Robert De Niro Is Building His Father’s Artistic Legacy

The actor's father, artist Robert De Niro, Sr., was an accomplished painter who never achieved the notoriety he strived for.

Tribeca Storytellers: Robert De Niro & JR In Conversation At Tribeca Festival At Art Basel Miami Beach
Robert De Niro speaks onstage during the ‘Tribeca Storytellers: Robert De Niro & JR In Conversation’ event in Miami. Photo by Jason Koerner/Getty Images

As part of the recent collaboration between the Tribeca Film Festival and Art Basel, the lush grounds of Miami Beach Botanical Garden played host to a small but distinguished audience (Leonardo DiCaprio among them) who were there to see Robert De Niro and French artist JR casually converse about a shared passion project—one that’s been years in the making.

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“We all come from the emotions, psychology and the dreams of someone else: our parents,” said JR. “Robert made me do something that I had never done before, which is the hardest journey in life. Instead of going and seeing the other side of the planet, it’s to go and see within ourselves. That’s something that he’s really mastered.”

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The genesis of their partnership, which began in earnest two and a half years ago, is an ongoing multi-faceted collaboration through which De Niro intends to reflect and extrapolate on his relationship with his parents, but more specifically with his father: the painter, illustrator and writer Robert De Niro, Sr. who died in 1993 at the age of 71.

The younger Robert De Niro, now 80, established the Robert De Niro, Sr. Prize in 2010 and a fellowship in his father’s name in 2011. In recent years, he has been on a quest to understand his father on a deeper level through his father’s art, and he’s taken JR along for the ride, collaborating on a kaleidoscope of projects, from photograph to film. There’s a lot to mine: De Niro, Sr. was a complicated man whose story was previously the subject of a 2014 HBO documentary aptly called Remembering the Artist Robert De Niro, Sr

JR, who came to fame after winning the $100,000 Ted Prize in 2011 and launching the global Inside Out Project, describes himself as part photographer/part street artist. For De Niro, he became the perfect muse.

In Miami, JR and De Niro showed a ten-minute short film of the pair ruminating in Robert De Niro, Sr.’s studio, sipping espresso and paging through archives. In one scene, JR reads from De Niro Sr.’s writing, which depicts a life tinged with disappointment. De Niro, Sr. was gay and never achieved the notoriety he strived for, while his son went on to become a superstar, and these themes define much of what’s there.

American actor Robert De Niro opens exhibition of Robert De Niro Sr. paintings at La Piscine in Roubaix.
De Niro posing next to a painting by his father in La Piscine-Musée d’Art et d’Industrie André Diligent, Roubaix, in 2005. Photo by Franck CRUSIAUX/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images

“It’s a big responsibility,” JR said of choosing what to read. “We’re searching for something, and here it’s the story of his parents. It’s everything that [Robert] never asked, because he can’t ask anymore.”

Those unanswered questions, the unexplored facets of De Niro’s relationship with his father, hang over him. “I have very few photos of when I was younger,” De Niro mused. “And now we have the iPhone and everybody’s taking pictures. We’re so saturated… it’s not bad,  just different.”

Pete Torres, Managing Director of Live Events and Chief Operating Officer of the Tribeca Film Festival, has been fascinated by the evolving collaboration between the actor and the artist.

“Every time we’ve seen a snippet of it, it’s been amazing watching how Bob is opening up so much of his life and his relationship with his dad to JR,” Torres told Observer. “We all work closely with him—Bob still maintains offices there and comes in when he’s not shooting. We’re a very tight-knit family, and it was just so interesting to hear about what they’ve been working on and about his father. I’ve been at Tribeca for sixteen years, and there were details even I didn’t know.”

"Remembering The Artist Robert De Niro,Sr" New York Screening - After Party
Works by De Niro, Sr. hanging at the “Remembering The Artist Robert De Niro,Sr” screening afterparty at MoMA in 2014. Photo by Dimitrios Kambouris/Getty Images

De Niro spoke about a change of heart when it came to chronicling life’s travails. “I remember I had a friend who always had a camera with him to the point of annoyance,” he recalled at the Miami event. “I’d say, ‘Please, not now.’ But now, I have these photos and I’m so glad he took them.”

For the usually guarded De Niro, partnering with JR has been a chance to let that guard down. “Originally I kept my father’s studio exactly the way it was after he passed away,” De Niro explained as birds darted overhead. “I just didn’t want to touch it. In the back of my head, I was thinking I have kids, grandkids and other members of the family who haven’t seen much of it, to know who he was. Especially for my kids to know what a great artist he was to me and a genuine artist.”

But, he added with a laugh, opening that space up to exploration was meaningful and worth doing.

“JR will bug me and so on, and sometimes I just don’t want to do something, but I know it’s important for the family and the kids to get something out of it. He’ll have something in his head, and I’m prepared all the time for it to change to whatever it can be. Sometimes I’ll say to a director, ‘I’ll follow what you feel.’ If I trust and I know they really are good and I have great respect for them, whatever they’re thinking of doing I’ll say ‘Okay,’ because I want to jump outside something I feel comfortable with. That reminds me of this sometimes. This isn’t a movie or a script, but it’s a script in his head.”

Their shared exploration of the life of Robert De Niro, Sr. has taken many forms. There’s a photograph of De Niro, in a rowboat, floating over a picture of his father that JR submerged just below the surface of the water. Another photo shows De Niro lying on a massive image of his father, curled up over his heart.

Tribeca Storytellers: Robert De Niro & JR In Conversation At Tribeca Festival At Art Basel Miami Beach
JR discussing his collaboration with De Niro. Photo by Jason Koerner/Getty Images

“It’s not painful for me to hear that it’s uncomfortable,” JR said, as a photograph he captured of De Niro’s young daughter Helen in De Niro, Sr.’s studio flashed on the backdrop behind them. “There’s nothing comfortable about looking back and learning things that maybe we shouldn’t know about, but sometimes they help us understand who we are. When I see Helen in your father’s studio yawning while you’re trying to talk to her, I feel like it’s a race against time. You’re trying to tell these things to her and she won’t listen, but one day she’ll want to find those answers.”

According to Torres, there’s no clear endpoint to De Niro and JR’s collaboration. “I think the way they’ve been doing this, it’s pretty free-flowing,” he said. “That’s the beauty of it. There’s no structure. That’s the uniqueness.”

While the project has borne fruit, there are currently no plans to exhibit or showcase it; at least yet. “There’s not a deadline, budget or anything,” says De Niro. “It has to just go on and on and go in directions we can’t imagine now.”

Yet as open-ended as his project with JR is, De Niro does have a goal. “Hopefully my daughter will have this and other things from my family,” he concluded. “I wish I had more of that from my family: my mother and father. It’s all important, but you don’t realize it when you’re running through life. It’s important to look at those memories and put together some kind of story. Instead of writing a novel about my life, this project might be my way of doing that.”

Robert De Niro Is Building His Father’s Artistic Legacy