Robert Cenedella – Bastard Father of Yes Art

Art Bastard

Dir. Victor Kanefsky, USA, 2016, 84 minutes

Robert Cenedella’s New York street scenes can look like comic versions of Dog Day Afternoon. (My apologies to those who already see that classic film as a comedy.)

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There’s as much stress as there is sweat in those pictures, with figures agglomerating into each other in the bright colors and the elbowing tactility that Cenedella borrows from the Berlin of the 1920’s, lightening things enough so you feel the burn of the sun in congested Manhattan.

Cenedella, now 77, was a student of George Grosz (1893-1959), the German painter and satirist who fled Germany before Hitler took power in 1933, staying at a distance when his paintings were burned, a prelude to the burning of anyone in Europe whom the Nazis considered undesirable.

'Gallery Opening' by Robert Cenedella

‘Gallery Opening’ by Robert Cenedella

Grosz was not an abstract painter when Cenedella met him at the Art Students League in the early 1953. That made Grosz unfashionable. He also brought politics into his work – to a point – in the years when Senator Joseph McCarthy and the furor that swept over American could get anyone fired from a job, especially a teaching job.

Cenedella attached himself to Grosz as a father figure. He was an outcast before, and he’s been an outcast ever since, as we see in the new doc, Art Bastard, directed by Victor Kanefsky. He’s been thrown out of everything but a bar – as far as I know. For verification, inquire at P. J. Carney’s, around the corner from the Art Students League. You might even find a certain painter there.

'42nd Street' - Layers of Humanity

’42nd Street’ – Layers of Humanity

For an embattled painter who’s been excluded from the kind of recognition and wealth that the lazy media have celebrated as entitlement programs for celebrity artists, Cenedella has still had many lives, and with Art Bastard, he’ll get at least another 15 minutes of fame, perhaps much more. Cenedella’s biography is as crazy as the life of Gulley Jimson in The Horse’s Mouth, Alec Guinness’s 1958 film adaptation of the 1944 novel by Joyce Cary, a film that anyone interested in the depiction of artists on the screen should see. And Cenedella’s story is true.

Victor Kanefsky has taken a soft touch through his film (despite ponderously heavy music), financed by Chris Concannon, a collector of Cenedella’s work. See? Even outcasts have admirers.

Cenedella is a natural storyteller – a valuable gift if you’re painting narrative pictures – and it’s best to follow his lead. When in doubt, stay out of the bastard’s way.

Bastard has a literal meaning here. When Cenedella was six, his mother informed him that the man whom he’d been told was his father was not the man who brought him into the world. The real father was a professor at Colgate University with whom she had an affair, and whom Cenedella resembles. Young Cenedella was a bastard, pure and simple – before he ever was an artist. Things got worse. Cenedella’s live-in would-be father, a radio writer, was ousted from his job for communist sympathies. In New York, where they moved, Cenedella would be thrown out of the High School of Music and Art. He ended up at the Art Students League, where he teaches today, because it did not require a high school diploma. Even bastards could get in.

Cenedella painted 'The Death of George Grosz' in 1962. Grosz died in Germany in 1959 after falling down a flight of stairs.  Cenedella thinks that the artist who fled Hitler may have been murdered.

Cenedella painted ‘The Death of George Grosz’ in 1962. Grosz died in Germany in 1959 after falling down a flight of stairs. Cenedella thinks that the artist who fled Hitler may have been murdered.

Cenedella tells his story with the energy of a man who hasn’t gotten the attention that such a wild story deserves. Already outside the mainstream for failing to paint in an abstract style, he was ready with his skepticism for the media blitz of Pop Art in the 1960’s. In 1965, he mounted a gallery show to celebrate a parody of Pop Art charlatanry, called Yes Art, where he sold spaghetti thrown against a wall and framed, peddled Heinz soup cans, and offered S & H Green Stamps (remember those?) with each purchase. The press wrote about it and liked the joke, but Cenedella was so disheartened that he abandoned art and went into advertising.

The Hostility Dart Board - It Connected with a Feeling

Give Me Something to Throw — The Hostility Dart Board – It Connected with a Feeling

It was there that he made money, and created a product that fit the times. The Hostility Dart Board was a game that put the face of someone whom the public hated on a board, at which you could throw three darts that also came in the package, all for $5.99 at the time. The faces included Lyndon Johnson, Nixon, Spiro Agnew, and Sigmund Freud (for people who hated their parents and/or their therapists). Ex-wives and mothers-in-law could be on the board for an extra dollar or two. The CIA investigated him, and ended up leaving him alone – unlike the McCarthy feds in his father’s day. When Cenedella contacted the White House for a current picture of Nixon, he got one, with a friendly note from Rosemary Woods.

