De Niro, the Painter: Master or Mediocre?

Friday, June 06, 2014

Actor Robert De Niro and his father Robert De Niro, Sr. (Courtesy of HBO)

Robert De Niro is on a mission to rewrite art history. The film star is hoping to bring national acclaim to his artist-father, who is also named Robert De Niro, and who died in 1993.

The actor is behind the documentary "Remembering the Artist Robert De Niro, Sr.," which will premiere on HBO on Monday night. And a major exhibition of De Niro's work opens on Friday at the DC Moore Gallery in Chelsea.

Art critic Deborah Solomon interviewed De Niro, Sr. in 1987. After seeing the film and the exhibit, she said she believes he was an interesting painter, but not a great one. “He did not shape art history so much as it shaped him,” she said.

Robert De Niro, Sr., Woman in Red, 1961 (Courtesy of the Estate of Robert De Niro, Sr. and DC Moore Gallery, New York.)

Solomon explained that De Niro Sr.’s life did touch on some of the key moments in the evolution of the New York art scene. He studied at Hans Hofmann's famous art school in Provincetown and exhibited his paintings at Peggy Guggenheim's Art of This Century Gallery alongside Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko.

But she said he was too enamored of color and let it float in large swaths across his canvases. And he was too enslaved to French painter Henri Matisse to push his art into the realm of the original. “He was the type of artist who proves that an obsession with a master can be a way forward, but it can also hold you back,” she said.

The paintings at the gallery show are priced between $18,000 and $250,000.

Robert De Niro Sr., Still Life with Greek Head, 1955 (Courtesy of the Estate of Robert De Niro, Sr. and DC Moore Gallery, New York.)

De Niro's parents divorced when he was a toddler, and his father moved out. The two remained close, but De Niro, Sr. struggled with depression and his sexuality as a gay man. In the documentary, the actor reads from his father’s diary: “If God doesn’t want me to be a homosexual, about which I have so much guilt, he will find a woman whom I will love and who will love me, or at least create an interest in me in women as sexual partners.”

In the film, the actor said he believes his dad deserves better recognition. “He was the real thing, my father,” he said. “I see his work, I see how dedicated he was. He was to me a great artist. But you can never impose that on people, they have to make their own decisions.”

What do you think about Robert De Niro, Sr.’s work? Leave your comment below.

Robert De Niro, Sr., Red House with Blue Door, 1970 (Courtesy of the Estate of Robert De Niro, Sr. and DC Moore Gallery, New York.)

Robert De Niro, Sr., Moroccan Women, 1984 (Courtesy of the Estate of Robert De Niro, Sr. and DC Moore Gallery, New York.)

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Comments [13]

JV from New Mexico

I am continually amazed at what people are willing to call "great art". I'm a musician, and it's the same with music. Great art? I think not. So many hopefuls want to rise to fame in any way they can, and just hope to be in the right place at the right time because they have to substitute anything they can for true talent. A world of wannabes trying to pass off trash for talent in hopes that they can reap all the rewards of the artist lifestyle. I know great music when I hear it, and I know great art when I see it. Because of that, I know my limits even if others don't, and would be insulted if half the stuff I write were called great music.

Jul. 28 2014 07:05 PM
Dave from NY

As a lay person - one interested in art though not having studied it - I thought I was looking at some unfinished Matisse works until I read the story.

Matisse's influence is very prevalent. However unlike Matisse the De Niro paintings - at least the ones in the article - just don't seem very interesting.

Jul. 21 2014 09:56 AM

I would like to help with the finishing touch to this endeavor, I made this offer back in may 2010 it still stands, to do the reading for you. The spirits they love to be remembered, this is a beautiful tribute to your Father's life and work, Bob you are on the right track. And who is anyone to judge, art is an expression of the true self without having to compare.

Jun. 17 2014 11:36 AM
ron from flushing

a great fathers day tribute and gift,way to go inside robert.

Jun. 08 2014 11:18 AM

Who becomes a "great" and who doesn't is often left up to right place, right time. de Niro's work can stand alongside anything we consider great. Whether he is let into that club or not is up to the powers that be. I too am looking forward to the documentary. Good on de Niro Jr!

Jun. 07 2014 06:16 AM
caitlin from uws

When I was in my twenties in the early eighties, two friends of mine sublet an apartment from a woman who many painting of DeNiro's hanging in her home. I thought then and I still do that his was a very gifted painter and most definitely should be recognized and seen.

Jun. 06 2014 02:12 PM
Alice from Williamsburg, Va

My perspective is our humanness. So from here
it seems that from the story given here and the artist's
Expressive work are the outward manifestation of his
Life Experience. It is my understanding the great art is the
Artist's humanness articulated in its expression on the medium.
It is a great tribute and example for all humans that
the son chooses to honor his father in this manner.
Thank You!

Jun. 06 2014 01:12 PM
Jason from New York

I love the comment Solomon made about chasing De Niro through SoHo -- what a delightful image!

Jun. 06 2014 11:19 AM
Deborah Solomon from Art critic, WNYC

Lou Siegel -- Thanks for writing. No, I never met Louis Schanker, who was a bit before my time, but I have often come across his name in connection with the WPA Art Program. Are you a relative of his?

Jun. 06 2014 10:28 AM
lou siegel from Massapequa

Interesting piece about De Niro. Did you ever interview Louis Schanker
( ) for the Pollack book?

Jun. 06 2014 09:28 AM
Michael Zullo from Upper Eastside Manhattan

Good report and interview, WNYC. It's a very nice tribute from a son to his father. Congrations Robert De Niro. I'll be tuned in to the HBO documentray Monday night.

Jun. 06 2014 08:58 AM
Lana Flokas from Westchester

I believe De Niro Sr. Work was interesting but not great. If not for his son, very few people would be even talking about it. Seems like he was too embittered to pass through his artistic restraints.

Jun. 06 2014 08:06 AM
Nick from UWS

Everybody's a critic.

Jun. 06 2014 08:01 AM

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