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Robert De Niro, Sr.

10 September 25 October 2008


20 West 57th Street New York, New York 10019 tel: 212 445 0051 fax: 212 445 0102

Robert DeNiro, Sr.: The Landscapes

Those who came into contact with Robert De Niro, Sr., and his artwork were invariably impressed, even stunned, by his virtuosity, his erudition, his contagious enthusiasm for human artistic endeavor and his entirely personal approach to making art, an approach at once radically idiosyncratic and part of the painterly discourse of his time and place. That time and place was postwar New York, one of historys great artistic nexuses. De Niro participated closely, even crucially, in the citys cultural ferment, earning the admiration of his contemporaries. Few others of his generation realized such a marriage not just hybrid, but fusion of supposedly contradictory styles with the same lan: his seemingly effortless application of Abstract Expressionist technique to representational subject matter confronted, perplexed, delighted and liberated his peers, upsetting critical dogma as it did with its insouciant inclusiveness an inclusiveness that De Niro demonstrated was to be found in the European, especially French, models that most closely motivated the artists of his milieu. Although De Niro star student of Hans Hofmann, veteran teacher in New Yorks academies, longtime fixture on the exhibition circuit, close friend and collaborator with poets and musicians as well as painters and sculptors was an integral part of the New York School for a half century, he produced some of his most notable work beyond the confines of the city.

Indeed, unlike so many of his friends, De Niro did not express much enchantment with the city itself in his art. His figures and his still lifes are studio works, sealed off from any extraneous factors. His religious works are either close studies of extant artistic masterpieces or pictorial and ideational confabulations, born less of a devotion to a specific creed (his native Catholicism or any other) than to a fervid interest in the visual manifestation of spiritual ardor. As such, De Niros devotional paintings, most notably his crucifixion studies, drew not on New Yorks religious communities, but on the contents of its churches and museums. De Niros landscapes, meanwhile, are not of New York City at all. This in itself is somewhat startling; but it comes as even more of a surprise that De Niro did not turn exclusively to landscape. His bold, line-dependent composition and complex, atmospheric palette lend themselves superbly to the rendition of the outside world not to the construction of space itself, but to the description of discrete and erratic zones that together cohere into what our sight tells us are places, not just things or people. We might guess that De Niro produced some landscapes while studying with Hofmann in Provincetown in the early 1940s. Hofmanns own landscape paintings and drawings date primarily from this period and in their own bright color, emphatic drawn line, and reductive, abstracting effect on objects

afford a telling comparison with De Niros later landscapes. But if he did paint landscapes in Provincetown, they have been lost (perhaps in the 1949 studio fire that consumed much of his early work).

and compositions impossible to compile in the studio, concerned as they are with foregroundmidground-background relationships that allow for startling scalar incongruities. Landscapes also allowed De Niro a relatively

breathtakingly stark abstractions. His massing of color areas and his almost offhand rendition of houses, barns, and other buildings with a couple of outlining strokes and repeated short strokes for windows approach the unadorned simplicities of childrens drawings. Somehow, De Niros almost hieroglyphic stylizations convey structure, space, and atmosphere with a full range of idiomatic inflection, as if dreamt and impressed upon memory, rather than drawn. Is it that thick brush De Niro wielded that turns what is essentially drawing with paint into a rich, nuanced visual experience? Is it his palette, at once sweet and acid like a faceful of grapefruit juice? Is it the game he plays between whats described and whats omitted? Is it the paint itself, slashed and worried into a frothy torrent? Or is it his eye, alighting upon just the right combination of things out there by the shore or along the street or in the woods? In the hands of a sophisticated visual thinker like De Niro, of course, all of the above conspire to create remarkable paintings of the landscape, the kind that inspire awe and envy among painters and the most delicious consternation among viewers. Such paintings are not supposed to work so well; but they do. They are lessons in succinctness and inimitable exercises in visual wit.

