Review: ‘Art Bastard’ Depicts Robert Cenedella, a Rebel Artist

Photo
Robert Cenedella in 1988 in his Manhattan studio. Credit Robert Cenedella/CAVU Pictures

"It's not what they show, it's what they don't show," the painter Robert Cenedella complains in "Art Bastard," Victor Kanefsky's robust, plain-talking documentary portrait of this lifelong rebel and art-world gadfly. "They" are museum curators and gallerists who are not interested in showing the work of Mr. Cenedella, a gifted painter and visual satirist.

His painting style reflects two traditions. One is the urban realism of Reginald Marsh, George Bellows and other American painters who flourished in the early 20th century before the ascension of Abstract Expressionism. The other is the satirical, Dadaist-influenced work of the German caricaturist George Grosz, who fled Nazi Germany in 1933 for the United States and taught for many years at the Art Students League in New York.

The film's title refers both to Mr. Cenedella's outspoken antipathy toward painterly abstraction and its attendant critical gobbledygook, and to his actual parentage. When he was 6, he recalls, he was shattered by his mother's confession that his biological father was not Robert Sr., who was an executive for the Radio Writers Guild until he was blacklisted as a suspected Communist in 1953, but Russell Speirs, an English professor at Colgate University. As he puts it caustically, he "had two fathers who didn't amount to one."

Born in Massachusetts, Mr. Cenedella grew up in New York and attended the High School of Music & Art, from which he was expelled for writing a letter ridiculing civil-defense drills in which students huddle under their desks. At the Art Students Leag ue, he became a protégé of Grosz, who was renowned for his depictions of Berlin street life. In the same spirit, Mr. Cenedella's works portray a garish New York panorama of traffic jams, street fights, subways and bars that explode from the canvas with a jostling rowdy exuberance.

When Grosz returned to Germany in 1959, Mr. Cenedella stowed away on his ship but was discovered and removed. Grosz died only weeks after arriving in Germany as a result of a fall down a flight of stairs.

Mr. Cenedella, now 76, isn't afraid to offend. One of his most notorious canvases, "The Presence of Man" (1988), a satire of holiday materialism that depicts the crucifixion of Santa Claus surrounded by Christmas presents, was denounced by the Catholic League. His response to Pop Art was "Yes Art," a 1965 one-man exhibition mocking Andy Warhol. During the Vietnam War years, he designed Richard M. Nixon and Lyndon B. Johnson dartboards. In response to "I Like Elvis" buttons, Mr. Cenedella, a devotee of classical music, made and distributed "I Like Ludwig" buttons.

The film's only luminary from the art-world establishment is Richard Armstrong, director of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, who muses enigmatically about art as an investment opportunity but takes no position about its aesthetic worth. For philistines mystified by the value attached to so many artworks that to an untrained eye look worthless, Mr. Cenedella comes across as a reassuring voice of sanity.

"Art Bastard" is not rated. Running time: 1 hour 24 minutes.

Art Bastard

NYT Critics' Pick

  • Director Victor Kanefsky

  • Writer

  • Star Robert Cenedella

  • Running Time 1h 22m

  • Genres Documentary, Biography, Comedy, History

  • Movie data powered by IMDb.com
    Last updated: Jun 2, 2016
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