5 Questions, 10 Images: Robert Cenedella Is a True Life 'Art Bastard'
New York City artist Robert Cenedella has been showing Manhattan and the outer boroughs back to themselves since the days when a four-room NYC apartment rented for less than 50 bucks a month. In his time, Cenedella has seen the Warhols, the Rauschenbergs, the Schnabels, and the Koonses come and go and extend very limited credit and respect to Robert Cenedella.
An upcoming documentary film, Art Bastard, directed by Victor Kanefsky and presented by CAVU Pictures, focuses on the artist's extended and unwavering history of truth in painting. The subject of the film has a lot to say, and is not shy about saying it. He also, like all the best big talkers, can show you the work that backs up the words.
The KIND: What is the attraction for you of figurative painting vs abstract?
Robert Cenedella: I don’t think it is an attraction at all, because I think all art is “abstract”: Bruegel, Turner, Vermeer, etc. The term ABSTRACT—as it applies to contemporary art—defines a kind of art which, in my opinion, only comprises HALF of art. Much the same has been done in defining “contemporary” art as some particular form of art which arbitrarily excludes any artist not conforming to this “invention” that has nothing to do with the definition of “contemporary art.”
I’m sure that Michelangelo and Leonardo de Vinci, both very different in style, both considered themselves contemporary at the time they were making art.
What I mean by this is that I consider myself a CONTEMPORARY ARTIST because I am painting today. Should I now redefine myself because of the ART ESTABLISHMENT, the promoters who have now defined what is and isn’t contemporary art? I’m sure that Michelangelo and Leonardo de Vinci, both very different in style, both considered themselves contemporary at the time they were making art.
Getting back to half of art—ABSTRACT ART defined itself by taking on that name as if for the most part the figure, along with just about every definable object, had no place in a composition. By choosing to paint only “abstract art,” one is limiting oneself with an artistic style before they even (or ever) put brush to canvas—leaving out, to me, half of what is compelling and integral to art.
The KIND: What were the lessons you learned from your time in advertising?
Robert Cenedella: When I left the Art Students League and went on my own in 1959, I experienced the end of an era in art. It was a turning point. There were relatively few galleries in New York. Figurative art was not yet a bad word. So I met artists like Raphael Soyer, Jack Levine, John Koch, Yasuo Kuniyoshi, Thomas Hart Benton.
I was able in 1960 to afford a four-room apartment with room enough to paint. I worked at odd jobs including the Forum Gallery where I had access to figurative artists. I hung their shows.
Art and money don’t really mix. And if you have to work from 9-to-5 to make enough money to live, then as an artist, you’re screwed.
When I joined an ad agency, it was the first and only 9-to-5 job I ever had or ever wanted to have. I realized that the purpose of making MONEY for most people was very different from my purpose and, I guess, the purpose for most true artists. I realized I only wanted to make money so I could afford to paint. What I did for the Agency was never “the beginning of a CAREER in advertising,” but the means to a career in art. It was there that it became clear: Art and money don’t really mix. And if you have to work from 9-to-5 to make enough money to live, then as an artist, you’re screwed. It clarified what being an outsider is in more precise terms. I also realized that my skills as a fine artist were not the same and could not work in advertising. Meaning that my hand was for hire, and that special aspect of being an “independent artist” and an independent thinker could not be accepted in such a world.
The KIND: Why Art?
Robert Cenedella: Art from a very early age has always represented the one aspect of LIFE that is ABOVE THE GUTTER. It always seemed to me back in the day, even before I became an artist, that what I found in museums was a special kind of vision that only existed on artist’s canvases.
Bruegel’s paintings told a story—actually many stories—in one image; Goya’s bull fights, paintings of war that didn’t glorify war, nudes that back in the day you could only see in a museum or a smut magazine (not that easily obtained, and even then with the pubic hair covered). So Art with a capital A is still my yardstick for integrity and a form of TRUTH. What I mean by that is when I finish a painting (any painting), a still life, a portrait, a commentary—and feel it’s ready for a signature, that is the closest I personally can get to a feeling of TRUTH. When I see a Bruegel—such as The Triumph of Death—I see it as a form of Truth. I do not have the same sense, for instance, when I look at a shark floating in badly prepared formaldehyde or a Balloon Dog Sculpture (creator unknown), etc. So ART, for me, is a way to achieve some form of personal truth.
