'Art Bastard': A Rebel With A Canvas

Jun 3, 2016
Originally published on June 3, 2016 7:03 pm

Robert Cenedella, the titular painter in the briskly entertaining new documentary Art Bastard, is a New York artist who has spent years battling the New York art establishment. To be clear, he is a bastard, in that he was born to parents who weren't married. But also in that he's an inveterate troublemaker — a mocker of other artists — who can be a thorn in the side of even people who are trying to help him.

A publisher, say, who once offered him an ad on an art magazine's back cover, only to have him submit an image of a faux Rothko with the word bulls*** scrawled across it. The publisher, who had thought he was doing Cenedella a kindness, suddenly found himself in a position of either censoring the ad or endorsing what amounted to an attack on another artist. He ended up publishing, but did so, he tells director Victor Kanefsky, with "annoyance."

Perhaps understandably, Cenedella has never been a fashionable artist. He says his heroes were 1920s and '30s activist painters like Ben Shahn and George Bellows, who painted bread lines and Depression scenes.

"They recorded history," he says admiringly. And they had "legitimacy" (a word that crops up a lot in this documentary) because their works were hanging in museums. But by the time Cenedella was hitting his stride, abstraction had taken over the art world — the poured and dripped paintings of Jackson Pollock, for instance, in which expressing a point of view was impossible. Quite apart from which, says Cenedella, "where people might say, 'well, that's a bad Hopper, or a bad El Greco,' I've never seen anyone say 'that's a bad Pollock.' Either they're all bad, or they're all good."

That sort of dyspeptic view did not endear Cenedella to the art establishment. His own paintings, meanwhile, influenced by the fiercely political early work of his mentor and teacher George Grosz, were about the bustling New York he lived in: colorful, action-packed, vibrant, with caricatures of real people.

In the film, director Kanefsky makes his paintings kinetic from the opening shots. A subway painting called Fun City Express is filmed in jiggly close-ups that pan across painted straphangers so that it feels as if you're riding the A train with them.

Another painting started out as a satirical piece about boxing, but when Cenedella realized he had painted one of the boxers to look like the father he grew up with, he decided to make it more personal. He painted the other boxer to look like the man he later learned was his real father.

"They're punching each other, and I was the one getting hurt. This was definitely a painting where I was doing therapy on the canvas. So what else are you gonna call it? Father's Day."

How's that for putting "legitimacy" at the forefront of your work?

Legitimacy in the art world, though, is something determined by galleries and museums, and the film chronicles why that sort of legitimacy has mostly eluded Cenedella. Some of this is self-inflicted. In the 1960s, the explosion of Pop Art — a movement he had no use for — led him to set himself up as the anti-Warhol. For a show he called Yes Art in 1965, instead of Campbell's soup cans, he painted Heinz soup, and in place of Warhol's lithographs of Green Stamps, he gave out actual Green Stamps to people who bought his paintings.

It was a joke that worked. The press went wild. It could have been his moment had he done more of it, but he said no, that to do more of it would just have made him "one of them."

And therein lies the rub: Art Bastard is a film about a man who has tilted — and continues to tilt — at the art-world equivalent of Don Quixote's windmills. He is hardly alone in that. Lots of talented artists will never be shown in museums. And lots of talented artists would doubtless agree with his assessment that the cultural establishment has rigged the game.

"It's not what they show that bothers me," he says quietly while visiting a museum in the film, "it's what they don't show."

And they still don't show Cenedella. But at least for the moment, movie theaters will. And the film company has arranged that some of those theaters will have his work hanging in their lobbies. Not quite the legitimacy he was looking for, but a victory of sorts for a proudly unrepentant Art Bastard.

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KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:

Painter Robert Cenedella is a New York artist who has spent years battling the New York art establishment. A documentary that opens today chronicles that battle. It has a provocative title. It's called "Art Bastard." Critic Bob Mondello says its raises provocative questions from beginning to end.

