert Jr. describes his relationship with his father as a good one, “affectionate and paternal”.
The painter’s big break came when the doyenne of art benefactors, the one and only Peggy Guggenheim, displayed him in her Art Of The Century gallery in 1945. Guggenheim was the first to show American artists off as peers to the great names from the Old World, and between her inclusion and his being favourably mentioned by critic Thomas Hess, our subject began to sell.
What follows in later years is described as “the bloodbath of the sixties”, with older artists being forgotten in favour of the newer model: Frank Stella, Andy Warhol, Ellsworth Kelly and their method of “suppressing the painterly quality in their work”. De Niro was fascinated by these artists at the same time that he was “a victim of this work”, as he wasn’t particularly in favour of Warhol and did not want to change his style. The answer was to go to Europe, which he did, escaping the future of visual art and the shift happening in America by going to France for a lengthy amount of time. His life was not spent in much material struggle, granddaughter Drea De Niro describes a studio that remained active and lively until the end of his life in 1993. De Niro Jr. has preserved the studio by De Niro Jr. as a memorial to his father.
The subject of this wonderful documentary would definitely be better served by a feature length film, which would allow for more detailed analysis. De Niro, Jr.’s moving reminiscences of his father, his regrets for not pushing him to take better care of himself before his death from prostate cancer at 71, are a fascinating counterpoint to the effect his complicated identity had on his painting, all set against an era filled with better-known figures among whom he deserves to be seen as a forceful peer.
Bil Antoniou is a playwright and film critic whose reviews can be found at myoldaddiction.com. He is co-host of the podcast BGM: Bad Gay Movies/Bitchy Gay Men, which is available on iTunes. He is currently working on his fourth play.
Andy Warhol de Kooning Drea De Niro Ellsworth Kelly Frank Stella Greta Garbo Lee Krasner Megan Kelly Peggy Guggenheim Pollock Robert De Niro Rothko Virginia Admiral