De Niro Reasserts Control of Father’s Art, Launches New Prize
Illuminated by a skylight at midday, the actor Robert De Niro stood in a sixth-floor lower Manhattan studio and smiled for a photographer.
“Cheese!” he said playfully, wearing a corduroy jacket, his gray locks tumbling down to his ears.
I met with the 67-year-old to discuss his “calling” -- protecting and promoting art created by his father. Robert De Niro Sr. died in 1993 at 71 of prostate cancer. The artist lived and worked in this roughly 2,000-square-foot space his son maintains, upstairs from what are now trendy boutiques and galleries on West Broadway.
A blue bicycle was propped up near easels and a trolley with neatly arrayed brushes and tubes of crusted paint. De Niro Sr.’s colorful figurative drawings and paintings hung salon- style over exposed brick walls -- depicting flowers, reclining nudes and clothed people.
The actor said he has kept this time capsule for 17 years so his five children, particularly his three youngest who range from 12 to 15, could experience something of their grandfather’s world.
“I’m not into art, but I’m into my father’s art and I know when something is done with great care,” said De Niro, who also displays the work at restaurants he co-owns -- Nobu, Locanda Verde and Tribeca Grill -- and at his Greenwich Hotel.
“I said to people at the hotel, ‘When it comes to my father’s work, you’re lucky you have it here. This is special.’”
De Niro recently took greater control over his father’s work. A catalyst was the implosion of Lawrence Salander, the streetwise Upper East Side art dealer entrusted with the estate who was indicted for fraud in 2009 and imprisoned earlier this year.
Prosecutors said Salander-O’Reilly Galleries sold paintings by De Niro Sr. owned by the actor without informing or paying him, among other misdeeds. De Niro’s lawyers spent two years in U.S. Bankruptcy court recovering several artworks.
The actor has hired art advisers Megan Fox Kelly and Jeffrey Hoffeld. They are researching his father’s work and are in talks with museums about a new exhibition. De Niro’s nonprofit Tribeca Film Institute has also introduced a $25,000 annual prize in his father’s name to reward a “mid-career artist.”
“Jeff really thought that it was something that was needed in the art world,” Kelly said. “We presented the idea to Bob and he loved it.”
‘It’s an Asset’
DC Moore Gallery recently took on the De Niro estate. President Bridget Moore said most of his oil paintings sell for $30,000 to $50,000, works on paper go for $1,500 to $30,000.
Said De Niro: “In an odd paradoxical way, the more they cost, the more the art is preserved because it’s an asset. That’s OK with me, just to make sure it’s preserved and has a home.”
De Niro was concise but passionate in the interview, even getting choked up when regretfully describing his indifference as a child to his father’s art openings.
“Sometimes we’d go to movies. He’d like me to go to shows, his openings. I just wasn’t interested.”
De Niro Sr. had early success, with a one-man show at age 23 at the West 57th Street gallery of collector Peggy Guggenheim. (Her uncle would later establish the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation.) De Niro Sr. was intense, self-confident and “often swimming against the prevailing mainstream,” according to a 2004 book Salander published about him.
A representative painter when abstraction flourished, he taught art and worked as a security guard to make ends meet. The book’s introduction, by curator and critic Peter Frank, describes him at times as being in a “fragile emotional state” and diagnosed as bipolar.
Fear of Flying
In the interview, De Niro said he flew to Paris in 1965 at 22, to coax his father into returning to New York after spending five years in France.
“He was afraid to fly,” De Niro said. “I pushed him on the plane to get back.”
The actor was in France again in March 2010, proudly visiting an exhibition of his father’s art at the Matisse Museum in Nice. His work is also in the collections of the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Whitney Museum of American Art.
As for Salander, he was recently transferred to a medium- security state prison 60 miles east of Syracuse, the city where De Niro Sr. was born. De Niro said his father generally distrusted dealers.
“He was always cynical about them, so I find it ironic that the one person he endorsed before he passed away was Larry Salander. And Larry’s a charmer -- and I still like Larry -- and he did what he did,” he said.
“You have to be on top of everything to make sure it’s done right,” De Niro said. “At that time I thought Larry would take care of it. It doesn’t work that way. God helps those who help themselves.”
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