Before Robert De Niro the famous actor there was Robert De Niro the famous artist.
By Christopher Turner (telegraph.co.uk, 2009)
In SoHo, New York, there is an artist's studio that has been kept almost exactly as its inhabitant left it when he died 15 years ago. It is a time capsule of Fifties bohemia, a loft space presided over by an ornate birdcage and antique ski machine, every inch of wall covered in rugs, African masks, ex-votos, charcoal drawings and vibrant watercolours. A corridor flanked by storage racks crammed with richly coloured canvases leads into the studio itself (the space is two apartments knocked into one), a huge, bright room with three easels, on one of which is a fauvist landscape dated 1977. Tubes of coloured oil have exploded with age and ooze over a painting table where an army of brushes stands neatly to attention.
This intriguing space isn't a museum – as the studios of Pollock, Bacon and Brancusi now are – but a private shrine to the painter, Robert De Niro, and maintained by his son, the actor of the same name. 'I try to keep it as much as possible as it was when he passed away,' De Niro jnr tells me when we meet at Ameringer Yohe Fine Art, the midtown gallery that last autumn had an exhibition of his father's semiabstract summer landscapes. (De Niro is just back from the Oscars, where he presented the best actor award to Sean Penn.) 'I wanted to keep it for his grandchildren, my kids. I wanted them to know what their grandfather did. I've taken pictures, documented everything, but I just try and hold on to it, to preserve everything as it was, as long as I can.' Even a worn down hairbrush, complete with the artist's DNA, has been left in situ. The space is a kind of memorial that freezes time: 'Sometimes I just go there and sit,' De Niro says.
As he speaks about his father, De Niro often looks away from me, furrowing brow and tightening his mouth in a gesture of concentration familiar to anyone who has seen him on screen. De Niro is famously taciturn about his private life, yet his admiration for his father leads him to want to keep alive a more public memory of the painter's work – and perhaps to immerse himself in it in ways that he didn't when his father was alive. 'I wish I understood,' he tells me when I ask him about his father's working methods. 'I never asked him and he never explained it to me. I wish at the time I'd been a little more curious.'
De Niro sr, whose temper, eccentricity and passion De Niro has said he shares (as well as 'a strong connection to the smell of oil paints and cigarettes and musty old sweaters') was one of America's most prominent figurative expressionists, a handsome, curly-haired wunderkind who burst on the New York scene in 1946, aged 24, with his first solo show at Peggy Guggenheim's Art of This Century Gallery on 57th Street. The eminent critic, Clement Greenberg, later Jackson Pollock's kingmaker, praised De Niro's work in The Nation: 'The originality and force of his temperament demonstrate themselves under an iron control of the plastic elements such as is rarely seen in our time outside the painting of the oldest surviving members of the school of Paris.' In 1955 the poet and critic Frank O'Hara wrote that De Niro was 'one of the most original and powerful younger painters showing today, and each show of his is an event'. De Niro jnr was brought up surrounded by artistic celebrities – Pollock, Willem de Kooning, Anaïs Nin, Henry Miller and Tennessee Williams. 'My parents both moved in bohemian circles,' he says with modest understatement.
De Niro snr's paintings are collected in the vaults of MoMA, the Met, the Hirshhorn and the Whitney, but they are most prominently on display in De Niro jnr's Tribeca Grill restaurant and in his recently opened Greenwich Hotel. (De Niro is understandably protective of his father's work – an impulse that has recently led to a legal dispute. After his father's death, De Niro jnr and his mother organised a retrospective of his work at the Salander-O'Reilly gallery, and when Larry Salander declared himself bankrupt last year, he gave his creditors five paintings by De Niro snr to help pay his debts. De Niro jnr is now fighting to get those paintings back.)
'He hung those paintings,' De Niro says proudly of the three big canvases that adorn the back wall of the Grill, two of which depict an orientalist harem of Moroccan women (after Delacroix) and another a scene from Garbo's Anna Christie. De Niro recalls how nervous he'd been when he'd first suggested the idea because his father 'was very touchy' when it came to giving away his work. ('You give it to someone, they put it in a closet,' De Niro snr told his son when he asked if he could give Francis Ford Coppola two canvases for his 50th birthday.) He was thrilled to hear that De Niro snr, who also designed the artwork on the menu, would sometimes go in and enjoy dinner or a drink as he admired his creations. After his father's death, De Niro hung his final painting, an enormous and dynamic still life on which he had worked for almost a decade, in a private dining area.
