Robert Cenedella, a most happy fella.
Meet Robert Cenedella: painter, pictorial satirist, art teacher, and all around swell guy who also happens to be the subject of a new documentary, Art Bastard, opening June 17 exclusively at the Angelika Film Center in Carmel Mountain.
Art Bastard official trailer
Cenedella was the first paint-slinging ringmaster to choreograph on canvas what has come to be known as America’s media circus. He countered Warhol’s pop movement with his eviscerating Yes Art and turned Robert Indiana’s iconic “Love” into shit. His brightly colored, densely populated works contain more movement and narrative force than you’ll find in most contemporary films.
Art Bastard is a feel-good film that, for once, doesn’t denigrate the term. As a serious artist who has spent 60 years of his life making people laugh, Robert Cendella is my new art hero. His story is a must-see for those who champion free speech and the inherent power of a solid belly laugh.
Scott Marks: Talk to me about a few movies that have influenced your work.
Robert Cenedella: Let’s see...most recently there was The Mill and the Cross.
SM: Wow! Directed by Lech Majewski. It was number one on my top-ten list the year it came out.
RC: Not too many people got to see it. A phenomenal movie. Going back, the movies that really influenced me were Casablanca, The Third Man...a lot of the things that Orson Welles was involved with. I always thought he was a master. I’d say most of them were in black-and-white. I don’t know if it’s because they were done at a time when developing character was more important that visual effects. That seems to be what 90 percent of the movies are about lately. And how could I forget Charlie Chaplin?
I gave my son, David, a punishment when he was about eight years old. There was a Charlie Chaplin Film Festival. He had gotten in some trouble at school and his punishment was he had to come with me every day for ten days to see this series of Charlie Chaplin films. I can guarantee you it changed his concept of humor. He never was interested in a sitcom again.
SM: Every parent should be a strict disciplinarian like Bob Cenedella!
RC (Laughing): Right?
SM: There is so much about your story that I identify with. I guess that makes you more of a poor bastard than an art bastard. (Laughing.) At the age of six you discover in a most cavalier manner that the man you believed to be your birth father wasn’t. I was adopted when I was four days old. My parents, God bless them, wanted me to know the truth at a very early age.
RC: You’re very lucky.
SM: Yes, but they did it in a manner that scared the hell out of me. They were putting me to bed for the night. I had a little lamp of a soldier on my nightstand. It couldn’t have held more than a 10- or 15-watt bulb, yet it was throwing off shadows that made the room look like Dr. Calagari’s closet. At one point, mom leans forward and says. “There is something we want to tell you. We are not your real parents.” Something that you said in the film — “I’m not really one of them” — hit home. It’s something that I felt then and that to this day influences everything I do. How did this feeling work its way into your art and how were you able to work through it?
RC: I found out the same day that my father found out. At six years old, you know what it is, but you’re not...you just know that you’re not one of them. That’s how I perceived it. It’s not like you intellectualize it in a way to say, “Oh, well, that means they had an affair” or something like that. You just know you’re different. I always thought that my life would have been different had I been told early on. There are all these lies that you realize are told throughout the years. The way you were told, that’s the same thing as if my mother had said, “Daddy’s not your father.” The choice of words should have been a little different, right?
SM: It spooked me a little, to say the least.
RC: Yeah! After I’ve had a couple of drinks, I’ve often thought, we have Alcoholics Anonymous, Fat People Anonymous, and Gamblers Anonymous, how about Bastards Anonymous? (Laughing.) There’s no way to...if you know that your parents are not your parents, there’s no way around it. You’re different. I don’t know if there’s any good way to do it. I think being honest about it is the best way. (Laughing.) I don’t think your parents could have come up with a worse way to tell you.
SM: In fairness to Mom and Dad, they did open with stuff like, “We love you” and “We’re going to take care of you,” but the shock remains. You talk of having recurring nightmares. When I was a kid, I thought my parents wore masks that they removed after putting me to bed. My shrink had a field day with that.
RC (Laughing): It’s pretty basic. My relationship with my son, David, is so fantastic. In the movie I say, “How can one not be a good father?” I don’t know what the big deal is.