In the art world, the hypocrisy is such that it pretends to be something higher, something loftier.
Even then, I had more respect for the craft that advertising required, than the new emerging world of so-called “contemporary” art. In the end, I saw that the NEW ART WORLD talked a very lofty line that was just a lot of hype. Self-expression, freedom, integrity, independence, anti-establishment, etc, etc, were really all taking a page from the AD AGENCY WORLD. The difference with advertising is that actual skill is required to create the art. More than that, advertising is a lot more honest with its intent to sell. In the art world, the hypocrisy is such that it pretends to be something higher, something loftier, when in the end the intent is the same. Where does this leave the true artist? And by TRUE ARTIST, I mean the one who paints with no assurance of a sale, the one who takes a risk. When one sees a huge sculpture or a 30-foot painting or expensive installation in a Museum, did the artist create that piece and then see if a gallery or museum was interested? Or was it some business transaction in the guise of art—no-risk art for hire?
The KIND: What is the best place you’ve lived and what’s so great about it?
Robert Cenedella: The short answer would be New York City, 1950 to 1990. Those years were very special in that landlords did not rule your life or the life of the city. I was able, at age 18, to have an apartment in a five-floor walk-up, four rooms, a bathroom and foyer for $42.50 a month. That was in the 1960s. I had enough room to paint and discover the city and all its fascinating aspects, such as getting an education at the Metropolitan Museum of Art—which used to be free and not a mere $20. Because it was free, I could go four times a week and study Bruegel, El Greco, Thomas Hart Benton, Otto Dix, Rembrandt, and of course the list goes on.
Oscar Wilde said that people seem to know the price of everything and the value of nothing.
New York City was a learning center about life in general. 42nd street in the '60s, '70s, and '80s was still a place one could gain street smarts. Real smut at the peep shows and live sex on stage—not the kind of smut they have now, which is only acceptable because now they use smut to sell something else, something more high-brow or upscale (hypocrisy, again, rearing its ugly head).
I am glad to have known the city back when it was a real city, not a playpen for the super rich and a place for foreigners to launder their money. Now it’s just a huge Mall homogenized to the point of boredom. Like so much of life, we have reduced the city to MONEY. Oscar Wilde said that people seem to know the price of everything and the value of nothing. Yankee Stadium is one perfect example of what the City is all about. The House that Ruth Built is torn down so upscale private booths could be installed to sell just about anything you could imagine; God-awful music playing between innings; 12-dollar hot dogs and really no place at all for the average guy wanting to see multi-millionaires play a ball game. And so it goes. Again, I was lucky to have been around for the good old days.
The KIND: What is your greatest vindication?
Robert Cenedella: As it stands right now, it’s the current reaction to ART BASTARD—the film about my journey as an artist over the years. FILM seems to be the vindication… Quotes from critics who get the message that the Art Establishment has tried to keep quiet. The quotes make it clear that people have looked at the art, thought about what they say, and responded in a very honest way—the way all art should be viewed. Critics, as you see, always say, “I was not aware of Robert Cenedella,” then go on to make their comments. This is unlike going to an exhibition at a Museum where the HYPE is already in place. You are told before seeing the exhibition what it is, what it means, and even what it’s worth—at the very least, this is always implied in the status and grandeur of the institution and the advertising surrounding its major exhibitions.
As I say often, it’s not what they show that bothers me—it’s what they don’t show.
ART BASTARD was recently screened as part of a film series in which the audience members never knew in advance what film they were going to be shown. Thus their reactions were spontaneous and, I believe, more honest. Most amazing to me is that the Angelika Film Center in New York which is opening ART BASTARD on June 3rd has put up an exhibition of my work right in their lobby and cafe. And now the film's distributor, CAVU Pictures, is getting requests from other theaters around the country to do the same thing. That is the greatest vindication for me. As I say often, it’s not what they show that bothers me—it’s what they don’t show. So my vindication right now is FILM and film audiences who react without bias and movie theaters that have no reservations showing my work.