After decades of exhibitions, books and dinner table discussions about the artistic and literary heyday of the University at Buffalo in the 1960s and ’70s, certain names are chiseled into the city’s cultural consciousness like saints on the wall of a Gothic cathedral: Charles Olson. John Barth. Robert Creeley. Leslie Fiedler.
But one name that doesn’t show up much in the ongoing conversation about this heavily researched and deeply nostalgized era is Robert De Niro Sr., the Syracuse-born painter and father of the Oscar-winning actor of the same name, who taught and painted in Buffalo for seven summers at the invitation of poet and UB faculty member Irving Feldman in the late-1960s and early-1970s.
That’s about to change with the UB Anderson Gallery’s exhibition “Robert De Niro, Sr. and Irving Feldman: Painter and Poet at UB in the Late-1960s,” an exhibition of the painter’s Buffalo-based works paired with excerpts of Feldman’s poems, artwork by De Niro’s student Barbara Insalaco and ephemera from the UB Poetry Collection. The show, curated by UB Art Galleries Director Sandra H. Olsen with key contributions from Feldman and Poetry Collection Curator Michael Basinski, opens with a reception at 7 p.m. Friday and runs through Oct. 24.
The idea for the exhibition was planted when UB Law School alumnus and UB Foundation chairman Francis M. Letro was browsing through a catalog at the DC Moore Gallery in New York City, which represents De Niro’s work, and came across a catalog listing for a 1967 exhibition of the painter’s work in Buffalo.
Letro asked Olsen about De Niro, and she made a few calls to confirm that De Niro taught summer workshops here from 1967 to 1973. After conversations with artists of the era like Harvey Breverman, who recalled De Niro fretting about his only son’s career as a struggling actor over lunches on campus, Olsen focused on the long friendship between Feldman and De Niro and the cultural activity swirling around them.
“This was a pinnacle time, and what I’m really pleased about is that UB played a huge role in it,” Olsen said in a phone interview. “My challenge was, how do I, in an art exhibition, make sure that the poet and the artist get equal presentation?”
The solution was to include excerpts of Feldman’s poems, which he chose to pair with specific paintings, and blow them up into wall labels. A sense of the heady era at UB also comes via a collection of literary publications from the UB Poetry Collection. By including Insalaco’s gritty “Riverscapes” series from the 1990s, Olsen also hoped to demonstrate the influence De Niro had on his many students.
Olsen said De Niro’s time in Buffalo clearly had a striking effect on his development as a painter. “He had done a whole series of landscapes in Buffalo and he talks about them in his journals,” Olsen said. “Everything changed, the palette changes, the colors in the palette become brilliant, the composition radically changes. It had a dramatic effect on his style.”
Also opening Friday in the Anderson gallery is an exhibition of photographs of Kleinhans Music Hall taken shortly after it opened in 1940 by Robert Damora. Visitors also can check out a new outdoor, fabric-based installation by Brooklyn-based artist Amanda Browder, who worked with local volunteers to sew together enormous pieces of fabric that will be hung at the Anderson Gallery and moved to the UB Center for the Arts later this month.