'Art Bastard': Film Review

Art Bastard-Robert Cenedella-H 2016
Courtesy of Cavu Pictures
A revealing portrait of a too little-known artist.

Victor Kanefsky's documentary presents an intimate portrait of the iconoclastic artist Robert Cenedella.

As a film, Victor Kanefsky's documentary about the iconoclastic painter Robert Cenedella makes a great art exhibit.

That's because Art Bastard shines brightest not as a biographical portrait — an aim in which it succeeds only sporadically — but rather as a showcase for the highly imaginative and thoughtful works by the now 76-year-old, too-little-known painter. Socially conscious and often mordantly humorous, the paintings are wonderfully exhibited in this film which benefits from being seen on the big screen.

As it soon becomes clear, the title is both ironic and has a double meaning. The first refers to Cenedella's status, or relative lack thereof, in the art world of the last half-century that he's disdained for its commercialization and tendency to pigeonhole. He's no fan of two of its predominant modern trends, Abstract Expressionism and Pop Art, although he has particular scorn for the latter. In 1965 he staged a show dubbed "Yes Art" in which he openly mocked Andy Warhol with paintings of Heinz soup cans and even handed out free Green Stamps with every purchase.

The title's second meaning concerns his troubled early years. At age six, Cenedella discovered that the man he thought was his father actually wasn't. His presumed father, a broadcast radio executive, was blacklisted during the McCarthy era and Cenedella was himself expelled from high school for refusing to sign a loyalty oath. He subsequently attended the Arts Students League of New York, financing his tuition by selling thousands of self-designed buttons celebrating Beethoven.

It was there that he fell under the tutelage of German artist George Grosz, who became a major influence on his work. Much like Grosz satirized life in 1920s Berlin, Cenedella ruthlessly lampooned the excesses of New York City, often infusing his works with pointed social and political commentary.

The avuncular Cenedella is prominently featured in the film via interviews; scenes of him visiting his usual haunts and conversing with his sister and other confidantes; and, more prosaically, a demonstration of how he cooks spaghetti sauce. Throughout it all he discusses his life and career with a disarming blend of humor and candor, taking no prisoners but never stooping to self-aggrandizement.

Best of all, we see dozens and dozens of his paintings, including the mural "Le Cirque — The First Generation," which still hangs at the iconic restaurant; "The Rape of the IRT" and "Second Avenue," dramatically illustrating the effects of overcrowding; "The Giants," in which enormous figures loom over tiny football players; and "The Presence of Man," depicting Santa Claus being crucified on a cross. Much more than anything we hear — whether from the artist or the many admiring commentators — they vividly illustrate Cenedella's unique talents.

Distributor: Cavu Pictures
Production: Concannon Productions
Director-screenwriter: Victor Kanefsky
Executive producer: Chris T. Concannon
Director of photography: Douglas Meltzer
Editor: Jim MacDonald
Composer: Danny Friedman

Not rated, 82 minutes