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What is art and how does it relate to society? Is its value determined by its popularity or originality? Is the goal profit or expressing one's personal vision? These are some of the questions raised as we follow fiercely independent New York artist Robert Cenedella in his artistic journey through decades of struggling for creative expression. A student, protégé and friend of German artist George Grosz, Cenedella is now passing on the legacy of Grosz's approach to art, in the very same room where Grosz taught. In portraying Cenedella's determination to buck the system of what's popular while critiquing that popularity in his attempt to turn the art world upside down, ART BASTARD is a funny, touching, and insightful look inside the maverick mind of a true original.Written by
Intriguing if incomplete documentary about an outsider artist
When I read the New York Times review of ART BASTARD, I wondered why I'd never heard of Robert Cenedella before. The description of his artwork as "a garish New York panorama of traffic, street fights, subways and bars that explode from the canvas with a jostling, rowdy exuberance" made me want to rush to see this. The documentary shows us quite a bit of his artwork, enough to satisfy one's curiosity, but also, in my case, to make me want to see a full gallery exhibit of his work. However, the film raises more questions than it answers. I understand that the reluctance of museums and galleries to exhibit his work is probably what accounts for his relative obscurity, but the film never tells us how he's been able to survive as a painter for nearly six decades. How did he make a living? Did he ever sell a painting? Did any gallery ever take him on? He seems to possess every painting we see in the film, so he can't have sold much. We do learn that he worked briefly in advertising in the 1960s and I would love to have seen what his ad campaigns looked like. Did he succeed in this field? If not, why not? The film jumps to the next phase of his life pretty quickly after that, so we never learn. He then designs counterculture posters offering satirical political images and it's obvious that he captured the zeitgeist of the time and made a lot of money but we hardly see any of the posters and we're not told how he got into that line of work and how he was able to make a success of it. This is, for me, the second most interesting part of his story, after the paintings that made his reputation, and it's glossed over pretty quickly.
We do see shots from his "Yes Art" one-man show of 1965, which was designed as a riposte to Andy Warhol, who is seen briefly in archival interview footage. I wanted to know more about this show, which sounds like the signature achievement of Cenedella's early career and the first time he was recognized in the media, yet we hardly see any of the work that made up the show, so we only have a vague idea of what it was about. We see more about a controversy late in his career when, during his tenure as a teacher at the Art Students League, he was asked to install a "Christmas painting" in the window of the institution for all passersby on West 57th Street to see and he chose "The Presence of Man," a 1988 painting that had caused some controversy when first exhibited because it depicted Santa Claus on a crucifix. This time it caused an even greater commotion and we see some of the media coverage of it, including a call by Bill Donohue of the Catholic League to have it removed because it might offend children passing by. Even here, the film cuts away before answering the obvious question: how did the Art Students League respond to the protests? Did they remove the painting or allow it to stay up for the full month? There's a long section about a mural Cenedella painted for the restaurant, Le Cirque. It's certainly interesting, but it gets way more time than whole phases of his earlier career.
The timeline throughout is blurry and we don't always know what decade we're in. The story jumps back and forth in time. We see footage of Cenedella from earlier productions, but these are never identified and we don't know when they were shot, although one is obviously a documentary about Cenedella's mentor, German caricaturist George Grosz, who had taken the teenage Cenedella under his wing at the Art Students League back in the late 1950s. (The parts about Grosz are quite good.)
IMDb doesn't list the other interview subjects, who include Cenedella's wife, Liz; his sister Joan; TV critic Marvin Kitman, evidently a friend of his; Richard Armstrong, director of the Guggenheim Museum; art appraiser Paul Zirler; and Ed McCormack, managing editor of Gallery & Studio Magazine. The end credits include a slide show of every painting by another artist that was used in the film, complete with a full shot of each painting and full identifications. I don't believe I've seen anything like it in any other art documentary and I found it very helpful.
I knew nothing about Cenedella before seeing this film so I certainly came away knowing more, but at 82 minutes, the film is short enough to have allowed for the inclusion of more details and greater context. Still, despite its omissions, if you're a fan of art documentaries, you should find this worth a look.
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