Iconoclastic New York painter Robert Cenedella is one of the most distinctive and provocative American artists of the last half century.
But when it comes to the art establishment, Cenedella receives the Rodney Dangerfield treatment – he gets no respect. “Not one American museum has a painting of mine,” he observes.
While his paintings have been ostracized from museums of contemporary art, Cenedella himself has been far from invisible.
But his fame largely rests on his well-publicized role as an agent provocateur who has deftly mocked the art world for its fixation on abstract and conceptual art while disdaining and excluding figurative and politically edgy artists like himself. “I call myself the most widely written-about unknown artist in America,” he says.
That “unknown artist” status may be about to change with the release of Art Bastard, an enthralling and intimate new documentary that traces Cenedella’s unusual personal story and introduces viewers to his compelling canvases.
Best of all the crisply edited film, directed by Victor Kaminsky, frequently fixes in on his crowded and colorful paintings, catching in detail the humor and scabrous satire he deploys to both celebrate and politically skewer urban society and culture.
We recently caught up with Cenedella, who was in Los Angeles for the Southern California debut of Art Bastard at the Laemmle Theater in Santa Monica along with an exhibit of some of his paintings at the adjacent art gallery.
The film, which launched in New York in early June, has so far received rave reviews, possibly propelling it into contention for next year’s best documentary Oscar. It is set to soon become available on Video on Demand.
“The rule has been that only abstract painters and conceptual artists, no matter how content-free and banal, legitimately belong in museums of contemporary art,” Cenedella asserts. “It’s not what they show that bothers me, it’s what they don’t show. For some reason I’m not considered a contemporary artist.”
Will the release of Art Bastard help gain Cenedella the recognition he has long deserved? “I have to believe that after 50 years my time has come, based on all the positive reactions the film has gotten,” he declares. “Pandora’s box has been opened by this film, so the art world will have to justify their neglect of my work.”
Cenedella’s own biography is a compelling part of the documentary. His father was the head of the New York Radio Writer’s Guild, when he was blacklisted in the McCarthy era and his career was crushed. The family went from a comfortable existence to near penury.
A young Cenedella suffered another blow when he learned that this was not his real father, hence one part of the double meaning of the Art Bastard title, the other being his illegitimacy in the eyes of the art world and his thorn-in-the-side response.
A maverick from a young age, Cenedella got thrown out of high school for writing a paper that made fun of the “duck and cover” drills that were supposed to protect students from the sudden blast of an atomic bomb.
The spawn of “I Like Elvis” buttons that Presley fans bought in the 1950s gave him the idea of selling “I Love Ludwig” buttons. He made enough to pay the entry tuition to the Art Students League of New York.
There he was taught by George Grosz, not knowing at first the reputation of the German artist whose coruscating anti-Nazi art caused him to flee his homeland. Grosz became his mentor, passing on to Cenedella both his skilled classical technique and his style of sharp social critique.
Cenedella first captured widespread attention in 1965 with his Yes Art show. It was aimed at puncturing the crass pretensions of the art world with its then-fixation on trendy pop art.
Styling himself as the anti-Andy Warhol, he parodied the artist’s signature painting of a Campbell’s tomato soup can by doing one of a Heinz 57 soup can instead. He copied Robert Indiana’s Love painting, but changed the letters from L-O-V-E to S-H-I-T. He also threw cooked spaghetti against a frame and presented a live model as a work of art.
The show became a press sensation. “More was written about me than Warhol that year,” Cenedella recalls. “Everything I did as a joke was done later and taken seriously, raising the question of what is and isn’t the standard for calling something a work of art, which was really the whole point of the show.”
Instead of glorying in the ironic success of the Yes show and being co-opted, Cenedella threw up his arms in disgust. He exited the cynical art world for the equally cynical Mad Men world of advertising. After a dozen years he returned to painting.
In 1988 he again stirred controversy when he was asked to assemble a one-man show for the New York headquarters of ad agency Saatchi & Saatchi.
One of the paintings, The Presence of Man, showed Santa Claus on a cross replacing Christ. Piles of wrapped presents (pun intended) were piled below, a commentary on the crass commercialization of Christmas. That proved a step too far for the ad agency which cancelled the entire exhibition.
It wasn’t until 1997 that the Santa painting reappeared, prominently hung in a front window of The Art Students League for the holiday season. Worldwide coverage was sparked, and as well as condemnation. “To use a current expression, it went viral overnight,” the painter says slyly.
Not all of Cendella’s work is meant to stir controversy – some of it elicits genial bemusement. Le Cirque — The First Generation, is one of the great group portraits in recent memory.
The 8×10 foot mural includes caricatures of 181 mostly A-list celebrities who frequented New York’s ultimate see-and-be-seen restaurant in its heyday. While enjoying some 50 meals at the four-star restaurant, Cenedella watched and sketched the notables who would show up.
In the painting, which still hangs at Le Cirque’s successor location, Cenedella drolly decided where to place the diners, from Henry Kissinger to Frank Zappa. Gossip columnist Liz Smith is at a front table next to Richard Nixon, and Woody Allen — not a favorite of the artist — gets buried way in the back.
But most of Cenedella’s best paintings pack a powerful political punch. The Battlefield of Energy is a vast polluted landscape with an array of corporate despoilers in the foreground. His frenzied canvas of the U.S. Senate is rife with signs of selling out.
Cenedella, now 76, continues to teach at the Art Students League and to paint. “I’m working now on what I call The End of the World, about the perturbing politics surrounding the current election campaign,” he notes. “Donald Trump is prominently featured.”