In 1945, Robert De Niro, Sr.’s work was included in the Autumn Salon at Peggy Guggenheim’s Art of This Century gallery along with that of Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko. The next year, he had his first solo exhibition at Guggenheim’s gallery, an extremely prestigious honor for the young figurative painter. But while De Niro continued to show at the highly regarded Charles Egan Gallery throughout the 1950s, his career began to slip out of the critical spotlight, and he struggled for recognition in subsequent decades.
The HBO Documentary Films presentation REMEMBERING THE ARTIST ROBERT DE NIRO, SR., a deeply moving portrait of the painter told by those who knew him best. An official selection of the 2014 Sundance Film Festival, the film was directed by Perri Peltz (HBO’s The Education of Dee Dee Ricks) and Geeta Gandbhir (Emmy®-winning editor of HBO’s If God Is Willing and Da Creek Don’t Rise).
As part of his mission to honor and preserve his father’s legacy, actor Robert De Niro, Jr. reads from De Niro, Sr.’s letters and journals, providing his own recollections of the artist’s personal and professional struggles.
The film weaves together archival family footage and interviews with the artist himself, as well as with art experts, artists who worked alongside him and, most affectingly, his son.
At the heart of the film is Robert De Niro, Sr.’s beautiful work, which will be exhibited in conjunction with the documentary’s debut at New York City’s DC Moore Gallery from June 6-July 11. These vibrant paintings are a reminder that art movements can be so powerful that they can obscure the work of talented artists who don’t fit a particular genre.
REMEMBERING THE ARTIST includes insights from Robert Storr, dean of the Yale University School of Art, scholar and critic Irving Sandler, art advisor Megan Fox Kelly and fellow artists Albert Kresch and Paul Resika, who explain how De Niro, Sr.’s professional career fell in and out of step with the American art scene, which changed drastically throughout his lifetime.
In the early 1930s, avant-garde European artists escaped the politically charged atmosphere at home and took teaching positions in the U.S., exposing American art students to the newest trends in Europe. One of the leading teachers was Hans Hofmann, an abstract expressionist painter who set up schools in New York City and Provincetown, Mass., where an entire generation of young American artists studied. De Niro, Sr. studied in both locations with Hofmann, who called him one of his most promising students ever.
De Niro, Sr.’s two shows at Guggenheim’s Art of This Century followed. Having found his artistic voice at an early age, he was greatly admired by his colleagues. Part of the celebrated New York school of artists in the ‘40s and ‘50s, he blended abstract and expressionist styles with representational subject matter, bridging the divide between European modernism and abstract expressionism.
However, De Niro, Sr.’s initial success was short-lived, and his painterly work was increasingly overshadowed, first by American abstract expressionism and then by pop art and minimalism. As the art world embraced these new trends in the late 1950s and early 1960s, more traditional painters like De Niro were marginalized. He went to Paris to immerse himself in the art of the masters and enliven his own work and career, but the art market of post-war France offered him little opportunity. De Niro, Sr. returned to the United States and continued to paint, teach and exhibit until his death from prostate cancer on his 71st birthday in 1993. As revealed in the film, he found solace writing about his dreams and struggles in his journals, hoping that one day, his work would be afforded the critical acclaim he longed for.
REMEMBERING THE ARTIST traces De Niro, Sr.’s story from his childhood in Syracuse, NY, where he felt misunderstood by his demanding father, to his marriage to fellow up-and-coming painter Virginia Admiral, whom he met at Hofmann’s school, to the birth of Robert De Niro, Jr. in 1943, to his unacknowledged homosexuality.
When Robert De Niro, Jr. was a toddler, his parents separated, but always remained close. As the son grew up, he observed his father’s career disappointments and bouts of depression. De Niro, Jr. speaks movingly of the irony of dealing with the early days of his own success as an actor while taking trips to France to help his father, carrying paintings under his arm from gallery to gallery.
Robert De Niro, Jr. has remained committed to honoring his father’s legacy after his death, maintaining his art studio as it was when his father worked there, so that his children can appreciate their grandfather’s work.
REMEMBERING THE ARTIST ROBERT DE NIRO, SR. was directed by Perri Peltz and Geeta Gandbhir; produced by Perri Peltz; edited by Geeta Gandbhir; director of photography, Rudy Valdez; music by Philip Glass; supervising producer, Sara Bernstein; executive producers, Jane Rosenthal and Sheila Nevins.