In the 1950s amid New York City’s bustling art scene, a handsome, dark-eyed painter made his mark as an abstract expressionist.
His son is much more well known today because of his acting credits, but the late Robert De Niro Sr. was a renowned artist who influenced the next generation of abstract artists.
With his wild black pompadour, De Niro cut a striking figure in New York City’s art scene. Unlike many abstract artists, De Niro’s work was figurative. In addition to his study of color and space, De Niro often painted nudes and still lifes. That set him apart from other artists, said Jennifer Bottomly-O’Looney, senior curator of the Montana Historical Society.
“He was really rather prolific,” Bottomly-O’Looney said. “He did painting and he did drawings with pastel. Some artists would use thick layers of paint and carve into it using a palette knife or a stick. Some artists would express with lines like De Niro. Some would be throwing stuff at the canvas trying to achieve a gesture.”
De Niro’s 40- by 46-inch painting “Seated Figure” is part of the YAM’s permanent collection. It will be on display through the end of May at the YAM’s Visible Vault.
The 1970 oil painting came to the YAM in 1977 as part of the Poindexter Collection, which included works donated to the Montana Historical Society and the YAM by a former Dillon rancher, the late George Poindexter, and his wife, Elinor. The couple lived on New York’s Fifth Avenue and operated one of New York’s pivotal art galleries from 1955 through 1975.
George, a successful commodities broker, made for an unusual art enthusiast. A highly successful businessman, George had money and friends, yet he yearned to understand the cultural phenomenon of modern
art. He called that exercise the “most difficult journey” he had ever undertaken.
“On his way to work, he would walk by the galleries and see abstract expressionist paintings and he was very confused,” Bottomly-O’Looney said. “He said it looked like messy colors. So he started to study it to understand. He bought pieces and became friends of artists. One morning, he had an epiphany. It became clear to him that the black marks in the paintings were balanced elements.”
By the 1960s, George decided he wanted to share this love of abstract expressionism with the people of Montana. He identified two venues that could properly keep these important works of art — the Montana Historical Society in Helena and the newly opened Yellowstone Art Center, now the Yellowstone Art Museum.
The Montana Historical Society Museum was given 99 works of art, 18 of which were De Niro’s paintings and lithographs. The collection includes works by Jackson Pollock, who was born in Cody, Wyo., Willem de Kooning and Franz Kline.
The YAM has 400 works in its Poindexter Collection, 38 of which are by De Niro.
Gordon McConnell, former curator at the YAM, recalled one memorable trip to New York with former YAM director Donna Forbes. They visited Elinor in the early 1990s after George had passed away.
“She was lovely,” McConnell said. “She was in her 80s and very elegant, kind of fragile, very thoughtful and courteous. All of her closets were filled with paintings. We picked out about 30 pieces that day and the family donated them to the museum.”
McConnell, himself a professional artist, was impressed with Poindexter’s large and important collection of works. When so many of the pieces of their collection were donated to Montana venues, it was a boon to the entire state of Montana, not just the artists, McConnell said.
Some of Montana’s most noteworthy artists, including Bill Stockton, Isabelle Johnson, and Bob and Genie DeWeese, were developing modernist works at the same time the Poindexters were in New York acquiring works by abstract expressionist artists, McConnell said. Others, including Neil Jussila, longtime art professor at Montana State University Billings, used George Poindexter’s essay on appreciating modern art to help his students understand the movement.
“I loved the title, ‘One Man’s Journey Through Space - and Color’ and continue to admire it,” Jussila said. “The title, in few words, really nailed the meaning of abstract art. And for a sophomore level art major in 1962-63, it made me aware not of what art is but what art can be.”
Jussila said that seeing the Poindexter Collection led to his own “sojourn through time, space and color and I am grateful.”
Jussila is still actively painting abstract works and in March, his piece was the top-selling item at the Yellowstone Art Museum’s annual auction, selling for $6,750.
Abstract expressionism is not a style, like pop art or impressionism, Jussila said. It is an ongoing, open-ended approach to painting.
“It’s an expression of soul. It’s alive and filled with spirit. This is the stuff of the street. It’s meant for anyone fed up with an uptight, little life who wants to get out of it and throw paint around,” Jussila said.
The Poindexter Collection at the Montana Historical Society is the second most requested collection, second only to the Charles Russell Collection, Bottomly-O’Looney said. It has traveled to 14 states where the collection has been featured in 50 art exhibits. The latest request for the collection came from a gallery in Alaska.
“It’s a highlight of tours we provide for art students,” Bottomly-O’Looney said.
McConnell said the Poindexter Collection enriches the cultural landscape of Montana.
“Modern art is not universally loved,” McConnell said. “I love the idea that Poindexter felt that given the right amount of education support, anyone could appreciate modern art. It does require a little context, but modern art is not an elitist thing. Little kids can get it if they are given the opportunity to view modern works.”