critic's notebook

'Mystical Mediator'
Re-examining the legacy of Robert De Niro Sr.
By James Panero

September 2007

Modern art has tended to be divided into one of two categories. Visit Venice during this year's Biennale, for example, and you mostly encounter art of the dominant style-work based in tone, volume, depth, illusion, narrative and theater. This is art with a story to tell, art as a window, art that is loud, art with a point. The points may be radical, but the means are traditional, in that everything from academic painting to contemporary political art shares the common trait of using one medium to depict another. In the history of taste, this "public" style of extraverted, didactic art has always won out. But modernism has long nurtured a minority position. Mystical and idealist, often occult and certainly introverted, this secondary style is most easily recognized by its embrace of color.

On view in Venice through September 10, at the San Marco Casa D'Aste, the work of Robert De Niro Sr. serves as a counterpoint to the official art of the Biennale. This artist, who died in 1993, gracefully internalized art's color-based legacy.

Although little-known outside the world of art, De Niro Sr. remains just as famous as his celebrated actor-director son in the eyes of serious painters. Drawing on the sonorities of Bernard and Gauguin, the luxuriance of Bonnard, the anxieties of van Gogh, the moods of Munch and the textures of Matisse, De Niro
was spellbound by color's potential. A child prodigy, born in 1922 in Syracuse, New York to an Italian father and an Irish mother, De Niro at first studied with Josef Albers but then abandoned Albers' rigid color theories and went in for the push-pull compositional dynamics of Hans Hofmann, the celebrated painter and teacher of the New York School. Hofmann became De Niro's champion and godfather to the painter's only son.

De Niro's art, like the work of his colorist predecessors, finds its roots most directly in Symbolism, synesthesia and the metaphysical philosophies of the late 19th century (De Niro took an interest in the Christian Science of Mary Baker Eddy). Here the unity of painting predominates. The interlocking flatness and
harmonies of shape and color take precedence over subject matter. The painting itself is subject matter. In De Niro's case, the Passion of Christ, a recurring theme in his work, becomes passion itself. Writing in 1981 about Bonnard, De Niro echoed a similar sentiment: "His works are not about happiness. They are

De Niro's indebtedness to Bonnard comes through most clearly in one of his early paintings-appropriately, a centerpiece of the Venice show. "Venice at Night is a Negress in Love" (1943-44) features a Bonnard bather awash in Gauguin-like colors, the palette more intense and atonal than anything the earlier artists
could have imagined.

Clement Greenberg made note of De Niro's early color combinations, not altogether approvingly: "Where De Niro usually goes wrong is in his hot, violent color, which, although he had digested the favorable influence of Matisse, often over asserts itself and distorts the drawing."

I disagree. This work is a masterpiece. Nevertheless, by the mid-1960s and through the 1970s and 1980s, De Niro cooled his colors into a glassy sea. His signature flourish came in the form of broad, brushy outlines that defined his figures. At their best these gestures foregrounded his murky depths with graceful sweeps. The success or failure of his paintings often hinged on how well these final applications tied his compositions together.

De Niro Jr. has a deep affinity for his father's work. At a press conference in Lisbon, he broke down in tears discussing it. In Venice, as I walked through the exhibition with him, and joined him at a press conference for the opening, he said, "I am so proud of my father. But as a kid I didn't want to go to the shows. I now consider my father the best painter of the century."

Artist and son share the hunched shoulders, the taciturn expression, the brooding intensity, the inward pressure. The father was a dandy, maintaining the personality of the bohemian artist. In New York he crossed paths with the greatest painters of his generation. But unlike the Abstract Expressionists, De
Niro was more a mystical mediator than an innovator. As financial success passed him by, he would hit up rich friends like de Kooning for cash.

The marriage between De Niro and Virginia Admiral, another esteemed painter (they met through Hofmann), did not last longer than a few years, yet the two remained close. In the late 1970s, as Admiral worked to convert SoHo lofts into artist studios, De Niro took up residence in one of her buildings on West Broadway.
Here he lived and worked for the rest of his life.

This beautiful, top-floor space, with skylights illuminating every corner, remains as De Niro left it: tubes of seeping oils haunt the palette board, books on art, theology and philosophy line the shelves, posters from the history of art cover the walls, clothes fill the closets. In one corner, an umbrella hangs on the handlebars of a bicycle. In another, the door of a built-in birdcage swings ajar (De Niro favored parrots). When I asked De Niro Jr. if he ever wanted to become a painter, he said he "never had an interest. My kids don't want to be actors. But I preserved the studio for the children." The studio remains in the private possession of the family, but fortunately, Salander-O'Reilly published a monograph in 2004 on De Niro's work
that is filled with images of this magical place.

In 1857, the poet Charles Baudelaire, drawing on the mystic Emanuel Swedenborg and the poet Heinrich Heine, laid the groundwork for colorist innovation in his sonnet "Correspondences," from part of Les Fleurs du mal. Here is how Richard Wilbur translated the second stanza of this famous poem, which became a manifesto for painters like De Niro: "Like dwindling echoes gathered far away/ Into a deep and thronging
unison/ Huge as the night or as the light of day,/ All scents and sounds and colors meet as one."

Like dwindling echoes gathered far away, the art of Robert De Niro Sr. remains a place where scents and sounds and colors meet as one. What a joy to see it in the city of Titian, where color was born.