ART BASTARD – Review
ART BASTARD offers a lively, colorful and entertaining look at rebel artist Robert Cenedella, a painter of undeniable artistic talent and integrity who has been out of step with the trends of the art world most of his career. But at a time when people are looking for authenticity, painter Robert Cenedella’s moment many have come.
Director Victor Kanefsky delivers a fun, playful documentary that puts a greater focus on Cenedella’s color-drenched, satiric art work than it does on his biography, offering just enough of the personal to put the artist’s work in proper context. The 76-year-old artist’s career has spanned from the post WWII Abstract Expressionist movement of Jackson Pollack and Mike Rothko, to the Pop Art movement and Andy Warhol, to the present, without fitting into the mainstream trends. Recapping Cenedella’s career gives the audience a little overview of two art movements of the second half of the last century, but from the view point of an artist who has disdain for both.
We get to see a lot of Cenedella’s paintings – energetic, lively scenes that depict his New York – streets filled with New York caricatures of people, action-filled scenes in bright colors, packed with sardonic wit and social commentary. One example is a street fight between two men, presented like a carnival entertainment, with a space surrounded by working-class on-lookers, policemen, medics unloading stretchers. The image brings to mind the energy and human variety of Toulouse Latrec but is filled with wide-mouthed uniquely New York characters. Another painting, “Fun City Express,” features subway riders packed in together in a jumble of faces and bodies, but filled with such energy you can almost feel the bumpy ride. The paintings have beautiful composition but also a bit of the feel of satiric political cartoons.
The title refers to the New York-based artist’s exclusion from the mainstream trends of the art world, here his work never seemed to fit and was therefore labeled “illegitimate.” But the title also refers to his personal life, as the artist learned that the man who had raised him was not his biological father. The man he had grown up believing was his father was a writer who was blacklisted in the 1950s, not for being a communist but for refusing to either confirm or deny it, maintaining that the question was an assault on his rights. His biological father was a family friend, a professor of English at Colgate University. A painting illustrates Cenedella’s feeling about that, with two white-haired old men as presented as boxers in a ring, with a rowdy crowd cheering them on, a painting titled “Father’s Day.”
There is yet another meaning to the film’s title, as Cenedella is a lifelong trouble-maker and rebel, who once mocked Andy Warhol’s paintings of S&H Green Stamps by giving away actual Green Stamps with purchase of paintings at his 1966 “Yes Art” exhibition.
As a child, Cenedella only every wanted to be an artist. Growing up in a family that struggled financially after his father was blacklisted, Cenedella struggled with school. He was kicked out of high school after writing an essay satirizing the school’s “duck and cover” nuclear attack drills, but managed to make enough money to attend art school by creating and selling “I Like Ludwig” buttons (meaning Beethoven) that played on both the “I Like Ike” campaign and the “I Like Elvis” buttons popular at the time.
Having trained with German Expressionist artist George Grosz, Cenedella adopted the painting style of the 1920s and 1930s, an era of social commentary in painting, which he admired, as well as a time when imagery was abstracted but still recognizable. As Abstract Expressionist was in ascendance, Cenedella’s technically-masterful, meaning-packed and satirical painting of people and places were deemed old-fashioned. As one gallery owner put it to the young artist, “ “Bob, you’ve missed the boat. No one does this kind of art any more.” In the film, Cenedella acknowledges the technical skill of Pollock but asserts that it is only half of painting. He observes that people might say about a particular El Greco painting, “well, that’s a bad El Greco,” but no one ever says that about a Pollock. Cenedella notes “Either they are all bad or they are all good.”
Cenedella’s hard assessment of other artists’ work is consistent with his painting. One interviewee in the film describes his works as “people’s art” – not realistic but journalistic, much like his mentor George Grosz’s art in his time, whose post WWI – pre-Nazi paintings in Germany ridiculed society, government and Hitler in particular- and examples are shown to illustrate. Cenedella’s paintings are both humorous and serious, packed with social commentary and observations on human nature, but with a gallows humor.
The documentary makes extensive use of Cenedella’s paintings over his long and still running career, as well as featuring works by other artists, both artists who influenced Cenedella – Grosz, George Bellows, Grant Wood – and his contemporaries – Pollock, Rothko, Warhol. The sheer number of artworks presented are the film’s best feature, along with its thoughtful discussions about art by Cenedella himself, a charming, appealing, unpretentious man’s man type, and other art experts discussion Cenedella’s work and modern art trends. The film delves into the modern trend of commercialized art, where collectors rather than artists dictate trends and what is or is not art. Cenedella, still the rebel, regards that as a type of censorship.
ART BASTARD is an enjoyable film, both funny and thought-provoking about an artist who deserves to be better known.
ART BASTARD Opens Friday, June 24th at
LANDMARK’S TIVOLI THEATRE