The title of filmmaker Victor Kanefsky’s Art Bastard carries a double meaning. As a child, once Robert Cenedella discovered that he was the product of an affair between his mother and an old boyfriend, rather than the father who raised him, he says he felt like an outsider in his own family. But this “bastard” status also extends to his professional career as an artist. Even as abstract expressionism and pop art ruled the day in the 1960s, Cenedella refused to be pigeonholed as a purveyor of any particular art-world trend, remaining steadfastly committed to his own deeply personal, socially aware, and ironic brand of satirical and fantastical artistry.
This attitude has led him to many clashes with members of the art establishment. At one point in the documentary, Ed McCormack, managing editor of the Gallery & Studio journal, exasperatedly calls Cenedella a “pain in the ass” for one time having sent him an incendiary advertisement—a reproduction of a Mark Rothko painting with “bullshit” scrawled on it—that put him in a difficult position professionally. But such is the film’s adulatory context that the act is seen not as an obnoxious provocation, but a reflection of Cenedella’s absolute integrity to his own prickly vision.
The doc is in large part a first-person chronicle of Cenedella’s life, with the artist himself talking about everything from his personal and academic struggles, to his close attachment to George Grosz, a beloved mentor who he feels has never gotten his due as an artist, to the years in the 1960s and ’70s in which he mostly stopped painting to work at an ad agency. But Art Bastard takes a few detours from its overall biographical thrust to cast a few askance glances at the art world—one that, according to the film, has become beholden more to money and status than actual art. Though Cenedella voices some of these criticisms himself, Kanefsky features many other talking heads—journalists, critics, and academics—to strengthen this thread and thereby increase the aura it tries to create around its subject of an unapologetic rebel.
This tack risks turning the film into a hagiography. A more evenhanded perspective might have recognized the childishness as well as the badassery in Cenedella removing writer Peter Kaminsky from his painting “Le Cirque—The First Generation” out of revenge for Kaminsky not mentioning the portrait in his New York magazine article about the famous restaurant (Cenedella replaced him with none other than Philip Roth). Nevertheless, Art Bastard’s knockout punch lies in Cenedella himself. A genuinely magnetic and forthright presence, he exudes a bracing sense of humility even as he sounds off against the societal forces that anger him and fuel his work.
Cenedella seems like the kind of down-to-earth individual you’d happily grab a drink with, which makes sense given the easily comprehensible yet intellectually stimulating and visually dazzling paintings he’s drawn over the years. As an artist and a human, he’s more interested in reaching people and responding to the world around him than in fame or money—which isn’t to say he compromises his art for the sake of accessibility. He is who he is, and Cenedella’s own impassioned yet affable personality doesn’t need Kanefsky’s overawed, insistent attempts to celebrate his proudly rebellious side.