In De Niro snr's bedroom is a browning copy of the Christian Science Monitor by the bed, which records the last day he spent in it. Andre Breton described his 1933 visit to Picasso's work space as an initiation into 'the studio's secrets of the boudoir'. What clues to Robert De Niro snr's life and times does his fossilised apartment and studio contain? And what does it say about his son's idolising relationship with him that he's kept it intact?
Robert De Niro snr was born in 1922 in Syracuse, upstate New York, to an Irish mother and an Italian father who worked as a health inspector. He knew he wanted to be a painter from the age of five and was so precociously accomplished that at 12 he was given a private studio at the Syracuse museum, where he took painting classes. In 1939, he won a full scholarship to the legendarily avant-garde Black Mountain College in North Carolina to study with the former Bauhaus colour theorist, Josef Albers. De Niro found Albers dogmatic and excessively scientific in his approach to colour; Albers found De Niro too expressionistic and emotional. However, Albers recognised De Niro's obvious talent, comparing the 17 year-old to Mondigliani and Grunewald and, when he went to Mexico on sabbatical, Albers allowed De Niro to take over his own studio, hoping that his star pupil would still be there when he returned. De Niro, however, had taken a class the preceding summer with another German émigrée, Hans Hofmann, whose teaching style he preferred. In 1941 he left Black Mountain to join Hofmann's New York school on 8th Street, whose alumni include Lee Krasner, Helen Frankenthaler and Ray Eames.
'He was handsome, very elegant,' the painter Albert Kresch, who was also a Hofmann student in 1941, tells me of De Niro. 'Better looking than his son, a couple of inches taller and his hair was fairer. He was poetic in the Byronic sense.' De Niro fell in love with one of his colleagues, an attractive blonde with a fabulous name: Virginia Admiral. They were married in December 1941. Admiral was seven years older than De Niro and also an accomplished painter; she and De Niro were Hofmann's favourites students (Kresch describes the couple as 'super confident' when it came to painting). She'd been a radical student at Berkeley, where she'd been a member of the Trotskyite Young People's Socialist League and, with the poet Robert Duncan, founded a literary magazine whose impressive contributors became part of her circle of artistic and literary friends.
If Hofmann played the role of paterfamilias, Anaïs Nin was the bad mother to Admiral and De Niro's group. Nin referred to Admiral and Duncan as 'children' and compared them to Cocteau's Les Enfants Terribles. In her diary, Nin described Admiral's artist's garret above a hamburger shop and shoe store as a cold, bare loft with floor-to-ceiling windows that overlooked Union Square: 'There is a lavatory outside, running water and washstand inside, and that is all. On weekends, the heat is turned off. The enormous windows which give on to the deafening traffic noise of 14th Street have to be kept closed. There are nails on the walls for clothes, a Sterno burner for making coffee. We drink sour wine out of paper cups.' It was a mini-salon; Duncan referred to it as 'our last nursery'.
To earn money to support her painting, Admiral worked for Nin one evening a week as a typist, transcribing her notoriously decadent diaries for 10 cents a page. Nin, who lived in Greenwich Village with a pet monkey, was hired by a 'collector'- described by his emissary as an 'old millionaire down south' – to write erotica; she was paid $1 a page and was ordered to churn out a minimum of a hundred pages per month. Admiral would type those pages up, too. Nin prided herself as a corruptor of youth and saw Admiral's secretarial job as part of that project; she claimed that Admiral had been 'liberated by my writing and our talks'.
The 'collector' soon tired of Nin's poetic descriptions and requested she send only sex scenes, omitting the wasteful narratives that linked them. Hard pornography soon became, in Nin's description, 'hard labour' and in 1942 she recruited her young proteges to help. Nin referred to herself as 'The madam of this literary, snobbish house of prostitution-writing'. 'I gather poets around me and we all write erotica,' Nin boasted of the 'epidemic of journal writing' she'd started. De Niro, a lapsed Catholic, wasn't a particularly skilled or prolific member of this bookish vice ring and soon gave up the task. 'It was very hard work,' he recalled.
