Robert De Niro may best be known as an Oscar-winning actor, but in a new documentary he takes on the role of a devoted son as he spotlights his own artist father, Robert Sr., for his influential but not well-known works in the New York City abstract expressionist art movement.
De Niro, 70, who 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, on Sunday to premiere "Remembering the Artist Robert De Niro, Sr.," an HBO documentary about his father, who emerged alongside contemporaries including Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning.
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Robert Sr. grew up in a conservative Italian-American family in New York and married fellow artist Virginia Admiral, with whom he had one child, De Niro. The marriage did not last very long and the couple split amicably.
Abstract expressionism came about in post-World War II and was the first notable American artistic movement to define a stylistic era. While Robert Sr.'s works emerged during that time period, his style was not described as abstract expressionist but instead as figurist, often depicting still life "in simple set-ups with no pretension," as described in the half-hour documentary.
Robert Sr. strived to achieve the success of some of his contemporaries throughout his career and worked hard to hone his own craft and style.
He became increasingly disconnected from the abstract expressionist movement, inspired more by early 20th century French artists such as George Roux, Pierre Bonnard and Henri Matisse. Robert Sr.'s works included vibrant and intense color palettes and fluid silhouettes.
"He was very clear about what he thought was art and what he liked, and yet at the same time he was generous; people can appreciate things, it doesn't matter if the aesthetic can be different from yours," De Niro told Reuters at the film's premiere.
"He didn't feel that certain things art-wise were art. 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," he added.
De Niro delved into his father's path as an artist though Robert Sr.'s journals, which revealed the artist's struggles with his relationship with God and his attempts at coming to terms with being homosexual.
De Niro said his father, who died in 1993 from prostate cancer, may never have resolved those issues.
De Niro founded the Tribeca Film Festival in New York, a showcase for independent films, but he wanted to bring the documentary to Sundance, the top U.S. independent film festival, 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 because it separates from having it at Tribeca, and we see Bob's father's works on [their] own in a different setting than you would in New York," producer Jane Rosenthal said.
The documentary explores Robert Sr.'s career as well as his role as a loving father, with whom De Niro said he had a very close relationship. But 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 bigger 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 how important it is for children to appreciate certain things [their parents] want to share with them," an emotional De Niro says in the film.