BY: JESSICA BEUKER
“For over 50 years Robert Cenedella has been the art world’s worst kept secret.”
Robert Cenedella was never interested in doing things the so-called traditional way. A bit of a rebel by nature, Cenedella attended the High School of Music and Art in New York, but was expelled after writing a satirical letter to the school’s principal about the atom bomb drill. That didn’t curb his passion for learning and art however, as Cenedella went on to attend the Art Students League of New York, where he studied under the exiled German satirical painter George Grosz.
Cenedella may not be a household name in the elite art world, but he has definitely made an impact over the course of his nearly six-decade career. From studying under Grosz, to his brazenly honest critique of the Pop Art movement, to his invention of the Nixon dartboard, and his return as a teacher and mentor at the art school where it all began, Cenedella has created a rather colourful life and career for himself.
Now, his story is getting the spotlight in the documentary film Art Bastard, a film that follows his lengthy, gritty and somewhat controversial career as an artist. The film has its Canadian premiere today, October 14, at Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema in Toronto.
In honour of the film’s release, The Plaid Zebra spoke to Cenedella about his life, career and what it really means to be a creative today.
The Plaid Zebra: Your art career has spanned nearly six decades – tell me a bit about that journey. How did it begin, what inspired you and when did you realize that this was going to be a lifelong passion and career?
Robert Cenedella: I think every child has the impulse to be an artist, and probably the potential as well. The most impulsive thing for a child is to pick up a crayon or a pencil and try to make an object. In my case, taking it a step further, I found in art books the world that was open to me with subjects that were more interesting than everyday life. So from that time on, I would say, art became one aspect of life that was a little bit above the gutter. Unfortunately, much of today’s art world is in the gutter, but for me I still find my heroes like Grosz, Bosch, Bruegel, Rembrant, Kent, etc… all above the gutter.
TPZ: You worked with George Grosz, known for his gritty and caricatural drawings of life in Berlin. What was your experience working with him and how did he shape or contribute to your own feelings about art and life?
RC: When I met George Grosz, I was 17. I knew nothing of his work, but from the first day I met him, I knew I was in the presence of someone completely special, whose abilities and concern for human dignity was well above the gutter. His influence on me had as much to do with social justice and integrity as it did with learning how to draw. That’s why to this day I don’t compromise with my art. I don’t think I go through a day without having a thought about George Grosz. I have never met anyone that I could compare to him. I was very fortunate in meeting him as a young student.
TPZ: You’ve been dubbed the “anti-Warhol”, with some of your work mocking the pop art movement. What are your criticisms of the pop art movement and why did you feel it was necessary to create a response to that?
RC: I think that pop art started off with some legitimacy, but sort of like the pet rock and the hula hoop. It became popularized by an artist simply repeating a million times a one-time joke. How many soup cans could become famous? In the case of Warhol, he started with tomato soup and then managed to add chicken soup and pea soup, etc.. etc.. simply a commercial, empty endeavor.
When I did my ‘Yes Art!’ show, I said I would get more publicity than every artist in America, and that included Warhol, and I did. Every painting or sculpture I did as a joke has since been done seriously, including my live sculpture, which ten years later was done by Warhol with great acclaim. I was selling art by the pound and was giving out S&H stamps rather than giving out dull replicas done by the world’s most famous pop-artist. The necessity of the response was to prove that art would never be the same once you could compare a soup can to any other work of art, a Rembrant, a Vermeer, etc… We used to ask the question, “what is art?” Now the question is “what isn’t art?” Which is why the art world supports such non-entities as Jeff Koons, Damien Hirst, etc.. It’s all about gimmicks and money.
TPZ: What was the reaction to some of your works from the ‘Yes Art!’ gallery? Was it the reaction you were hoping for? What were you trying to inspire or to get people to think about by parodying the pop art movement?
RC: As to the reaction I was looking for, I succeeded and failed at the same time. I succeeded in proving that using the same methods to promote the exhibition made journalists think and write about the pop art movement in a critical manner. Dozens of journalists, like Maury Kempton, wrote very interesting and insightful articles, but in the end everyone thought I should continue the ‘Yes Art!’ movement as a social pop. For me it was the fact I wouldn’t continue the movement, because otherwise, I’d become one of them, and my point was to be the opposite.
TPZ: How did you come up with the idea for the Hostility Dart Board? Was the idea to make money? I can see this being an incredibly popular phenomenon today, if updated with currently disliked public figures (a Donald Trump one immediately comes to mind). What was the reaction like back then? Did most people find it funny or inappropriate?
RC: Similar to today, the late ’60s was a very contentious time, politically and otherwise. My incentive was to give the public a sense of satisfaction. What could be more simple and rewarding than throwing a dart at a politician you dislike? It was also my way of getting a sense of satisfaction without becoming a politician. I took civil disobedience off the streets and into the living rooms. The item sold in places like Macy’s and Gimbels’ and was a national best seller. The fact that I made money with it only helped me keep my integrity as an artist.
TPZ: Of your 50 plus years career, what is the thing you are most proud of creating and why? And what is the thing that has earned you the most public attention – either in a positive or negative way?
RC: There are many things that I was more or less proud of in the past. Yes Art! was one, my dartboards, my political posters, but if I was going to say the thing I’m most proud of it is resisting to bastardize my art and create art for the market place. My new mural, “Fin del Mundo” (The End of the World), I think might end up being as provocative as ‘Yes Art!’ and my crucified “Santa Claus” painting. “Santa Claus” went viral after being taken down by Sachi & Sachi. The painting is one of my best-known works, but at the same time, it has gotten as much negative attention as positive.
TPZ: What, in your opinion, is the most interesting thing about being an artist?
RC: For me, the most interesting aspect of being an artist is that it keeps me in touch with the world around me in a way that no other occupation could.
TPZ: Today especially, where social media is always at our fingertips and self-promotion is a easy as ever, do you think there has been an influx of creative art – or a shift in the way we produce and consume creative art – whether it be music, film, writing and painting? If so, what does this mean for true creatives? How has your art, and your opinions about art, changed since you began as an artist, up until today?
RC: Today, unfortunately, because of the so-called technological “advances” everyone can claim to be an artist, a musician, a writer. But what is sadly lacking in the arts in general is soul and integrity, because technology has replaced traditional skills in many cases, particularly in the fine arts. Literally no standards exist which sounds like freedom of expression to many people, but one only has to go to contemporary art fairs to underscore the fact that anyone can claim to be an artist, and claim to be so in social media, and no one would dare challenge. For the true creatives, it means the rug has been pulled out from under them. Real talent, technical abilities, and any real form of artistic discipline for the true creatives, I don’t think they have changed at all since I left the George Grosz class. What has changed is that the question is no longer “what is art?” but “what isnt’ art?” and that’s a rather sad development, in my opinion.
Be sure to catch Cenedella’s film, Art Bastard, in theatres now.