Robert De Niro, Sr. (1922-1993) was a postwar artist whose paintings
combined modernist abstract and expressionist methods with traditional
compositions and subject matter. Part of the New York School of
the forties and fifties, De Niro, painted representational subject
matter—landscapes, still lifes, and figures—but used these themes
primarily as formal constructs for exploring the possibilities inherent
in paint, color, and form.
De Niro's utilization of action painting and gestural expression places
his work within the abstract expressionist discourse but it nonetheless
remains firmly grounded in European, specifically French, antecedents.
Born in Syracuse, New York, De Niro showed artistic promise at a very
early age. At 18, he attended Black Mountain College in
North Carolina where he studied under Josef Albers. However,
chafing under the rigidity of Albers' theories, he decamped to New York
a year later, in 1941, to study with Hans Hofmann.
De Niro had his first solo show in 1946 at Peggy Guggenheim's gallery
Art of This Century. Throughout the fifties he exhibited at the
Charles Egan Gallery alongside artists such as Willem de Kooning, Franz
Kline, and Philip Guston. In the 1960s, he moved to Paris, where
he continued to paint, enjoying the patronage of legendary collector
Joseph Hirshhorn, and receiving a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1968.
De Niro often executed hundreds of studies of a single composition and
scraped and repainted individual canvases repeatedly until he achieved
a balance of color and line. He held a strong reverence for
19th-century French painting and greatly admired the French modernists,
favoring the works of André Derain, Henri Matisse, Chaim Soutine, and
Pierre Bonnard, among others. Their influence, especially in regards to
De Niro's brushwork and palette, is evident in his work.
De Niro continued to focus on his primary painterly interests of color
and form until his death in 1993. Recently, De Niro, Sr.'s work
has received renewed attention and, in 2005, a 208-page monograph on
his life and work, written by Peter Frank, was published.
Robert De Niro work is represented in major American museums including
the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden and the Corcoran Gallery of
Art, Washington, D.C.; the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Whitney
Museum of American Art, and the Museum of Modern Art, New York.
1945 Art of this Century Peggy Guggenheim Gallery, New York
1950 Charles Egan Gallery, New York, NY (also 1952, 1953, 1954)
1963 Five American Paintings, Knoedler Gallery, NY
1967 State University of New York, Buffalo, NY
1969 Bard College, Annandale on Hudson, NY
Reese Palley Gallery, San Francisco
1970 Zabriskie Gallery, New York, NY (1968, 1967, 1965, 1962, 1960, 1958)
1971 Brenner Gallery, Provincetown, MA
1973 Zoller Gallery, Pennsylvania State University, PA
1974 Lithographs, Kansas City Art Institute, Kansas City, KA
1976 Poindexter Gallery, New York, NY (also 1955, 1956)
1978 David Stuart Gallery, Los Angeles, CA
William Grappo Gallery, Swain School of Design, New Bedford, MA
Arts Gallery, Works on Paper, Baltimore, MD
1979 Charles Campbell Gallery, San Francisco, CA (also 1978)
1980 Hobart Smith College, MA
1981 Mint Museum, Charlotte, NC
Ashville Art Museum, Ashville, NC
Foster White Gallery, Drawings by Robert De Niro, Seattle, WA
1983 David Hamilton Gallery, Charleston, NC
1984 Art Center in Hargate, St. Pauls School, Concord, NH
1986 Contemporary Arts Center, Great Falls, MT
Crane Kalman Gallery, London, England
Graham Modern Gallery, New York, NY (also 1980, 1982, 1984,
1994 Salander -O'Reilly Galleries, Robert De Niro, Sr: Paintings, NY
1996 Salander- O'Reilly Galleries, Robert De Niro, Sr.: Charcoals, NY
1997 Salander-O'Reilly Galleries, Robert De Niro Sr.: Paintings, NY
1998 Yoshii Gallery, Tokyo, Japan
1999 Galerie Piltzer, Paris, France
Salander-O'Reilly Galleries, Robert De Niro, Sr.: Works on Paper,
2000 Salander-O'Reilly Galleries, Robert De Niro, Sr.: Landscapes, NY
2002 La Galerie Metta, Madrid, Spain
2005 Paintings, Salander-O'Reilly Galleries, New York, NY
2006 Hackett-Freedman Gallery, San Francisco, CA (also 2000, 1998)
1956 Whitney Annual, Stable Annuals, Jewish Museum, Second Generation, New York, NY
1959 Institute of Contemporary Arts, Boston, 100 Americans on Paper, Boston, MA
1960 Nebraska Art Association, Lincoln, NA
American Federation of Arts, Figure in Contemporary Painting, traveling exhibition 1960-1961
1961 Ball State Teachers College, 7th Annual Drawing and
Sculpture Show, Muncie, IN
Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center Annual
1962 Kornblee Gallery, The Figure, NY
Illinois Wesleyan Annual
Museum of Modern Art, Recent Figure Paintings, NY
1965 New School Center, Portraits from the American Art World, NY
1969 Borgenicht Gallery, Hommage to Matisse, NY
1971 The CIBA-GEIGY Collection, A New Consciousness, Ardsley, NY
1975 Reese Palley Gallery, Atlantic City, NJ/San Francisco, CA
1976 Buecker Gallery, NY
1977 Graham Gallery, The Art of Pastel, NY
1978 Bell Gallery, Brown University, Providence, RI
Provincetown Art Association and Museum, Provincetown, MA
1982 The Butler Institute of American Art, Youngstown, OH
1984 Art Museum Association of America, San Francisco, CA
Emotional Impact: New York School Figurative Expressionism, curated by April Kingsley, through 1986
Graham Gallery, Woman: A Changing Picture, NY
University of Wisconsin, Modern Masters of Classical Realism, Oshkosh, WI
Terra Museum of American Art, 20th Century American Drawings:
The Figure in Context, organized and circulated by the International Exhibition Foundation, Washington, D.C.
