J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Friday, June 03, 2016

Art Bastard: Robert Cenedella Keeps Score

Robert Cenedella’s paintings are somewhat reminiscent of Red Grooms’ grandly ruckus urban visions, but they are angrier and less playful. Whether that means they are better or worse is wholly subjective and thoroughly debatable, but you can sign us up for Team Red right now. Considering how many documentaries are produced arguing given artists are under-heralded geniuses, you start to wonder if maybe some of them are actually critically pegged about right. Regardless, Victor Kanefsky makes his case for Cenedella in Art Bastard (trailer here), which opens today in New York.

Cenedella lived through the 1960s and he is not about to let you forget it. His father’s blacklisting in the 1950s further compounded his radicalization. However, the man he called father wasn’t really his biological father. That would be Colgate Professor and friend of the family Russell Speiers. Yet, Cenedella’s spiritual father was clearly expatriate Art Students League teacher George Grosz.

Easily, the coolest part about Art Bastard is watching Cenedella teach at the League, having assumed the George Grosz Chair. It is a unique New York institution (Grooms himself studied there, as did Ai Weiwei). Unfortunately, Cenedella has a habit of undermining the good will Kanefsky tries to build up on his behalf.

In a strangely telling scene, Cenedella fondly remembers the Nixon dart boards he mass-produced during one of his artistic hiatuses (rather shrewdly, Rose Mary Woods duly supplied a better picture of Nixon’s winning smile in response to Cendella’s request). This is the same Cenedella who boasts about freeloading at least fifty meals at Le Cirque while working on an anniversary mural for the restaurant. He also takes great delight in explaining how he removed a New York Magazine writer from the painting, when the promised article did not include a picture of the mural. That is a pretty tit-for-tat thing to do, especially when such layout decisions are almost always made by editors (as Cenedella, the not so self-aware former advertising agency man, should surely understand). Yet, he takes great pleasure is revisiting the man’s embarrassment in front of his family at the mural’s unveiling.

At this point it is obvious Cenedella is the sort of person who keep track of perceived slights and grudges. It makes you wonder if his full name is Robert Milhous Cenedella. Regardless, the film will effectively end for many viewers at this point. Frankly, it should have ended sooner. Still, whether it was intentional or not, Kanefsky deserves credit for revealing a reasonably full portrait of Cenedella. Nevertheless, the eighty-two minutes spent with the score-keeping artist really start to drag. Not recommended, Art Bastard opens today (6/3) in New York, at the Angelika Film Center.

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