Art Bastard is a vibrant and tender movie about New York artist Robert Cenedella. Who?
The film, about a talented, articulate and ambitious artist, raises an important question. Why is an artist overlooked? A movie can’t answer definitively, but in 84 fast-paced and colorful minutes Art Bastard delivers a hint of why a rebellious yet loveable personality and his rollicking, politically-charged and mostly humorous paintings are under the New York art world radar. In the words of the movie’s smartest commentator, the oracular Richard Armstrong, Director of the Guggenheim Museum and Foundation, “It’s about chance and geography.”
Cenedella the outsider.
Writer-Director Victor Kanefsky has crafted a thoroughly engaging portrait of a witty and driven artist – now 75 — whose life story is as poignant as his paintings are comical and wild. Through interviews with his sister, friends, collectors and the wise Richard Armstrong, the unfolding story — with a wonderful soundtrack of music from jazz to Gregorian Chant and Mozart — is a sweeping look at an artist driven to speak his heart and to live life true to who he was, a politically-aware and morally driven gadfly.
Cenedella’s childhood was a hornet’s nest of drama. Revealed in on-camera reminiscences and conversations between Cenedella and his sister, Joan, we learn of a mother’s drinking, a father black-listed during the McCarthy era, and Cenedella’s expulsion from high school during the same era because he wouldn’t sign a “loyalty oath.” The most poignant revelation, which Cenedella tosses off with a kind of shrugging acceptance, happens when he is 6 and overhears his mom say that his dad is not his real dad – his real dad is not married to his mom. Immediately, Cenedella becomes the outsider, a felt status that informs his every painting and act.
Voluble and quotable, Cenedella has many opinions about politics and life. Of the man he called dad but who wasn’t: “It was like growing up with Hamlet.” (The man was indecisive.) About his mom: “When she was drunk she was the worst, when she was not drunk she was the best.” About having two dads: “ I had two dads and it didn’t add up to one.”
Influence of George Grosz
Cenedella went to the Art Students League after being kicked out of high school. There he studied with the German artist, George Grosz, who was a huge influence on the teenage budding artist. Of Grosz, his mentor, Cenedella said, “There was never small talk with Grosz.” And, “He taught me how to draw but also how to drink.” Grosz went back to Germany and died in 1959, something that haunts Cenedella. “I was devastated.”
Against the tide of Abstraction
In the 1960s, the artist didn’t take kindly to either Abstract Expressionism (“It’s only half the art – it’s technique”) or to Pop. He mounted a parody-Pop show. Andy Warhol might paint S&H Green Stamps, but Cenedella actually gave away S+H Green Stamps with each painting sold at the show. Then, he stopped painting for ten years, and worked in a design firm.
Richard Armstrong, opining on the art world and the plight of overlooked artists, says, “The worst is to be overlooked.” It’s like “a permanent disappearance.” About making it in the art world, he follows up with an incomplete list of what it takes: “You have to be lucky, clever, talented, beautiful, a friend of someone…”
What Armstrong indicates is that a certain elasticity of morality exists in the art world and that if you’re elastic enough, you might find a place at the table. Cenedella’s motto: “Don’t compromise your art. If you do, then why be an artist?” does not fit. A magazine editor who appears in the movie and calls Cenedella “a pain in the ass,” says, “The last taboo is to be sincere like Bob is. He’s a pugnacious character rushing through like Don Quixote.”
While you might ponder over the movie’s title, rest assured that Cenedella is not a despicable person. He’s a gadfly whose paintings are filled with a sense of outrage but also humor at the comedy of life. Sure, those paintings are not for everyone. But there’s no artist alive or dead that is for everyone. You will enjoy your 84 minutes with Bob Cenedella. Like his paintings, he’s one coloful character. Bravo to the filmmakers for celebrating his life and works.