During the summer, De Niro and Admiral's bohemian circle would decamp to the New England coastal village of Provincetown, where the painters would enrol in Hofmann's summer school and experiment with landscape painting. Provincetown had a Portuguese fishing population and in the summer the small cottages that were used to store fishing nets were leased to visitors; some artists, called 'washashores' by the locals, set up camp in the dunes. 'The whole lunatic fringe of Manhattan is already here,' wrote Tennessee Williams, who waited tables with De Niro at the beatnik resort. 'Such a collection could not be found outside of Bellevue or the old English Bedlam.' For some, the scene was more social than productive; one year, Lee Krasner complained that the roll of canvas that she and Pollock had sent on ahead of them remained unpacked for the whole summer. De Niro, less well off than most, sometimes worked at a factory cleaning fish to pay his way.
'There are shoals and shoals of homosexuals here and no one for me,' Nin complained in 1942 to Duncan, who was in military prison after having declared himself homosexual to evade the draft. ('I am an officially certified fag now,' Duncan joked.) According to Deirdre Blair, in her biography of Nin, Duncan seduced both Admiral and De Niro, and bragged about each conquest to the other. In the summer of 1942, De Niro and Admiral were sharing a studio inland, a shack on Provincetown's backstreet with very thin walls. Nin writes in her diary that they were overheard by a neighbour arguing over Duncan: '"I have been listening to you," the neighbour shouted back, "I have been weighing all your arguments. I think that Virginia is absolutely fair and right, and the behaviour of Bob and Robert treacherous and ugly".'
Nin goes on to write that De Niro, horrified at having been inadvertently outed, knocked on the door hoping to be able to explain himself. Three painters lived there, but no one answered. De Niro wandered the town, peering into people's faces, wondering if they were the ones who had accused him. 'He walked with shoulders bowed. He was silent. Haunted.'
The close-knit group of the 'last nursery' disintegrated. 'Among my friends, love is a great sorrow,' Duncan wrote in a poem published before he left for California, where he became a leading luminary in the San Francisco renaissance. 'It has become a daily burden, a feast / A gluttony for fools, a heart's famine.'
Robert De Niro jnr, called 'Bobby' by his family, was born in August 1943. The De Niros moved to a building in Greenwich Village that was big enough to accommodate two studios. De Niro snr had a part-time job as a guard at the Museum of Non-Objective Art (which became the Guggenheim Museum), where he worked alongside his friend Jackson Pollock. His relationship with Admiral ended soon afterwards, before his son was two and despite the interventions of a Freudian analyst. He never remarried.
De Niro and Admiral's amiable separation corresponded with the couple's first painterly success. In 1942 Admiral exhibited work at The Art of This Century gallery and sold a painting to the Museum of Modern Art for a princely $100, way before any of her peers were accepted by the institution (Pollock sold his first canvas to MoMA two years later). De Niro snr's debut solo show followed in 1946. And in the early Fifties the fruits of his labours, bright French colours in the Hofmann style with thick, wavy brushstrokes, were shown at the Charles Egan gallery alongside artists such as Willem de Kooning and Franz Kline.
'As a kid I remember I'd visit him at his studio,' Robert De Niro now says of his father. 'We weren't living together, I was living with my mother, and it was nothing like his studio as you see it now. It was like a real studio, a total mess, and it stank of paint and turpentine.' He describes his father as 'affectionate… always touching and hugging', and when he was growing up they'd see each other every few days, visit museums or go to movies, or just hang out in Washington Square Park. Once or twice his father would try and get him to pose for him, but De Niro says that he was a bad subject, unable to sit still.
His father was a loner; he lived, his son recalls, in 'dank lofts… at a time when nobody wanted to live in those areas. Often, he was the only tenant in the building'. De Niro snr led an itinerant existence, moving from studio to studio around SoHo and the Lower East Side (one of these burned down in 1949, destroying a swathe of his early work), and his son admits to having been embarrassed by him when he was young. 'Most people I knew didn't have "creative" parents who lived in kind of grungy places and did odd jobs when they had to.'
