How much time you want to spend listening to Canedella’s philosophical pronouncements and viewing his sometimes enjoyable but not particularly challenging paintings?
Robert Cenedella loves to paint, and he loves to talk, a promising combination for a documentary film. While you may have your doubts about where he fits in the official pantheon of artists (someone in the film likens his work to journalism, which may or may not be a compliment), he’s certainly an enjoyable guy to spend some time with. And that’s the basic experience you get by watching Viktor Kanevsky’s documentary—time spent in the genial company of someone who is pretty much happy with the choices he made in his life and work.
Cenedella came of age when the art world was dominated by abstract expressionism, and Cenedella’s interest in representational art disqualified him from ever being one of the cool kids. He doesn’t grieve about this, however, but seems happy to have gone his own way. That’s a trait he came by honestly—Cenedella’s father, a successful radio writer, was blacklisted in the 1950s after he refused to answer questions about his political affiliations—and Cenedella also seems to be at peace with the results achieved by going his own way.
Cenedella attended the Art Students League, where he was taught and mentored by George Grosz, a German painter noted for his satirical images of Berlin street and cabaret life. Cenedella’s art developed in a similar vein, although without the bite of Grosz’ best work—instead, Cenedella’s work reminds me more of a Reginald Marsh but without Marsh’s distinctive style. Cenedella is also happy to be a jovial raconteur uninterested in self-examination, for instance in pondering whether his status as a white man might have played a key role in his ability to a relatively pleasant life without the need to conform.
Director Victor Kanevsky is best known as an editor, with his only previous directorial credit dating back to 1978. He puts his talents to good use with strong selections of archival and new street footage intercut with interviews, shots of Cenedella’s art, and a whole lot of Cenedella handing out and holding forth. A well-chosen soundtrack also adds to the enjoyment of watching this film. The main question is how much time you want to spend listening to Canedella’s philosophical pronouncements and viewing his sometimes enjoyable but not particularly challenging paintings, and whether you will be happy with the rather superficial and unquestioning portrait of his life and work that emerges from this documentary. At its best, Cenedella’s work captures the vibrancy of New York street life, while at its worst, it’s superficially clever and self-indulgent.
Cenedella’s sweeping pronouncements may also rub some the wrong way. To take issue with just a pair of Cenedella’s global generalizations, did abstract expressionism really begin the practice of the market dictating what artists should do (if they wanted their work to sell)? I think not—the rule that he pays the piper calls the tune has been more or less built into the art world in many different eras. And did pop art set some new precedent by capitalizing on the desire of those in the art word, and those who purchase art, to be seen as part of the “in crowd”? Once again, that sounds pretty much like business as usual in the art world in many times and places. Similarly, neither the value of connections in getting ahead in the art world, nor the desire of collectors to purchase art that will appreciate in value, are new or particularly remarkable—they are just evidence that the art world is made by human beings, rather than existing on some rarefied planet where talent and artistic quality can be measured in any absolute sense. | Sarah Boslaugh