by Sam Fragoso
Remembering the Artist Robert De Niro, Sr. was made not out of desire, but necessity. For most artists, recognition is what keeps them going, pushing them forward onto the next painting, film, book, etc. The story of Robert De Niro Sr., the subject of this HBO documentary short, is a painfully familiar one – an artist who flirted with fame only to fade into oblivion.
We open with the 1950 and 1960s, where a coterie of artists, dubbed the New York School of Art, have become the sensation of the art world. Members of this School of Art include Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, Franz Kline, Mark Rothko and most importantly, Robert De Niro Sr. He was a figurative artist known for still-life paintings, and as we’re shown throughout the movie, his work was straight forward and free of pretension, inspired by the French avant-garde artists like Pierre Bonnard and Icarus Matisse.
To the tune of classical music, Remembering the Artist is interspersed with talking head interviews, personal footage from Sr.’s adult life, Robert De Niro reading excerpts from his father’s journal and, most importantly, the subject’s revelatory artwork. In 40-minutes, the film compacts a lot of information in a short period of time. But the film isn’t an exercise in information inundation. Directors Geeta Gandbhir and Perri Peltz work diligently in not wasting a single frame. Each snippet of information presented feels vital to De Niro Sr.’s story.
When not replete with testimonials of Sr.’s work, Remembering the Artist briefly dives into the relationship between Sr. and his son. De Niro vividly recalls not wanting to attend his father’s galleries as a child and that his father was always lamenting the state of contemporary art (insisting that he may never receive the recognition he longs for, even after death). There was of course, as De Niro remembers, a mix of envy and happiness on Sr.’s part as his son garnered critical and commercial success in the movies. Sadly, Gandbhir and Peltz half-heartedly explore this dynamic – perhaps because there’s only so much to explore.
The undercurrent of the film, and by extension all of Sr.’s work, is his clandestine life as a homosexual. Ridden with guilt for being gay, he went to his journal to pour out his feelings of carnal confusion. Throughout the film De Niro reads passages from his father’s diary, which serve as sort of a de facto narrator. It’s in these moments that we see the artist clearly and honestly. He was an extraordinarily gifted man whose fear of his sexuality was exacerbated by depression and his small fame fading as the art world transmuted into something entirely else, dominated by abstractionists like Andy Warhol and Frank Stella.
While it seems every fiber of Robert De Niro’s body felt compelled to make this documentary, Remembering the Artist isn’t just reverence for his old man. The film excels beyond a mere home-video replete with nostalgia and admiration, instead morphing into a living testament of De Niro Sr’s profound work – an art galley so big and beautiful not even a Peggy Guggenheim exhibit could compete.
The Upside: A good showcase of Sr.’s work, plus the heartbreaking insight into the mind of a damaged artist
The Downside: Missing more examination of the relationship between De Niro Sr. and De Niro
On the side: The works of Robert De Niro Sr. are now being shown around the world.
Related Topics: HBO