Paint Brushes Full, Robert De Niro Sr. Really Thought Big

Artists who think big and don’t hesitate to let the world know about their ambitions are often a trial to their contemporaries and a conundrum to posterity. The demands they make on their own gifts are so exorbitant that it’s difficult-for them as well as for us-to know when (or if) they have succeeded in realizing their fondest dreams. All we can be certain of is that when we look at their work, we are in the presence of outsize endeavor and an ego of comparable dimensions.

As we’ve lately been reminded by a compelling exhibition at the Salander-O’Reilly Galleries and the publication of an unusually interesting monograph, Robert De Niro Sr. (1922-1993) was a figure of this description. Not only as a painter and a draftsman but as a writer, too, he displayed a profligate talent that was designed to sweep us off our feet-and sometimes even succeeded in doing so.

As a painter, De Niro aspired to nothing less than competition with the Old Masters, with whose work he felt a deep sense of kinship, and as a writer on art he was often a more penetrating critic than many professionals. Compare De Niro’s essay on Bonnard, which is included in its entirety in the new monograph, with some of the absurdities written by Linda Nochlin and Peter Schjeldhal on the same subject, and you’ll see what I mean.

This is Ms. Nochlin on Bonnard’s paintings of his wife Marthe: “exquisite rot, canvases shimmering with the iridescence of putrefaction, glowing with the ooze of the informe.” This is Mr. Schjeldhal: “There is a decadence that excites and decadence that enervates. Bonnard’s is the second sort: edgeless, nerveless, weird, fussy.” And this is De Niro: “His work besides being an expression of light is often about light and its play on forms, and this gives it its often evanescent quality …. To me his affinity is more with Watteau and Fragonard than with Poussin or even Titian.” (De Niro was equally cogent when writing about Manet, Munch and Soutine.)

In his excellent essay on De Niro for the new monograph, Peter Frank sets the record straight on a great many details of the artist’s life and work. On one subject, however-De Niro’s alleged closeness “in spirit” to Bonnard-I must disagree. Neither in spirit nor in substance did Bonnard and De Niro have anything in common as painters. Bonnard painted from the wrist, so to speak, applying one dab of color at a time in a spirit of intimacy with both his subject and his materials. De Niro painted with his arm, in sweeping gestures and bold outlines. (Indeed, there’s more of de Kooning in De Niro’s paintings of the female figure than there is of Bonnard.) And nothing could be more alien to Bonnard’s sensibility than such “black paintings” (as they may be called) as De Niro’s River Bathers (1956) and Crucifixion Après Mantegna (1985), which are reproduced in the monograph.

Even as a colorist-and at his best De Niro was a brilliant colorist-he was closer to Matisse than to Bonnard: De Niro drew on canvas with a brush loaded with color. The still life entitled Last Painting (circa 1985-93) is a virtual homage to Matisse, and many of De Niro’s beautiful drawings, too, owe much to the example of Matisse’s draftsmanship.

As for the paintings explicitly based on the work of earlier masters, ranging from Delacroix to Mantegna, what was of primary interest to De Niro was neither their subjects nor their style but the occasions they offered for an expression of his own painterly virtuosity. The paintings “after” Delacroix’s Moroccan Women series do capture something of Delacroix’s bravura, but De Niro’s Crucifixion paintings are so devoid of both religious sentiment and iconographic detail that they verge on abstraction. (Indeed, the subjects in many of De Niro’s paintings tend to be ambiguous.)

The undated painting called Untitled Abstract in the Salander-O’Reilly exhibition looks to me to be a painting of a seated figure in a white shirt with a guitar resting on a shelf in the upper area of the picture, just above the head of the sitter. Mr. Frank is certainly correct in characterizing De Niro as a “painterly representationalist,” but it’s also true that De Niro brought to his representational paintings an eye schooled in the aesthetics of abstraction.

In this connection, it’s worth recalling that De Niro began his adult career as an abstract painter who, at the age of 24, won high praise from Clement Greenberg. Reviewing De Niro’s first solo exhibition at Peggy Guggenheim’s Art of This Century gallery in 1946, Greenberg wrote: “[T]he originality and force of [De Niro’s] 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.” Strangely, however, what Greenberg objected to was De Niro’s “hot, violent color”-precisely what I and many others especially admire in his later paintings.

What we need, now that the history of his career has been established, is a retrospective exhibition that will bring the sum of De Niro’s achievements to a public scarcely aware of their existence.