By the time Robert De Niro began winning acclaim as an actor in the early 1970s, his father, Robert De Niro, Sr., had faded into obscurity as an artist.
De Niro, Sr. had broken out among America’s post-World War II avant-garde painters — shown alongside Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning, championed by Peggy Guggenheim, hailed by top critics in the New York Times and ArtNews. But his uneasy relationship with his contemporaries, his battles with art dealers and, most devastatingly, the rise of pop art in the ’60s, assured he was soon forgotten. He died in 1993 from prostate cancer.
The 40-minute documentary “Remembering the Artist Robert De Niro, Sr.,” attempts to resurrect his legacy. De Niro screened the film Saturday night at the Aspen Ideas Festival and discussed it afterward with director Perri Peltz, producer Jane Rosenthal, art adviser Megan Fox Kelly and the Paepcke Auditorium crowd.
“Part of recognition is luck,” De Niro says early in the film.
De Niro said Saturday that the movie, shown earlier this month on HBO, began as a private production, intended only as a way to preserve his father’s story for younger generations of De Niros.
“It wasn’t intended to be a documentary for HBO or anyone,” he said. “It was for us.”
Once he and the filmmakers saw what they had, however, they decided to share it with the world.
De Niro bought film footage of his dad from a man who followed the artist with a camera in the 1970s and gave the material to Thelma Schoonmaker — Martin Scorsese’s longtime editor — who put it in order. He gave his father’s extensive journals to Peltz and Rosenthal.
The journals reveal De Niro, Sr.’s frustration with the art world and his deep depression, along with his admission that he was gay. On Saturday, De Niro said he didn’t know if his father ever found a satisfying romantic relationship.
“His alienation, if you will, was partially because of the sexual thing and partially because of just who he was — the feeling that he was an outsider in certain ways,” De Niro said.
In the film, De Niro reads portions of the journals aloud. But other than those excerpts, the actor said he hasn’t brought himself to read all of his father’s notebooks.
“I don’t know when I’ll read all his journals,” he said. “My kids might read them before I do. When I’m ready, I’ll read them.”
The film touches on De Niro’s at-times distant relationship from his father. De Niro, Sr. and the actor’s mother, Virginia Admiral, separated by the time De Niro was 3. The actor later would attempt to help his father sell his work in Paris, and tried to force him to get treatment for his illness, but De Niro, in the film, expresses deep regret for not doing more.
When asked about their complex relationship Saturday, De Niro said, “He was a loving father. He was not a father who took me out to play baseball or these things. But he was, in his own way, loving, and his intentions were good.”
It is somewhat startling to see the notoriously private actor — whose monosyllabic interview answers have prompted “Saturday Night Live” spoofs — open up in the film and on the auditorium stage to talk about himself, his family and his daddy issues. He did draw laughs and applause for a few characteristically blunt answers (“I had to do it, so that’s it,” was his complete answer to one audience question; “Some people get it, some don’t,” was another).
De Niro has preserved his father’s studio in Manhattan and has kept some of his paintings for the family, reserving others for museums. But most of his father’s work remains for sale.
De Niro, Sr.’s impressionistic, Matisse-influenced work is currently in a show at New York’s DC Moore Gallery, including paintings from 1948 to 1989. The walls of his son’s Greenwich Hotel are exclusively decorated with his De Niro, Sr.’s canvases (one audience member apologized to De Niro for stealing coaster prints of paintings from the TriBeCa property).
Though he didn’t sell enough to support himself, De Niro, Sr. had at least one show every year through his career, Kelly said. De Niro said Saturday that he hopes the paintings, with help from the documentary, might grow to be valuable enough to be preserved.
“The more expensive the paintings and the artwork become, the more chance that they are an asset to the people who buy them, and they’ll protect them and they’ll have a home,” De Niro said. “I want them to be cherished the way he cherished them and I cherish them.”