According to De Niro snr's good friend, the painter Paul Resika, who I met at his own studio on the Upper West Side (where Edward Hopper had once trained), back then De Niro 'was the poorest of the poor', and totally committed to his work. An article written for Artnews later that decade depicts De Niro snr in one of his bare, paint-spattered studios, sitting on a mattress on the floor and contemplating a painting of a crucifixion. The subject absorbed him from 1953-57, but always seemed to elude his perfectionist standards, and most of his canvases and numerous studies were rubbed out or destroyed. As the Artnews writer put it, he seemed to make 'slow progress against his own devils'.
By that time, figurative expressionism was falling out of fashion. Abstract expressionism and then pop art ruled. De Niro snr never compromised his method to accommodate artistic fashion. The original artwork on the wall of his last studio spans four decades and is remarkably consistent. As Paul Resika puts it, De Niro snr found his way very young. 'Even Morandi changed more than Bob.'
In the early Sixties De Niro left for France in disgust at his exclusion from the new commercial scene. He was prone to bouts of depression ('Since I was a child,' De Niro snr once said, 'I have felt in my heart two contradictory feelings, the horror of life and the ecstasy of life'), and one of his son's biographers has De Niro jnr bringing his father back to New York in 1965 after he suffered some kind of bipolar breakdown.
There are times during my interview with De Niro when I feel like Billy Crystal's character in Analyse This, prodding him for Oedipal information about his father. When I bring up the question of the artist's depression he clams up: 'I don't know enough about it, he wouldn't tell me. He wouldn't share that with me. I heard a little about that, yeah, but I'm not sure – it's very possible.' One of De Niro snr's friends described him as 'a lonely soul' with an 'elegant mind'.
In the late Sixties and Seventies, De Niro snr exhibited at regular intervals but his early success was never repeated, and he taught at Cooper Union, the School of Visual Arts, and at the University of Buffalo to make ends meet. 'De Niro is trapped on the dark side of the success machine,' one art critic observed in an article that juxtaposed Warhol's 'glittering career' with 'the aristocratic artist' De Niro, whose 'passionate works aim for elevated levels of historical discourse'. His son remembers how his father detested dealers, whom he considered to be parasites, and recalls how one gallerist gave his father a gift of a cardboard box of dried soup. 'That's what they gave him for Christmas – and it wasn't even wrapped!'
Admiral gave up painting. Inspired by her work for Nin and needing to take care of her son, she started a typing and editing service called Academy. One of her clients was the theatre teacher Maria Piscator, who invited De Niro jnr to attend the Dramatic Workshop she ran at the New School of Social Research, which he attended on Saturdays from the age of 10. Admiral, who expanded into real estate, found her ex-husband cheap studios in which to work and helped him financially, as did friends like the de Koonings. In his memoir, the painter Larry Rivers describes how De Niro snr would ring up at two in the morning 'asking for cash (he'd take a cheque) so that he could continue working on his art uninterrupted by the time it took to make a living'. He adds, 'These were more demands than requests.'
When his son became famous in the mid-Seventies he also helped out. 'He was proud of me, but in some ways it must have been hard for him,' De Niro jnr once wrote in a tribute to his father, 'although he had a lot of respect among his peers, he didn't have a certain world recognition… He liked my celebrity but was also sort of resigned to it – our name was the same, but it wasn't he who was making it known.' In the early Eighties, De Niro snr moved into this final studio, a space that he inherited from Admiral. There are no family photographs on display there – just postcards of work by artists he admired (Bonnard, Ingres, Matisse) – but in the bedroom there is a file of press clippings marked 'Bobby'.
When De Niro snr became ill he moved back in with his ex-wife. He died of cancer in 1993, aged 71. That year De Niro jnr dedicated his directorial debut, A Bronx Tale, to his father. De Niro has decorated his own nearby apartment with his father's paintings, and has an almost worshipful relationship to his father's talent. 'I only keep his works, I don't have anything else,' he says with a mischievous smile, 'I'm very partial to say the least.'