ROBERT DE NIRO Sr. was an American abstract expressionist painter and the father of actor Robert De Niro born on this date (d: 1993); Robert was the eldest of three children; he and siblings John and Joan were raised in Syracuse.
De Niro studied at the renowned Black Mountain College under Josef Albers from 1939 to 1940. While Albers’ highly analytical approach to painting did not appeal to De Niro’s more instinctive style, the experience and international perspective of the Bauhaus master nonetheless left a lasting impression. De Niro studied with Hans Hofmann at his Provincetown, Massachusetts summer school. Hofmann’s teaching on Abstract Expressionism and Cubist formalism had a strong influence on De Niro’s development as a mature artist.
At Hofmann’s summer school, he met fellow student Virginia Admiral, whom he married in 1942. The couple moved into a large, airy loft in New York’s Greenwich Village, where they were able to paint. They surrounded themselves with an illustrious circle of friends, including writers Anaïs Nin and Henry Miller, playwright Tennessee Williams, and the actress and famous Berlin dancer Valeska Gert. Admiral and De Niro separated shortly after their son Robert De Niro Jr. was born in August 1943 after De Niro came out as gay. In 1944, De Niro had a relationship with the poet Robert Duncan.
After studying with Hans Hofmann in New York and Provincetown and Josef Albers at Black Mountain College, North Carolina in the late 1930s and early 1940s, De Niro worked for five years at Hilla Rebay’s legendary Museum of Non-Objective Art. In 1945, he was included in a group show at Peggy Guggenheim’s Art of This Century in New York, which was a leading gallery for the art of both established European modernists and members of the emerging Abstract Expressionist group like Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, Robert Motherwell, and Clyfford Still.
De Niro had his first solo exhibition at Guggenheim’s gallery in April and May of the following year. At that point, he was primarily working in an abstract manner, often with figural references. Much of his work from this period was lost in a studio fire in 1949.
De Niro Sr. died of cancer on the morning of May 3, 1993 (his 71st birthday), at his Manhattan home. He is interred at Kensico Cemetery in Valhalla, New York.
The 1993 film A Bronx Tale was dedicated to De Niro after his death; it was the directorial debut of De Niro Jr. In 2010, De Niro Jr. announced the creation of the Robert De Niro Sr. Prize, an annual $25,000 prize administered by the Tribeca Film Institute and funded by De Niro Jr. that “focuses on a mid-career American artist devoted to the pursuit of excellence and innovation in painting.” Past winners include Stanley Whitney, Joyce Pensato, Catherine Murphy and Laura Owens.
De Niro Sr. is the subject of the 2014 short documentary Remembering the Artist. According to De Niro Jr., “The thought of what he’s done, all his work, I can’t not but make sure that it’s held up and remembered… So I just want to see him get his due. That’s my responsibility and he used to always say that artists are always recognized after they’re long gone.”