“Art Bastard” is a promising title for a portrait-of-the-artist documentary. It suggests that we’re going to see a movie about how art, far from being made by nice guys, is fueled by currents of rage and illegitimacy — a disdain for everything respectable. That’s certainly true of the work of Robert Cenedella, the painter Victor Kanesfky’s lightly diverting doc is about. The artist himself has almost no visible demons to speak of. White-bearded and potato-faced, with the mild conversational style of an accountant from the Midwest, Cenedella was, in fact, an illegitimate child (something he never seems to harbor much resentment about), but he grew up to become a gentle, friendly, bar-hopping prole of an artist. Yet he reveals surprising layers, and that’s true, too, of his madly grabby and energized paintings.
When you first see one, for a few seconds it can look like you’re staring at something that’s been propped up on the sidewalk by a New York street painter. The canvases, with their busy grayish backgrounds and splashy dabs of gaudy, shocking color, are big overstuffed crowd scenes that look not so much drawn as scrawled. The technique, at a glance, is a touch vulgar. It’s art in the raw.
But that’s almost the trick that Cenedella is playing. Look closely, and you’ll see that each of the faces he’s drawn (in one canvas, there might be 70 of them) is different from the face next to it. A few of them always seem to be screaming, but each one has a personality, a distinct look and attitude, almost a history. Cenedella’s paintings call up echoes of other artists — the street scenes of Ben Shahn, the head-trip portraiture of R. Crumb, the village squares of Bruegel — but he doesn’t have the graphic technique of any of those people. He’s making primitive pop extravaganzas that feel like “Where’s Waldo?” illustrations drawn by a mad German Expressionist. But that’s their grandeur — the fact that Cenedella creates such an insanely detailed, swirling diorama of urban life without being touched by any left-hand-of-God technique. He’s a joyful contradiction: a virtuoso of non-virtuosity, who seems driven to turn everything he’s ever observed into the world’s most giant, teeming album cover. His work defines — and sits right on — the line between the sacred and the satirical, the high and the low, insider art and outsider art. He’s a visual entertainer of crude genius who, somehow, doesn’t fit in.
Except that he sort of does. “Art Bastard” tries to nudge the audience into viewing Cenedella as a more subversive figure than he really is. It’s not, for instance, that he never had entrée into the moneyed chic of the Manhattan art world; at several points he did. The film just insists on communicating that in unclear bits and pieces. It takes us back to the late ’50s, when Cenedella attended the Arts Students League of New York, where his teacher was George Grosz, the lion of German Expressionism whose early drawings, going back to the ’20s, had prophesied the rise of Hitler and Nazi Germany, but who arrived in the U.S. without the halo of prestige that accrued to him after his death. He taught Cenedella to see the lines of the natural world (or, more precisely, he taught him that the natural world has no lines), and the self-portraits that Cenedella did in that school have a stunning classicism. By the early ’60s, when he was barely out of his teens, he’d developed his full-blown surrealist-mural style, and the art world proved to be both his enemy and his friend.
The revolution of abstract expressionism, in the ’50s, didn’t exactly favor an artist who leaned on crazy baroque portraiture. But that revolution was offset by an even bigger revolution — the paradigm-detonating earthquake that was Andy Warhol. Against the backdrop of pop art, Cenedella’s canvases suddenly looked hip, even though he himself thought pop art was a sham. In 1965, he staged the Yes Show, a gallery installation that was intended as a scathing parody of pop art but was taken as the real thing (making him the original version of the current pop-art scavenger Mr. Brainwash). It was a triumph; people turned out to see it in droves.
And then? Then Cenedella didn’t produce another canvas for 10 years; instead, he went into advertising. The film never begins to explain why, and that’s a crucial omission. We learn about a lot of other things around the edges: Cenedella’s loving alcoholic mother, his sly-boots English-professor birth father, the secret of his tomato sauce (celery), his favorite artist (Grant Wood), his passion for the New York Rangers. But the closest the movie comes to having a dramatic arc — which even a good documentary needs — is the chip on his shoulder that Cenedella still carries around over how the art-world establishment left him out. He was perceived as too lowbrow. But, of course, if he himself rejected the art world as much as it ever refused to roll out the drip-painted carpet for him, then that kind of blows a hole in the movie’s thesis.
He’s a populist painter, after all. And he does get commissions, notably a solo show in the Saatchi & Saatchi building in 1988 and an invitation to paint the grand mural of caricatures overlooking the grand dining room of Le Cirque 2000. That makes sense: Cenedella’s art was a perfect billboard for the ritzy scruffy high/low glamour of New York in the ’80s and ’90s, and the fact that he wasn’t allowed to show his most outrageous painting — a scandalous life-size image of Santa Claus hung on a crucifix — hardly meant that his art as a whole was being rejected.
When the Santa painting finally did get displayed, in the front window of the Art Students League across the street from Carnegie Hall, it caused a stir — but, of course, that just burnished Cenedella’s reputation, and the work he did afterwards erupts with a scathing satirical joy: blistering landscapes of oil companies at war (with corporations like Coca-Cola and Exxon each represented by its own military tank), and a painting of the New York Stock Exchange trading floor in which the gleeful frenzy of moneymaking, though obviously meant to be a comment on Wall Street avarice, carries a Cenedellian tone of humanity. Even in their lust for riches, each little figure on the canvas remains an individual; the glory of the painting is that it separates the sin from the sinners. And in a way, that’s the sneaky appeal of “Art Bastard.” It reveals Robert Cenedella to be an artist far too infused with life to ever let a movie like this one live up to its title.