Provocative artist Robert Cenedella blends satire with fantasy to survive the NYC scene as an outsider.
If you always questioned the integrity of some contemporary art—like those stacked vacuum cleaners of Jeff Koons’s—you’re in good company. Robert Cenedella, the magnetic 76-year-old subject of Victor Kanefsky’s affectionate and vibrant if not thoroughly captivating documentary has a thing or two to say on the topic. He speaks from experience as a uniquely talented outsider artist of four decades who fought to sustain an uneven career amid a money-driven, impulsive NYC art scene.
The lifelong rabble-rouser who once chose Beethoven over Elvis (Cenedella’s reactionary “I Love Ludwig” buttons put him through art school) never quite became the flavor of the month à la the Warhol works of the Pop Art movement, which he famously mocked in a 1965 exhibition called “Yes Art.” Instead, Cenedella unofficially became the illegitimate child of the local art world: There’s a double meaning to the film’s title once he reveals certain family secrets (as Sarah Polley did in her self-exposing Stories We Tell) and recounts the effect this trauma had on his work.
Breezy and vivid, Art Bastard ultimately delivers the person: criminally underrated yet still principled and generous. It just leaves you wishing for more defiance, especially when a conventional tone takes over with too many interviewees and overpowers the film’s most lucrative asset: a pulsating New York backdrop.