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Robert de Niro, Sr. and the New York School Artists #SouthOfUnionSquare

The neighborhood South of Union Square is a true crossroads — where art, politics, industry, commerce, the New York elite, and the working class collided to create an eclectic culture and built environment that helped shift the center of the global art world to New York City. In addition to its namesake social realist art movement — the Fourteenth Street School — the neighborhood South of Union Square and its environs were host to a number of influential artists and movements like Abstract Expressionism, the Ninth Street Five, and “The Club.” 

De Niro, Sr. standing in front of one of his paintings.

One artist that worked and lived in the neighborhood during the postwar period was Robert de Niro, Sr. (May 3, 1922 – May 3, 1993). While he might be more popularly known as the father of Oscar-winning actor Robert de Niro, De Niro, Sr. was a significant New York School artist who painted in a style that deftly blended European Modernism and Abstract Expressionism. Born in Syracuse, New York in 1922, de Niro, Sr. attended Black Mountain College in North Carolina from 1939 to 1940 and studied under Bauhaus master Josef Albers. In 1940, Robert de Niro, Sr. moved to Greenwich Village to study under Hans Hoffmann, where he met fellow artist Virginia Admiral, whom he married in 1942. Around this time de Niro, Sr. and Admiral lived and worked in a loft studio in the area South of Union Square at 30 East 14th Street, a thriving collection of art studios in the neighborhood. De Niro, Sr. and Admiral divorced in 1943 shortly after the birth of their son, Robert de Niro, Jr.

Virginia Admiral and Robert De Niro Sr., c. 1940. Photo courtesy of the Estate of Robert De Niro, Sr.
Façade of 30 East 14th Street Artist Studios via Apartments.com.
Facade of 30 East 14th Street in 1959

In 1945, De Niro’s art was exhibited at Peggy Guggenheim’s renowned Art of This Century Gallery in New York, one of the most prominent galleries for established European modernists and the emerging Abstract Expressionists. Exhibited alongside the highly abstract work of Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, and Clyfford Still, de Niro’s vivid abstractions created disoriented still lifes and portraits that captivated critics and viewers alike. 

Still Life, circa 1946, and Anna Christie Entering the Bar, 1976, by Robert De Niro Sr. Photograph: © The Estate of Robert De Niro, Sr. / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.
Garbo as Anna Christie, 1957

Portrait of Mrs. Z, 1959, and Last Painting, 1985-93, by Robert De Niro Sr. Photograph: © The Estate of Robert De Niro, Sr. / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.
Portrait of a Young Man Seated, 1960.

The following year, Peggy Guggenheim gave De Niro his first solo exhibition. He continued to exhibit at the Charles Egan Gallery during the early 1950s, alongside Willem de Kooning and Franz Kline. De Niro’s mark-making technique included a feverous process of drawing, wiping, scraping, and blending. By the mid-1950’s, de Niro was regularly included in important group exhibitions, such as the Whitney Annual, the Stable Annual and shows at the Jewish Museum. He received a Longview Foundation Purchase award in 1958 and was awarded the prestigious Guggenheim Fellowship in 1968. 

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De Niro Sr. in his studio, circa 1958. Photo by Rudy Burckhardt.

The list of artists who worked alongside Robert de Niro, Sr. and Virginia Admiral at 30 East 14th Street is long and impressive. An extensive but nowhere near complete list includes W. Hamilton Gibson, George E. Bissell, Samuel Halpert, Charles Keller, Minna Citron, Kenneth Hays Miller, Arnold Blanch, Harry Sternberg, Yasuo Kuniyoshi, Arthur B. Davies, Howard Daum, May Janko, Agnes Hart, Edwin Dickenson, Carl Ashby, Edward Laning, George Wiggens, Sam Hartman, Raymond Katz, Josef Presser, N. Cikowsky, Bayard Osborn, Helen Hyde, Howard Baar, M. Ponce de Leon, David Cohen, Ben Myers, and Lora Alkan.

With a new mayoral administration, Village Preservation is releasing new information, programs, and initiatives about the area South of Union Square. To learn more about the neighborhood, check out our new and frequently updated South of Union Square Map and Tours. Village Preservation has recently received a series of extraordinary letters from individuals across the world, expressing support for our campaign to landmark a historic district south of Union Square. To help landmark these incredible historic structures and other buildings in this area, click here.

One response to “Robert de Niro, Sr. and the New York School Artists #SouthOfUnionSquare

  1. Wonderful work Andrew. This detail about De Niro Sr. (whose work I love) & the presence of so many other artists is a brilliant strategy in the fight to preserve the character of this area. And in fact it was the reason many of us settled here in the first place. Grateful to you!! Barbara Quart

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