Unafraid to share his sharp, often unpopular, views on the elitist financial formulae by which so-called tastemakers determine the artistic value of creative work, Robert Cenedella, a New York institution of a painter, has learned to dispose of those parameters.
Cenedella creates art based on the stories he sees on the street, or by adapting his personal struggles into a static narrative on the canvas. In Art Bastard, a documentary directed by Victor Kanefsky and produced by Chris Concannon, who has work extensively with Cenedella, the life of an artist existing outside the galleries and museums is told in his own words, analyzing the significance of each crowded scene in relation to his career and city. Cenedella’s years as a student under George Grosz, his satirical shows decrying the abstract pretentiousness of his contemporaries, his lifelong battle to come to terms with his two paternal figures, and, of course, his being overlooked by many in the art world, are all explored with utmost transparency.
The lessons Cenedella has learned dealing with rejection are clearly applicable to the moviemaking world. It’s a battle to make art that’s not bastardized in order to compete with what’s popular, but simultaneously not perpetually in the shadows. With a documentary honoring the road Cenedella has traveled, and all the ancillary attention the film brings, though, fans who seek art beyond a vacuum in a museum will finally meet him.
MovieMaker spoke to Cenedella himself, as well his friend and producer Chris Concannon.
Carlos Aguilar, MovieMaker Magazine (MM): Robert, as a painter you are used to a pretty intimate creative environment. What is your perception on the moviemaking process? Did you feel that a film made about your life and career was a good idea?
Robert Cenedella (RC): As an artist I’m alone most of the time. It’s a one-man deal. I’m all day long alone with my canvas, and at the end of the day I go out and have a beer. But moviemaking is a totally collaborative effort. They have to have so many different people to make it work. When people ask me what was my part in the film, I don’t feel that I really had much to do with making the film. I’m the subject of the film. The reason I agreed to have a film made is that I figured, the way the museums and galleries have worked out with me, through this I would get that kind of exposure. I knew it’d be different and I don’t know what the result will be, but certainly people will get to see the art. I’ve always said that I’m the most widely written-about unknown artist in America [laughs]. I think the film was a good choice to maybe change that.
MM: Chris, how did you come into contact with Robert’s art, and how did your relationship with him develop?
Chris Concannon (CC): I met Bob in 1990 at a bar. A friend of mine had introduced me to him and said, “I think you’ll like this guy.” I went to this bar and there was a print of 2001 – a Stock Odyssey on the wall. It was $1,500. I loved it right away, and I bought the print. I talked to Bob for about two and half hours after the show was over, and ended up buying my first painting from him for $50,000, which was the original 2001 – a Stock Odyssey. That’s how I met Bob. He is either a really good salesman or a really great artist. We wound up doing a deal to show artists’ work—it was written about on the New York Times; the article was called “The Art of the Deal.” But we were two years ahead of our time with the idea—or two years too late. It was 1994 when we came out with the deal. It was registered with the S.E.C, but there was no Internet and no secondary market. It was an interesting idea. We were going to do art funds and things of the sort. It was ’94.
MM: How did that evolved into making the film?
CC: I continued knowing Bob for many years. Back around 2004 when was the idea came up, and it started to come into fruition around 2007. I just felt that Bob needed to be documented, since he was a student at the Arts Student League, he was a protégée of George Grosz, and is probably one of the last living artist to study under Grosz. Fifty or 100 years from now, art students are going to look back at this film and say, ”Who was this guy? This guy was amazing.” Bob is a painter of history, and there are just not that many painters that paint history anymore. It’s pretty much a lot of abstract painters. He is one of the few still painting history and those are the ones that most people remember.
MM: Robert, Do you feel like through the film and the social media associated with it, you are bypassing the red tape that galleries impose on artists?
RC: There is no question about it. There are already people inquiring and saying, “How come we haven’t heard of you or seen you?” I’ve actually been making sales as a result of social media, whereas a gallery puts itself in front of the artist, and in my opinion they are not really out to help an individual artist. They are out there to help themselves. It’s very different with social media. People get to see art, and they are not being told what they are looking at. They see something and they say, “I’m interested in that,” But that doesn’t happen with galleries—they, as middlemen, they control the situation. It’s much more honest through film and social media. That’s what it seems.
MM: It’s definitely a more direct interaction between creators and their audience or fan base.
RC: Absolutely, like a lot of these film clubs—a hundred people came in at 10 in the morning [today] but no one knew what the movie is. That’s how it should be with a museum. They should put up a show and let the public come in and decide themselves, but I don’t think they would care to do that at this point.
