De Niro casts spotlight on works of his artist father

Robert de Niro Sr.’s oil-on-canvas “Flowers in a Blue Vase,” 1966.

PARK CITY, Utah: Robert De Niro is best known as an Oscar-winning actor. In a new documentary, he takes on the role of a devoted son as he spotlights his father, Robert Sr., for the influential but not well-known art works he created during New York City’s abstract expressionist movement. De Niro, 70, who has won Oscars for his lead role in “Raging Bull” and his supporting turn in “The Godfather: Part II,” attended the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah, Sunday to premiere “Remembering the artist Robert De Niro, Sr.,” a HBO documentary about his father, who emerged alongside such contemporary artists as Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning.

Robert Sr. grew up in a conservative Italian-American family in New York and married fellow artist Virginia Admiral. Actor Robert De Niro Jr. is their only child. The marriage did not last very long and the couple made an amicable split.

Abstract expressionism came about in the post-World War II period and was the first notable U.S. artistic movement to define a stylistic era. While De Niro Sr.’s works emerged during that period, his style remained more figurative than abstract expressionist, often depicting still lifes, as the documentary describes it, “in simple setups with no pretension.”

Throughout his career De Niro Sr. strove to achieve the success of some of his contemporaries and worked hard to hone his own craft and style.

He became increasingly disconnected from the abstract expressionist movement, finding more inspiration in such early 20th-century French artists as George Roux, Pierre Bonnard and Henri Matisse. His works included vibrant and intense color palettes and fluid silhouettes.

“He was very clear about what he thought was art and what he liked,” De Niro Jr. told Reuters at the film’s premiere, “yet at the same time he was generous. People can appreciate things. It doesn’t matter if the aesthetic can be different from yours.

“He didn’t feel that certain things artwise were art,” he added. “It was another thing that wasn’t enough for him, and his own style as you see was always the same. It varied some but not a lot.”

De Niro delved into his father’s path as an artist though his journals, which revealed the artist’s struggles with his relationship with God and his efforts to come to terms with being homosexual.

De Niro said his father, who died in 1993 from prostate cancer, may never have resolved those issues.

Founder of New York’s TriBeCa Film Festival, itself a showcase for independent films, De Niro wanted to bring the documentary to Sundance to make sure the spotlight was fully on the works and memory of his father.

“We were really thrilled that it was chosen for Sundance,” producer and Tribeca collaborator Jane Rosenthal said, “because it separates from having it at Tribeca and we see Bob’s father’s works on its own in a different setting than you would in New York.”

The documentary explores De Niro Sr.’s career as well as his role as a loving father, with whom De Niro said he had a very close relationship. As De Niro’s acting career took off, he felt his father was somewhat resentful that his own work had never been recognized by a wider audience.

For De Niro, the documentary, scheduled to air on HBO this summer, serves as an homage to his father, whose paintings are still shown in galleries around the world, and also as a memory for his own children.

“I realized,” an emotional De Niro says in the film, “how important it is for children to appreciate certain things [their parents] want to share with them.”

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on January 21, 2014, on page 16.




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