Artist Robert Cenedella is a bastard. “A card-carrying, legitimate bastard, as well,” he’s quick to point out. But in the art world, there are bastards and then there are bastards.
You’re probably familiar with the first category of art-world bastard: The money-addled “It” kids and investors who frequent snobby Le Bernardin gallery dinners. But Cenedella, 77, is a bastard of another variety altogether, the kind of righteous bastard who thumbs his nose at the corrupt gatekeepers of a corrupt milieu. And that’s probably why you’ve never heard of him, despite the fact that he’s prolific and has been producing poignant and arguably damn good work for decades.
“It holds you back,” Cenedella, who is based in Soho, tells LLNYC about his exclusion from the mainstream. “I am the most widely written about unknown artist in America. I don’t worry about the government censoring my work because galleries and museums do it for them.”
That’s not self-pitying hyperbole either. We called around, and critics were nonplussed. New York Magazine’s Jerry Saltz said, “Never heard of him.” On the other hand, search the archives of the New Yorker or the New York Times, and there he is again and again. He’s sold paintings to Jacques Chirac, Tony Randall and the composer Cy Coleman. At Midtown’s famed restaurant Le Cirque, a burlesque of 145 regulars he painted is on display. He’s created commercial art for Bacardi, Heinz and Absolut. He was even the subject of a 2016 documentary called “Art Bastard.”
Cenedella’s new political works are the crescendo
of a career spent satirizing the struggles
of everyday life in New York.
But now, in the age of President Donald Trump, Cenedella is hoping to finally garner some attention from his peers with his most provocative work to date. He recently unveiled two new political works: a mixed media print titled “Blind Trust” and a painting called “Pence on Earth.”
The first depicts Trump behind a podium surrounded by government officials whose eyes have been covered with black bars. The second, more ambitious piece is a painting of “a monstrous crowned behemoth” rising “from a darkened planet Earth, cloaked with seemingly random objects of Americana,“ the artist statement reads. “The imposing vertical pillar formed by Trump, his screaming decapitated head, and a miniscule Pence hints not so subtly at the overarching religiosity of the secular in American culture and politics.”
Cenedella’s new political works are the crescendo of a career spent satirizing the struggles of everyday life in New York. His paintings frequently involve hundreds of colorful caricatures, all in motion, like the English artist L.S. Lowry’s scenes with a contemporary American bite. They are also very funny.
“I paint what is around me. I am not just a political painter. Here in Maine, I am painting landscapes all the time,” he says of the primitive island where he summers. “But the city is the place where you are inundated by the news media.”
Cenedella feels that mainstream art has become a form of escapism for a society that doesn’t want to see what is really happening.
“When I was growing up, I went to museums and I learned. I saw political art. I saw people like Thomas Hart Benton and Reginald Marsh. My heroes were all painting about breadlines and about the Depression and lynching.”
A worse indictment still, he argues, like others, is that the lack of regulation in the art market has reduced ineffable expressions of the human condition into a truly massive money-laundering scene.
“Money rules, period,” the artist laments. “You would think that art would be the one area that would be a little bit above the gutter, but the art world has succumbed maybe even more….It is the last unregulated big business in America. If someone thinks that Wall Street is corrupt, it is nothing compared to the art world. If it were regulated and you couldn’t fix prices and you couldn’t do chandelier bidding, artists like Jeff Koons — who doesn’t even create but just dictates nonsense to people — would stop working.”
Cenedella’s works frequently focus on justice and human struggle. His 1965 painting “Southern Dogs” for instance, is a reaction to civil rights demonstrations in Selma, Alabama; it depicts a black man being attacked by dogs that have the faces of policemen and policemen with the faces of dogs. And in 1988, he lambasted the commercialization of Christmas with a painting of a crucified Santa Claus, called “The Presence of Man,” which was removed from Saatchi & Saatchi’s lobby after public outcry. He mimicked Robert Indiana’s iconic typographical sculpture “Love,” replacing the letters so it spelled “Shit.”
The artist says that his stepfather, who worked as a radio writer for actress Helen Hayes and was blacklisted, taught him to think about the big issues. He was expelled from high school for distributing “propaganda” against bomb drills and for refusing to sign a loyalty pledge. He says he learned to channel his anxiety into art after attending classes at the Art Students League on West 57th Street (where now he teaches oil painting and drawing from life). There he became the protégé of the famed German political satirist George Grosz.
But as Pop Art became en vogue in the early 1960s, Cenedella increasing felt out of step with the new wave. He couldn’t relate to the flashy playboys and models who had transformed the art scene into one big party for the cool kids.
His response was to lampoon the new dominant art form with a parody of the work of Andy Warhol and other artists with what he called, “Yes Art!” His 1965 show, at the Fitzgerald Gallery on Madison Avenue, featured a “Brillo Mondrian,” “Brillo Descending a Staircase” and “Souperman” — Warhol-esque soup cans featuring the man of steel.
“I had a live sculpture, a woman who sat there for six weeks,” he says. “Ten years later, Warhol had a breakthrough and had a live sculpture at one of his shows.”
Although it was “a ludicrous show,” Cenedella says a lot of people failed to get the joke. “Many people took it seriously,” he says. The success of his show for the wrong reasons so depressed him that he quit painting for years.
But although Cenedella’s acid wit is only becoming more corrosive — and the quality of his art the better for it — he says that in the end, it’s all for laughs.
“I am concerned about the world around me,” he says, “but humor is what keeps me going. As much as I lament, I think I laugh more than most people. I see the absurdity of things.”