MM: Would you say that the fact that these institutions or decision-makers didn’t appreciate your work has given you more freedom?
RC: Maybe. I have been outside the mainstream, and it’s very possible that that’s kept my art the way it is. I never paint for the marketplace. Early on, in 1965 when I did the “Yes Art” show, I was pointing out the fallacy of a soup can being art in the sense that they were promoting it as art. I was selling art by the pound amongst other things. Everything I did as a joke for that show has been done seriously since then. I had a live sculpture in this 1965 show, and 10 years later Andy Warhol had a live sculpture. It was written about all over, “Look what a new concept this is.” There is so such gimmickry in art. I saw that Pop Art in particular was the beginning of a period where there were no standards anymore. Once you don’t have standards it’s all free-for-all, so it’s all luck, or you are the mercy of the gallery dealer or the museum dealer.
MM: Chris, how did director Victor Kanefsky come on board and why did you feel he had the right vision to deliver a film that portrayed Robert as you envisioned him?
CC: I had gone through a couple of people. Then Jim MacDonald, who was my right-hand guy—and also an editor, did special effects, music, graphics; he is a really well-rounded guy—he had worked for Victor for about 10 years and had mentioned him to me when I had somebody else as a director who just didn’t work out. He couldn’t get the film to where it needed to be. Jim introduced me to Victor and he came him.
Victor is a genius. He’s been around a long time and I learned more from Victor in two days that I’ve learned from other people in two years. He wanted me in the editing room all the time, he wanted to know what I was thinking. What was really interesting was that Victor is old-school. He went back and read all the transcripts and highlighted everything he saw about Bob that he wanted and then went back and said, “Give me that piece of film.” He just did magic with the film because he’s trained around 50 editors over his career. One morning he came and said, “I woke up in the middle of the night and I got the whole film in my head now. I know how to do it. I know exactly what we got to do.” I said, “Great! Let me know what you need from me!”
He structured the film tremendously. It was amazing to watch him work. That’s kind of how Bob works too. He goes,” This idea came to me in the middle of the night and I’m going to do this painting.” That’s how those people that are special or that have that gift work.
MM: Chris, why do you think the art community didn’t embrace Robert’s art? Was it the themes in his work? Was it the fact that he didn’t go to one of the famous art schools at the time? Or was it because he didn’t follow the trends?
CC: He studied at the Arts Students League, which I think is one of the only places that still teach art as art in terms of painting and drawing. There are many schools that are still doing what they do. They got a number of very talented teachers. But as far as the art world goes, I don’t think you really need a piece of paper to be an artist or a document that says, “Hey, I’m an artist.” Either you are an artist or you are not an artist. That’s what I think. You can go to schools and say, “I got an A and I’m now an artist. “ That’s not a reality if you can’t paint, unless you are Jeff Koons or somebody like that who doesn’t paint but has other people do the work. Robert was around when Warhol, Haring and Basquiat were around. He used to do shows at bookstores. It’s maybe because times were different back then—we’ve come a long way since 1995 or when the Internet started to come around, and people became a little bit more open-minded about different kinds of work that could be out there.
His stuff was always categorized as satirical or political. He does all sorts of things: commentary, New York city life, landscapes. There is nothing that he can’t paint and paint well. But the art world hasn’t paid any attention to him all. People write stories about him, but it’s never the art world, it’s the financial world. It’s the Journal, it’s the Times and those on the financial side. I really don’t have the answer to that question. Why they do that? I’m not sure why they do a lot of things, to be honest with you.
MM: Robert, when and how do you think that change happened? At what point did abstract art become profitable, over art that tells stories about people, like yours?
RC: Unfortunately, in the end it’s all about marketing. Historically, if you look at 1950, the group of abstract artists called The Irascibles went to the Metropolitan museum claiming that they were being overlooked. They protested, and sure enough, all of a sudden they were getting into the museums and everything else was forgotten. It was kind of a political move. Each of those artists who claimed they were being overlooked had major galleries behind them. This is a little known fact that I’ve searched out. Every artist that has so-called “made it” in the last 40 years was in that group.