The first time the mature De Niro turned to the landscape was during his first extended absence from New York, in the early 1960s. He had moved to Paris, later repairing to several small villages in the Pyrenees. His notebooks and letters to friends indicate he began drawing en plein air while in the French capital, but that he began painting the outside when he moved south. Im writing poems again and have done pastels of the landscape as I did at Gravigny, De Niro wrote to Dick Brewer in 1962. Here its a little easier to work outside as there arent the gaping children etc., so Ill probably do more oils of the surroundings than I did when I was near Paris

high degree of abstraction, permitting, even necessitating, an approach to the description of form that depends on a firm but loaded brush and a willingness to describe details such as trees and buildings in a few contrasting strokes and spatial areas such as lawns and skies in many strokes of similar hue. This formula seems even more limited when applied to landscape subjects than when applied to studio images. De Niro was able to build, even play, on this laconic, cipher-dependent approach. Many of his friends worked similarly, but none was able to achieve the same level of synecdochical terseness or dispatch it with the same elegance and brio. We see this manifest powerfully, and even more

The landscape paintings from France as well as the later landscapes are by and large preoccu pied not with traditional landscape subjects verdant spaces and receding roads but with the formal dynamic of man-made objects, mostly buildings, in urban and rural settings. Like his interiors and still lifes, De Niro conceived of his landscapes as arrangements of shapes and colors, and in the final analysis they are no more atmospheric than his studio paintings. But landscape provided him the kinds of forms

assuredly, in the later two groups of landscapes De Niro produced, during summers spent in Provincetown and the Hamptons in the late 1960s and during the two years he lived in San Francisco a decade later. The similarity of De Niros style generally, and in his landscapes particularly, to the Bay Area figurative painters most especially David Park well predates his West Coast stay, although it may have abetted the warm reception his work received there. In these, De Niro takes an unusual approach to the lay of the land, producing

Peter Frank Los Angeles, July 2008

Peter Frank is Senior Curator at the Riverside Art Museum, Associate Editor of THE magazine Los Angeles, and art critic for Angeleno magazine and, until recently, the L. A. Weekly. In New York, he served as art critic for The Village Voice and the SoHo Weekly News. Frank has organized numerous exhibitions, lectured extensively in North America and Europe, and published many books and catalogues, including a 2004 monograph on Robert De Niro, Sr.

Blue Buildings in Landscape 1968, oil on canvas 22 x 27 inches, 55.9 x 68.6 cm

Landscape with Blue Building 1968, oil on canvas 24 x 28 inches, 61 x 71.1 cm

Landscape with Houses circa 1968, oil on canvas 18 x 241/2 inches, 45.7 x 62.2 cm

Summer Landscape 1968, oil on canvas 29 x 35 inches, 73.7 x 88.9 cm


Red House with Blue Door 1970, oil on panel 301/2 x 33 3/4 inches, 77.5 x 85.7 cm


Gray Barn in Blue Landscape 1976, oil on panel 30 x 28 inches, 76.2 x 71.1 cm


Landscape with Houses 1970, oil on masonite 28 x 30 inches, 71.1 x 76.2 cm


Landscape with Road and Field 1970, oil on masonite 30 x 28 inches, 76.2 x 71.1 cm


Houses in Landscape with Fence 1970, oil on masonite 30 x 34 inches, 76.2 x 86.4 cm


Robert De Niro, Sr.

Robert De Niro, Sr., was born on January 17, 1922, in Syracuse, New York, to Henry Martin De Niro and Helen OReilly. He studied with Hans Hofmann in Provincetown and New York and briefly with Josef Albers at Black Mountain College. In 1941, he married a fellow Hofmann student, Virginia Admiral. Their son, Robert De Niro, Jr., was born the following year. De Niros first one-person exhibition was held at Peggy Guggenheims Art of this Century Gallery in April 1946. During his lifetime, his work was shown extensively at prominent New York galleries and included in the Whitney Annual, Stable Annual, and New York School Second Generation exhibition at The Jewish Museum. In 1968, he was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship. Robert De Niro, Sr., died in New York City in 1993. De Niros work may be found in the collections of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Whitney Museum of American Art, the Brooklyn Museum, and the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington, D.C. In August 2008, a one-person exhibition of his work opened at the Fundacin Bilbao Bizkaia Kutxa in Bilbao, Spain.

Published on the occasion of the exhibition

Robert De Niro, Sr.


10 September 25 October 2008 Ameringer & Yohe Fine Art 20 West 57th Street New York, New York 10019 tel: 212 445 0051 fax: 212 445 0102 Credits: Catalogue designed by Hannah Alderfer, HHA Design, New York Printed by CA Design, Hong Kong Publication copyright 2008 Ameringer & Yohe Fine Art All rights reserved ISBN: 978-09793300-9-4 Front cover:
Summer Landscape with Tree

not dated, oil on masonite 28 x 30 inches, 71.1 x 76.2 cm Inside front cover:
Landscape with Road and Field (detail)

page 19 Inside back cover:

Gray Barn in Blue Landscape (detail)

page 15