Interview with Perri Peltz and Geeta Gandbhir
Why did Robert De Niro Jr. want to make a film about his father?
The answer is a very pure one; he wants people to have the chance to experience and see his father’s art. He's not forcing it down people’s throats, he's not making a decision for people about what they should feel; he just wants people to have the opportunity to see it. This is a film where a lot of emphasis is on the art, which we think is beautiful, and speaks for itself.
This is not just an individual story; it's a vehicle for artists across the board, that often times it’s not about the immediate reward of the spotlight and the audience attention that you feel you deserve; that it’s really about persistence and working continuously and putting out work regardless of where the spotlight may choose to be. Robert De Niro Sr.'s story is a bit sad in some ways. But there is also a hope behind it that, what makes you an artist is not the trends of the day, it's not the galleries who choose you -- it’s the idea that you continue to do your work regardless.
At the height of his public success in 1945, Robert De Niro Sr.’s paintings were included in Peggy Guggenheim’s Art of This Century Gallery, alongside works by Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko. What was the New York art scene like at that time?
We're talking about a very small world; basically 10 galleries in New York that might have been important. In the beginning of his career, Robert De Niro Sr. was seen as a rising star. His contemporaries were the abstract expressionists, though he was never really one of them because he was a figurative painter. Then, as the focal point of the art world shifted, things began to change. The abstract expressionists broke away from the pack and became the leading force in the art world. De Niro was a bit sidelined by that, because he was not truly abstract and he was still looking to Europe for a lot of his inspiration -- particularly France. Later with the pop art movement, all of these artists were shoved to the side. Unless you really knew how to play the game – or chose to play the game – you were left out. De Niro was considered an artist’s artist. He was not willing to change with the trends of the time and it cost him.
He was not going to change his style of painting for something that, to him, didn’t seem like art. From what we're able to piece together, this was a tremendously disconcerting and difficult time for him artistically.
His disenchantment with the New York art scene prompted his move to Paris. But that did not turn out as he had hoped, did it?
He went to Paris because he felt he was someone who painted in the style of the masters, and that Paris would appreciate his art and he would return to his former glory. But when he arrived in Paris things couldn’t have been more different than what he had anticipated. In Paris, they were trying to catch up with what was happening in America, so they too were looking towards pop art as an answer. Things actually wound up being worse in Paris than they were in America.
There was always a struggle for him here in the U.S., as far as being able to survive off his art. He passionately believed that art was his calling and how he needed to survive. But in Europe his struggle was worse than it was in America. He faced tremendous poverty, and he would write letter upon letter to his son asking for financial help and mental support. He was depressed. De Niro Jr. ended up going over there when he was 17 to try to rescue his father, and wound up being the person who put him on a plane and forced him to come back. I think that Sr. recognized that his son was his caretaker in many ways, and that they had sort of reversed roles.
As the son's star is rising, the father's is fading. And yet, he continues to be so prolific. Why is that?
After he returned from Paris, the one thing De Niro Sr. had to make peace with was the fact that it may not be in this lifetime that an artist receives the recognition they might deserve. He thought he wasn’t painting just for his generation but, as Irving Sandler put it, that he was painting for the ages. That art was timeless. What he was trying to do was create a legacy that would last beyond his death. And even though it was very bittersweet for him -- his was son a tremendous success, who he was extremely proud of, but he was also extremely conflicted about his own lack of success later in life. I think that hope -- that after his death, people would be able to appreciate his work -- kept him going. He said as much in his journals -- at some point he realized that his best hope for rediscovery would be a posthumous one.