SM: You were expelled from high school for writing and distributing a satirical piece lampooning air-raid drills. You also refused to sign a loyalty oath. Oddly enough, your father, who was blacklisted, encouraged you to sign. Here’s a man who refused to take Joe McCarthy’s oath, yet he’s encouraging you to sign. Did you ever call him on that?
RC: Absolutely. My life is just filled with oxymorons. A lot of my political beliefs come from the fact that he had the strength not to sign a loyalty oath to McCarthy. The deal was this. I had written this satirical article on the atom-bomb drills. They were going to expel me for that. My father came to school and they told him they wouldn’t expel me if I signed their oath. (Laughing.) I just couldn’t do it.
SM: Good for you! Did you have a hand in the film’s terrific opening credit sequence?
RC: I do these Q&As at the Angelika and so on, and one of the things I’m asked is what part I had in making the film. I have to admit that I had nothing to do with it. I did not come out and say, “I think you should have this or that.” Morely Safer could have been a big part of this film. For whatever reason they chose not to include him in it. You see him in the outtakes. I was the subject. It was guys like [co-producer] Jim MacDonald, and [executive producer] Chris Concannon, and [director Victor] Kanefsky...[Kanefsky] had a vision. You know, filmmaking is collaborative. Painting is not. Painting is, like, I’m in my studio, I’m alone, I don’t want to hear the telephone. People ask if I ever get lonely. No. (Laughing.) I’m never lonely with my canvas. As a painter, I don’t collaborate well. I have to do what I want to do and that’s all there is to it.
SM: Where were you when you first saw the completed picture and how did it hit you?
RC: I was pretty dumbstruck when I saw the final thing. I chose not to...I guess I had seen an early version and it was kind of weird for me. I never wanted to see...first off, I never thought the film would ever be done. It took eight years. I would have preferred hearing other people’s reactions to it before seeing it. You talked about the credits in the beginning. I saw that and was instantly into the film. If that was the entire film, I would have said, “Hey! That’s pretty good!” (Laughing.)
SM: Every time I speak with the publicist, she hits me with the line, “You know he’s referred to as the Bernie Sanders of the art world.” You both have my vote! Do you feel comfortable with the handle?
RC: Totally. This guy is such a breath of fresh air. He even uses the word socialist. Christ, I grew up under Ronald Reagan when you couldn’t even use the “L” word. If you were a liberal, you were on the same level as — if not worse than — a communist. Here’s this guy coming out and talking about the 99 percent versuss the 1 percent. He’s the conscience of the Democratic Party.
SM: Whether they like it or not.
RC: Yeah! And the conscience of the Republican Party is Donald Trump, providing, that is, that he has a conscience. (Laughing.) They’re sort of the same, because they’re both reacting against the political garbage we’ve had to put up with for how many years now? People are just tired of it, in my opinion. Both these guys are energized by the same distrust of political lobbyists and the kind of stuff that has become part of the mainstream political system.
Art Bastard ****
There’s a feature film waiting to be made on each of Robert Cenedella’s canvases; they illustrate as big a battleground of love, hate, and action as you’ll find in any of fellow outsider Sam Fuller’s movies. As an artist in all seriousness, Cenedella likes to cyanide-coat his message with humor. At the height of Elvis mania, he put himself through art school selling “I Like Ludwig” buttons. The ace provocateur returned Warhol’s Pop Art volley with a Yes Art backhand of his own and converted Robert Indiana’s iconic “L-O-V-E” cube into an equally recognizable block of “S-H-I-T.” It’s seldom that a documentary brings you this close to its subject, particularly one who’s basically an all-around decent human being. You may not recognize the name going in, but after spending 82 minutes watching director Victor Kanefsky cast a heartfelt lens in Cenedella’s direction, you’ll never forget him.
SM: There are so many moments in Art Bastard that give pause for reflection, but none more than the staggering realization that students can now get an art degree without once ever having picked up a piece of charcoal.
RC: Yep. That’s absolutely right. There are art schools today that don’t even offer Life Drawing classes. Once you can draw the human figure, you can draw anything. I learned this from [German artist and mentor] George Grosz. He told me you have to learn to think with your hand. That is the difference between copying something and then realizing that drawing is like a language. It’s about thinking. It’s an amazing discipline.