BOB MONDELLO, BYLINE: First, the title - "Art Bastard." Robert Cenedella is a bastard in that he was born to parents who weren't married, also in that he can be a troublemaker, a mocker of other artists and a thorn in the side, even of people who are trying to help him - a publisher, say, who once offered him an ad on art magazine's back cover.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: So he gives us a copy that he did of a Rothko painting, and it says [expletive] on it. So Bob put me right away in a position of either having to censor him and say, we can't run this, or having to kind of endorse this. So what I chose to do was, we're going to run it. But I did it with a certain kind of annoyance.

MONDELLO: Perhaps understandably, Cenedella has never been a fashionable artist. He says his heroes were 1920s and '30s activist painters like Ben Shahn, Robert Bellows.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "ART BASTARD")

ROBERT CENEDELLA: They'd paint breadlines, lynchings in the South and depression. That's what interested me in art. They recorded history.

MONDELLO: And they had legitimacy - a word that crops up a lot in this documentary - because they were in museums. But by the time Cenedella was hitting his stride, abstraction had taken over the art world - the poured and dripped painting of Jackson Pollock, say, in which expressing a point of view was impossible, on top of which...

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "ART BASTARD")

CENEDELLA: The way he painted, you could do no wrong, basically. People today will say, well, hey, it was a bad Hopper or it was a bad El Greco or this is a bad that. But I've never seen anyone say, oh, this is a bad Pollock. Either they're all bad or they're all good.

MONDELLO: That sort of view dyspeptic view did not endear Cenedella to the art establishment. His own paintings, meanwhile, influenced by the fiercely political early work of his mentor and teacher, George Grosz, were about the bustling New York he lived in - colorful, action-packed, with caricatures of real people. In the film, director Victor Kanefsky makes his paintings kinetic from the opening shots - a subway painting called "Fun City Express," for instance, is filmed in jiggly close-ups that pan across painted straphangers so that it feels as if you're riding the A-train with them. Another painting started out as a satirical piece about boxing, but when Cenedella realized he painted one of the boxers to look the father he'd grown up with, he decided to make it more personal. He painted the other boxer to look like the man he later learned what his real father.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "ART BASTARD")

CENEDELLA: So now they're punching each other, and I was the one getting hurt. This was definitely a painting where I was doing therapy on the canvas. So what - you know, what else are you going to call it? Yeah, "Father's Day."

MONDELLO: How's that for putting legitimacy at the forefront of your work? Legitimacy in the art world, though, is something determined by galleries and museums. And the film chronicles why that sort of legitimacy has mostly eluded Cenedella. Some of this is self-inflicted. In the 1960s, the explosion of pop art - a movement that he had no use for - led him to set himself up as the anti-Warhol. For a show he called "Yes Art" in 1965, instead of Campbell soup cans, he painted Heinz soup cans. And in place of Warhol's lithographs of Green Stamps, he gave out actual Green Stamps to people who bought his paintings. It was a joke that worked. The press went wild. It could have been his moment had he done more of it, but...

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "ART BASTARD")

CENEDELLA: For me, to continue that show - the part that I would be most proud of is that I said no. I said, that's it. "Yes Art" is over because I would have just been one of them.

MONDELLO: And therein lies the rub. "Art Bastard" is a film about a man who has tilted and continues to tilt at the art-world equivalent of Don Quixote's windmills. He is hardly alone in that. Lots of talented artists will never be shown in museums. And lots of talented artists will doubtless agree with his assessment that the cultural establishment has rigged the game.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "ART BASTARD")

CENEDELLA: It's not what they show that bothers me. It's what they don't show.

MONDELLO: And they still don't show Robert Cenedella. But at least for the moment, movie theaters will. And the film company has arranged that some of those theaters will have his work hanging in their lobbies - not quite the legitimacy he was looking for, but a victory of sorts for a proudly unrepentant art bastard. I'm Bob Mondello. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.