A Favorite Target

A Favorite Target

The dart board made money, but never got more recognition that that, although an interactive gag attacking politicians could be a hit at art fairs today. Cenedella would soon return to art, still in a grotesque satirical style inspired by Grosz and James Ensor. You can almost hear the noise in those overpopulated outdoor scenes. Maybe that’s why Cenedella shifted the setting of his paintings to concert halls. So much the better if you want to use your art as a megaphone.

'The Balcony' by Robert Cenedella

‘The Balcony’ by Robert Cenedella

A teacher in the studio of Grosz at the Art Students League, Cenedella was contacted before Christmas in 1988 by Saatchi & Saatchi to provide an exhibition for the ad firm’s lobby. He did so, with a centerpiece that he called The Presence of Man (think of the allusion to Grosz’s Ecce Homo suite of 1922), which depicted Satan Claus, crucified on a mound of Christmas presents. Saatchi refused to show any of his work. This was before the ad firm decided that there was profit in controversy and showed its collection in Sensation!, first at the Royal Academy in London in 1997, and then at the Brooklyn Museum in 1999. The artists in that show (Chris Ofili, Damian Hirst and the Chapman Brothers and others) had more of a lift from that exposure than they would have had with winning American Idol. Once again, Cenedella had the misfortune to have offended proper taste before his time.

The Presence of Man would return, to a window of The Art Students League, just in time for Christmas in 1998. This time Cenedella was attacked by the Catholic League, whose spokesman excoriated him for depicting Santa Claus on a cross. Santa at the end of a noose would have been ok, since it wouldn’t have made reference to the martyrdom of Christ. If only Cenedella had broken Santa on the wheel of his sleigh….

Cenedella’s initial Santa scandal broke around the time that the artists who received grants from the National Endowment of the Arts were attacked by Jesse Helms and other figures on the Right for using government grants to make works that Helms considered obscene. The attacks, a badge of honor in the contemporary art scene which had been Mapplethorp-ed by evangelicals and the politicians who sought their votes, launched the careers of Karen Finley and Andres “Piss Christ” Serrano. Cenedella never made it onto the gravy train than ran on scandal.

Today The Presence of Man is in Robert Cenedella’s studio. He swears that he won’t cash in on it, even though offers will rise as the doc gets attention. Cenedella threatens to give it to the Pope someday.

But in Art Bastard we do see Cenedella’s ship come in, in the form of a commission to paint the regulars at Le Cirque, the watering-hole for New York’s glitterati, operated by Sirio Maccioni. Can a starving artist develop gout? Cenedella had some fifty meals there before he started sketching, and spent two years to finish a project that no less a celeb chronicler than Leroy Nieman had started but abandoned. The mural-sized oil painting for which Maccioni paid him $50,000 looks as if James Ensor could have done it. Not your typical court painting.

Cenedella's Human Comedy

Cenedella’s Human Comedy

Le Cirque: The First Generation is a mix that goes way beyond the minestrone in Maccioni’s kitchen. Liz Smith is in the front row with Richard Nixon. Sirio Maccioni’s doctor is there. A boyish Marco Maccioni, Sirio’s son, is almost dead center. The late and much-missed Morley Safer is there, cigarette in hand. (Safer, like Cenedella, was a skeptic about much contemporary art.) So are Henry Kissinger, Nancy Reagan and Ivana Trump. Cenedella wouldn’t include the Donald. Only one person depicted complained about his likeness –  it was Marvin Shanklin of The Wine Spectator, who thought his hair was painted too gray. Cenedella, nothing if not an honest observer of things, darkened it in the face of irrefutable evidence. He also removed the portrait of a New York Magazine writer who promised to mention him in an article – Le Cirque as the Kremlin? Cenedella filled that gap with Philip Roth, the author of I Married a Communist, a story close to Cenedella’s experience. Frank Zappa is at the far right side, close to the back. Who knew that the auteur of Call Any Vegetable ate there?

Woody Allen is even farther back in the canvas. Cenedella was never a fan.

Visit Le Cirque for a drink, and ask to go upstairs. You will have the rare experience of looking at a group portrait of aristocrats (mostly arrive-ocrats in this case), in the way that those paintings were viewed when they were part of the art mainstream.

At 77, Cenedella, the inglorious art bastard, has outlived many of those subjects. He’s still the best person to tell his life story. If you can’t be with him over a beer or two, or in the studio, Art Bastard is the next best thing.

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