Artist Robert Cenedella learned at a young age that he wasn’t the son of his blacklisted writer dad. His birth was the result of an affair his alcoholic mother had with a professor. But “Art Bastard,” Victor Kanefsky’s chummy documentary about Cenedella, earns its cheeky title as much for the fact that this anti-establishment painter was a trend-fighting, willful troublemaker who never became an art world star.
A child of the ’50s and a broken home who got expelled from high school for mocking atomic bomb drills, Cenedella found expression in art. Sardonic therapy, too. It was only halfway through painting two boxers in a ring that he realized he’d drawn them as his dads.
Cenedella met the 1960s with brashly hued canvases (“The Fight,” “42nd Street”) that rendered disorderly, comic sprawls of New York street life. Inspired by the political work of German exile George Grosz, his mentor at art school, Cenedella made sincerely raucous satire at a time when dry irony, abstract expressionism and pop art ruled. Taught by Grosz to “think with his hand,” Cenedella, routinely ignored by tastemakers and gallery and museum heads, considered what Warhol and Pollock did conveniently beyond being criticized, and corruptible by its feed-the-beast popularity. When Cenedella sent up their work with a praised 1965 lampoon show called “Yes Art,” he refused to build on the show’s popularity, declaring he’d be just like them if he made what people wanted. Then he stopped painting for 10 years.
Though Cenedella is a boisterous figure, the biographical elements in the movie are a tad restless, even confusing at certain points, particularly how “Yes Art” originated and was shown, and the non-painting years when Cenedella worked in advertising and posters. The movie is much sharper when Cenedella is talking directly about Grosz’s powerful effect on him, or blasting the art world, or illuminating how specific pieces came about: his anarchic scrums of often-warring citizens; the civil rights fury that drove the mid ’60s piece “Southern Dogs,” in which cops harassing African Americans are portrayed as half-canine; the energy crisis-inspired 1980s apocalyptic “Battlefield of Energy,” in which company logos emblazon tanks.
Movies about artists invariably have a problem to tackle, though — how to show the work. By their chaos-driven nature, many of Cenedella’s paintings, like that of his pack-the-frame heroes Grosz and Bruegel, reward tracking gazes, so as not to miss anything. Kanefsky, therefore, deploys his camera that way, too, to savor as many exaggerated faces and juicy details as possible in close-up. It’s an energizing technique, but sometimes it feels rushed. Less appealing is Kanefsky’s use of bombastic classical music and augmented sound, which feels like appreciation overkill.
Though “Art Bastard” is a zesty, engaging documentary about a veteran outsider, when it comes to his complexities, it’s not terribly cohesive. Kanefsky’s (and Cenedella’s) questions about the art world — generally centered on the queasy relationship between commerce and integrity, and faddish heat versus longevity — are tossed around more than explored. (The choppily edited inclusion of art-world talking heads providing context feels haphazard rather than focused.) But whenever “Art Bastard” settles down to let a lively, passionate man go deep on how he sees the world — and how he translates that into personal, sociologically aware, often ignored, art — the documentary feels like the gallery show this scrappy survivor deserves.
Running time: 1 hour, 24 minutes
Playing: Laemmle Monica Film Center, Santa Monica