Art and Film: Robert Cenedella’s legitimacy

Contributed by Jonathan Stevenson / Victor Kanefsky’s effervescent documentary Art Bastard casts 76-year old New York painter Robert Cenedella as a kind of aesthetic Robin Hood who robs from hallowed art tradition to give ordinary people bravura paintings that don’t require them to plumb art history or some other arcane discipline to appreciate. Cenedella counts George Bellows as an antecedent, admires El Greco and Hopper, and studied for two years with the great German artist George Grosz, whom he adored and considers under-appreciated.

[Image at top: Robert Cenedella, Broome Street Bar, 1979,  oil on primed linen, 40 x 50 inches. Images via the artist’s website.]

A product of adultery, therefore technically “illegitimate,” Cenedella sees himself as a resolute art outsider who did not win (or, according to the film, strenuously solicit) the attention of major galleries. He slams abstract painting as spurious because the absence of a clear real-world visual referent allows it to escape objective critique. “I’ve never heard anyone say, ‘that’s a bad Pollock’,” he quips. The unambiguous suggestion here is that abstract painting is somehow impure and inferior, which seems to coincide fortuitously with the current revival of figurative painting. Also implicit in his candid position are a rejection of art as a solitary, introverted pursuit and a celebration of its cathartic social and psychological potential. In this vein, his ironic Father’s Day, depicting two flabby old men slugging it out in a ring à la Bellows’s Club Night, is a fine example.

Cenedella frequents bars, thrives on street life, and privileges his own subjectivity. In this, of course, he is not unlike many anointed artists who are part of the art-historical canon: Toulouse-Lautrec, Modigliani, and the Cedar Bar denizens among the AbExers themselves, as well as Bellows, come to mind. Yet whereas the granularity of Bellows’s work imparts a kind of elegiac graveness to what he is depicting, Cenedella’s loose, expressionistic brushwork and in-your-face sardonicism – a hockey player with a stick up his ass, for instance – registers mainly snide, irreverent lament that jars against true Ashcan realism. The attitude is perhaps philosophically akin to a young Grosz’s, but Cenedella’s bright colors and broad humor keep his work on the surface, and bar it from achieving the mournfulness and Dadaist urgency of the German painter’s pre-emigration years. Even so, Cenedella’s infamous The Presence of Man (1988), depicting Santa Claus on a crucifix above a pile of wrapped Christmas gifts, is a bull’s-eye of Hallmark irony.

 Robert Cenedella, The Presence of Man, 1988, oil on primed linen,72 x 56 inches.

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The film is cheerfully adulatory, and unabashedly leverages the artist’s rough charm and artful pranksterism, eliding the views of ranking critics, curators, or other artists about the merits of his work. But the movie also presents a generous selection of his paintings and richly contextualizes them, which enables viewers to assess their value for themselves. At bottom, Cenedella’s practice is about social engagement, personal reaction, and frank judgment. Notwithstanding the movie title’s conceit, Cenedella seems less a bastard, in either metaphorical sense, than a skillful art populist and an amiable scold.

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Two Coats of Paint is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution – Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License. To use content beyond the scope of this license, permission is required.

Two Coats of Paint is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution – Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License. To use content beyond the scope of this license, permission is required.

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