It’s rather shocking when you really think of how money is the indicator. Recently a Basquiat painting sold for $57 million, so the only thing that is really of interest to most people, in my opinion, is the fact that it went for $57 million. They are not looking at the art. If I’d looked at everything I’ve ever done, and I compare it to this Basquiat, I’d think, “Gee what would my painting be worth, if his is worth $57 million?” It’s absurd. It’s like baseball; you don’t talk about the game anymore. You talk about how much this guy is getting every year or what’s his contract. The difference is that they still have a skill. They still hit home runs, and in the art world I don’t think it really makes any difference. What I always say is, “What isn’t art?” I could guarantee you no gallery dealer will give you an answer to that question. They are not going to say, “This matchbox on the floor is not art,” because who knows [laughs]?
MM: Chris, in your opinion what was the thing about Robert that you wanted to make sure was present in the film?
CC: I wanted his teaching skills to be included in the film. I thought it was important to include the Arts Students League and the history of the League, whether it was Groz, or Pollock, or Ai Weiwei, who taught at the League. I think what I wanted was for people to see who Bob is a person and as an artist, because he is pretty unique. We didn’t realize when we started but he really comes off really well in the film. He is got that film face—not everybody is perfect for film, but he is outspoken. I wanted the students to see him get recognized as somebody who is a teacher and good painter. I just wanted to see him documented in history.
MM: Was the segment of the documentary that deals with Robert’s two fathers, so to speak, touchy to make?
CC: His father has affected him most of his life. When I would talk to him sometimes in the studio or out for a drink, I would see that it really bothered him. But it was something that he finally got comfortable with and that he finally started to deal with. He’s been dealing with it his whole life, but in the film we didn’t’ t want to make it about his two fathers. We wanted it to be included in the film, and it would be a piece of the film, but we really wanted to show his art and have him narrate the film because he has a lot of things to say. That’s one thing about Bob: He is not shy. We wanted to make sure that we showed a lot of the art, and I think we accomplished that. He talks about when he did Father’s Day. He said he was doing “therapy on the canvas.” I think in the end it was therapeutic to him to have this film come out and talk about his two fathers, because it was a secret his whole life. Even at 76 now, I still see him get choked up about it. It’s pretty deeply rooted. Believe it or not, I think a lot of people can relate to that because they’ve had similar situations, or they have parents who are divorced, or the father left an early age, so I think it hits a button for a lot of people. I think most people don’t want to talk about it, either they are afraid or they are embarrassed.
MM: Robert, the documentary touches on intimate stories about your life and the experiences that have shaped your work. Were there any elements or anecdotes you felt uncomfortable sharing on camera?
RC: I never offered an opinion that way. When I’m interviewed, I try to face things head-on, like the way I paint. Like when I was painting Southern Dogs year ago; it was about getting right into the nitty-gritty and not sugarcoating anything. When I think about the day when I was 6 years old and found out about my father, I still get a little emotional. Things like hearing my parents argue resonate throughout my whole life. There are certain things that are never going to leave. We do move on, the more you can accept them, review them, or see them for what they are. In that sense the film actually has been hard on the one hand, but on the other it’s nice to have this secret in the open.
MM: Chris, given that Robert’s paintings are so layered with characters and individual narratives, would you say that one continues to find something new in them even every time?
CC: That’s amazing. Within a painting, there could be five or six paintings going on. He just makes a painting work so well with all these different characters in them. Like he did with The Death of George Grosz, he did it allegorically. I remember going to Jack Rollins’ apartment, he was Woody Allen’s business manager, and he had a lot of Bob’s boxing paintings and he said to me, “You know, Chris, I’ve had this painting for 30 years and some days I see something that I’ve never seen before. There is so much going on in the painting with a Cenedella.” It’s almost like finding Waldo.
MM: Robert, your paintings feel very cinematic in terms of all the characters, subplots, and layers in them. Do you feel they were properly captured in the film?
RC: Yes. I enjoyed how Kanefsky and editor Jim MacDonald showed the actual art, because I think they showed it sort of the in the way I paint it. People don’t necessary spend that long looking at a canvas. If they are looking at a soup can, how long do you really need to look at it? I think you can go through a shelf really quickly, but because of the way I paint—in which I have multiple things going—I don’t think you can really get much out of my art if you just pass by it. There are different layers.
MM: In that sense, if your paintings were movies what kind or movies would they be?
RC: I think they would certainly be films that tell a story. They would be pretty colorful in terms of their storytelling. They would have a structure: a beginning, a middle and an end.
MM: They wouldn’t be like Andy Warhol’s [1964 film] Empire?
RC: No, I think my films would be more interesting than that. Let’s put it that way [laughs]. MM
Art Bastard opens in theaters June 3, 2016, courtesy of CAVU Pictures. All images courtesy of CAVU Pictures; paintings by Robert Cenedella.