The art is the reason to see the enjoyable but egregiously slight Remembering the Artist: Robert De Niro, Sr. Bold and gorgeous, De Niro’s paintings blended abstract expressionism with the representational techniques of still life to arrive at a striking acknowledgement of the strangeness that resides within the quotidian of domestic life. Having studied under the famed abstract expressionist Hans Hoffman, De Niro was initially acclaimed as a promising new talent after his work was included in the Autumn Salon at Peggy Guggenheim’s Art of This Century in 1945, but he failed, for whatever reason, to draw the lasting attention that would be enjoyed by contemporaries such as Jackson Pollack and Willem de Kooning. Looking at the work, which should’ve been afforded a larger role in the film, we can venture a guess as to why De Niro’s art may have receded from the public’s imagination: There’s a wounded, self-defeated quality, a sense of fragility, to the brushstrokes that has the potential to distract from the confidence of the artist’s technique. It’s as if De Niro is predicting his destiny as a victim of time, as a man to be forever in the background, particularly when his son, named after him, would become one of the world’s most celebrated actors.
It’s a rich, heartbreaking story, a quintessential New-York-artist family saga, but Remembering the Artist doesn’t serve it. At a far-too-abbreviated 40 minutes, the documentary feels like a try-out for a film that might be produced later if audience interest is intense enough. The structure is cluttered and haphazard, rife with conceits that essentially cancel themselves out. De Niro’s famous son occasionally reads from his father’s tormented journals, which discuss his struggles to carve out a place in an art scene that would forge many a legend. Obsessive, depressed, entitled and antisocial, we’re allowed to gather that De Niro probably didn’t have the networking skills that are even required of bohemians, but these suggestions aren’t allowed to breath. Interspersed with these passages, which should have probably compromised much of the film, are interviews with experts such as Robert Storr, dean of the University School of Art, art advisor Megan Fox, and artists like Albert Kresch and Paul Resika, who alternately, redundantly explain the poor timing that stymied the artist’s attempts to reach a large enough audience to support his son and estranged wife.
Directors Perri Peltz and Geeta Gandbhir can’t decide if Remembering the Artist is a father/son saga, a call to arms for the recognition of an underappreciated artist, or a look at the New York art scene right before Andy Warhol’s pop art would change everything, and so they provide us suggestive glimpses of all these stories without ever attempting to definitively plumb any of them. This superficiality is particularly irritating in regard to De Niro’s homosexuality (recently discussed by his son in a poignant interview with Out magazine), an obviously significant influence on his life and art that’s rendered almost beside the point here, as just another bullet fact on an impersonal checklist of detail and incident. You’re never really allowed to feel this story, and that’s a bitter irony. Looking at De Niro’s paintings, hearing his journal entries read aloud, it’s clear that this man yearned to be felt.