Graham Modern, Summer Celebrations, NY
1985 Graham Modern, Small Works, Fine Works, NY
The Members of the Gallery, Albright Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, NY
1986 The Hudson River Museum, Form or Formula, Drawing and Drawings, Yonkers, NY
Ingber Gallery, Survival of the Fittest II: Figurative Work on Paper
The Artists' Museum in association with the Tibor deNagy Gallery and
Staempfli Gallery, The Police Building, Color As Subject, NY
1993 Salander-O'Reilly Galleries, Monumental Nudes, NY, September 8-October 2
1995 Southern Alleghenies Museum of Art, American Masters of Watercolor: A 100 Year Survey, Loretto, PA
Hackett-Freedman Gallery, Seeing the Essential: Selected Works by
Robert De Niro Sr.: Paul Resika and Leland Bell, San Francisco, CA
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In general, the leading Abstract Expressionist painters eschewed figurative representation in favor of visual essays dominated by color and gestural brushstrokes. Robert De Niro, Sr., was a talented exception to this tendency. A precocious child, he was born in Syracuse, New York, where he took classes at the Syracuse Museum of Fine Arts (now known as the Everson Museum of Art) from age eleven to fifteen. Still in his teens, De Niro enrolled at Black Mountain College in 1939 and studied with the school’s director, Josef Albers, whose analysis of color was critical to De Niro’s development. Albers’ rigid theoretical approach was ultimately incompatible with young De Niro’s more intuitive sensibility, however, and the young artist left North Carolina and moved to New York in 1940.
Hans Hofmann, the German-born Abstract Expressionist known for his theories regarding the “push-pull” of color, became De Niro’s teacher through 1942, both in New York and at his summer school in Provincetown, Massachusetts. Recognition came quickly; De Niro’s first solo show was held in 1946 at Peggy Guggenheim’s prestigious Art of This Century Gallery. The critical response to his colorful and painterly still lifes and voluptuous nudes was positive. During the 1950s, he exhibited paintings at the Charles Egan Gallery where Willem de Kooning and Franz Kline also displayed work. In addition, De Niro was included in the Whitney Annual and exhibitions at the Jewish Museum, the Stable Gallery, and the Zabriskie Gallery, which sold several paintings and works on paper to noted collector Joseph Hirshhorn.
During the early 1960s, aesthetic taste shifted toward Pop Art and minimalism. Disillusioned, De Niro went to France from 1961 to 1964, immersing himself in the oeuvres of Henri Matisse and Pierre Bonnard; the former is known for his brilliant color and nudes, the latter for his sensitive handling of paint and color. In 1968, De Niro was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship and, during the 1970s, he taught in New York at Cooper Union and the New School for Social Research and at East Michigan State College. In addition to the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Brooklyn Museum of Art, the Whitney Museum of American Art, and the Smithsonian American Art Museum all own examples of his work.
Following De Niro’s death on his seventy-first birthday, the critic for the New York Times wrote: “Whether in drawing or painting, Mr. De Niro’s work is defined by an arresting physical confidence and a quality of natural talent that was widely acknowledged, even by critics who felt that his efforts could sometimes have an unfinished or impatient quality. His subjects derived from traditional realism—nudes, still lifes, and portraits—and he owed a particular debt to the contour drawings of Matisse. But his images, while legible, relied on a highly abstract repertory of quick dabs, thick swaths, and thin washes of paint.” In 2014, the artist’s son, the actor Robert De Niro, Jr., produced a highly regarded film documentary about his father’s career entitled Remembering the Artist: Robert De Niro, Sr. The Johnson Collection, Spartanburg, South Carolina.