Film Review: Art Bastard

An artist and bohemian in the truest sense of those words is celebrated in this inspiring doc about his work and gloriously independent life.
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The roiling, often hilarious and satirically biting art of Robert Cenedella calls to mind the work of such as Breughel and George Grosz. And no wonder—the first painter has been a lifelong inspiration to the artist, and the latter was his teacher. I myself was unfamiliar with Cenedella, and it's no wonder for, although he has been painting for most of his 76 years, he has never found huge favor with the so-called art establishment. No, that modern cabal of galleries, dealers, deep-pocketed collectors and museums, traditionally skittish about anything figurative or representative, have more or less shunted him to the outskirts of their pricily elite hothouse world.

Moreover, Cenedella has never been one to court their favor either, having very little respect for the celebrity-crazed, purely commercial values—many of which he feels are anti-art in themselves—they celebrate. In Victor Kanefsky's rousing documentary Art Bastard, an art magazine publisher, who with grudging admiration describes Cenedella as “a pain the ass," recalls giving him an important page in the 1960s. Cenedella painted a copy of a Mark Rothko and scrawled "bullshit" over it, and to anyone who has ever scratched their head or even become infuriated by so much of what passes for success in the art world, this film and this man will be a marvelous vindication.

Although Grosz at the Art Students League of New York taught Cenedella to "think with his hands"—i.e., really see the natural lines in nature and properly render them—the post-war triumph of Abstract Expressionism created an era, as Cenedella says, in which art became a kind of therapy and a technical exercise, in which an artist like Jackson Pollock, with his random paint drops, could never do anything bad. Ergo, all of it was good or, if you were not a fan, all of it was bad. Artists he revered like George Bellows, Reginald Marsh and Grosz fell out of favor simply because they had a point of view, which was then anathema to express. (Cenedella's poignant memories of the great Grosz, who escaped from Germany only to unwillingly return there and immediately die years later, provide the film's most touching moments.) Although the rise of Warhol and Pop Art brought figurative paintings back in vogue, Cenedella's response was to curate a show sending up all of that triteness, including Green stamps sold as art and paintings of Heinz cans, saying they made a superior soup to Warhol's famed Campbell's.

Kanefsky's frankly admiring yet wonderfully tactful camera follows Cenedella in what seems to be a now quite contented life, despite his lack of art clout: wandering New York City, sensitively instructing students at his alma later, the League, where he has worked for years, joshing with fellow barflies at his local hangout, sharing the family spaghetti sauce recipe in the kitchen, and reminiscing with his wry sister about their politically progressive, intellectual and less-than-ideal parents. His father, the head of what both siblings agree was a dysfunctional family, was blacklisted during the Communist witch hunt for refusing to divulge his exact beliefs and, likewise, Cenedella was expelled from school for not signing an oath of loyalty to the country.

"Dysfunctional,” incidentally, is a huge understatement, for as a child Cenedella discovered that his real father was Russell Spiers, a college English professor, who had little to do with him until he remembered him in his will, to the astonishment of all who never knew of the existence of this son. That devastating sense of displacement remained within him, causing severe, lifelong depression, a sense of never quite fitting in and, always, a bold attack on and questioning of society's ills, which so inform his vibrantly hued, deeply political work.

"I had two fathers," he says, "who, together, barely made up one real father." But, to his credit, the humorously loving presence of his son in the movie, the self-described "black sheep of the family" who became—horrors!—a lawyer, attests to at least one vicious familial cycle being broken and is indicative of the quality of the man, as well as the artist. In words that beautifully speak the simple truth and are as eloquent as his musings about what real art is, Cenedella remarks, "You spend time with children and treat them the way you'd like to be treated and they'll turn out all right."

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