Robert Cenedella was born in Milford, Massachusetts, in 1940. He received his formal education from the High School of Music and Art in New York and The Art Students League of New York. In 1988, he inherited the George Grosz Chair at The League when he was invited to teach his Life Drawing Class and a Painting Workshop. He presently teaches three classes at The League.
Following a definite tradition in art, like Brueghel, Daumier, Hogarth and Grosz before him, Robert Cenedella has devoted his art to chronicling the changing rituals and myths of society in contemporary America.
In the last 20 years, Cenedella has amassed considerable international praise as well as inclusion in numerous public and private collections. His commissions include works for the famed Bacardi Int’l and ABSOLUT Vodka, a theater piece for Tony Randall, and two murals of historical significance for Le Cirque 2000 Restaurant in New York and Mexico City.
Cenedella’s art and life is the subject of a forthcoming book, The American Artist as Satirist, by M. Kay Flavell.
“Art Bastard,” a historical documentary film on his work was released in the spring of 2016 by Concannon Productions, Inc. It was directed by the acclaimed writer & director Victor Kanefsky, produced by Chris T. Concannon, and edited by Jim MacDonald.
Cenedella may be best known for his pieces, Santa Claus (1988), depicting the crucifixion of Santa, which drew complaints and protests from Catholic groups around the world, Southern Dogs (1965) and Le Cirque – The First Generation (1998).
I had the opportunity to ask Robert a few questions about his painting. Here is the Interview:
1.What inspired you to start painting?
When I was 3 and a half or so I viewed a copy of Moby Dick illustrated by Rockwell Kent. There were about 500 illustrations and I could follow the story because the visual images were so profound.
2.Have you noticed your art having the impact you intend?
Yes. I teach at The Art Student League in New York and have influenced many students over the years. Many of my paintings have been censored. I take that as a compliment because I know my work is provoking the viewer.
3. Did you suggest the documentary about you be titled, “Art Bastard?”
I named it! I didn’t know who my father was until I was 21. I don’t follow the rules in art and do fairly well being an outsider. It’s quite a fitting title.
4. Do you care if some people are turned off or disgusted by your ideas?
When I was starting out I was looking for a pat on the back like we do, but today I take it as a compliment when I don’t get that pat. It’s also a compliment that I don’t have work in a museum based on what I see there. For example – contemporary art – so much has nothing to do with art but rather hype.
1.Do you prefer abstraction over realism?
Jackson Pollock was brilliant because you rarely hear about a bad painting of his. All art is abstract because it’s all leaving out so many details about reality. When you pick a painting without realism, it is half of art because you’re leaving out so much of life.
6.Have you ever seen the curvature of the Earth?
Maybe from an airplane. I’ve painted it often. In my newest painting, “Pence on Earth,” I have Pence standing on the curvature of the Earth. [Further detail and a picture are included below.] Metaphorically the world might be ending, I think about that now more than ever.
7. How is “Fin del Mundo” inspired by “The Garden of Earthly Delights” if the content of “Find del Mundo” is unearthly?
When Bosch painted “The Garden of Earthly Delights” he was saying a lot of the same things I am in “Fin del Mundo”. Bosch was being sarcastic.
8.Is Donald Trump a specific part to “Fin Del Mundo”?
Yes. This painting was commissioned with the only requirement being: finish it by the election. It is about the republican convention. Everyone trying to be the nominee is included. At this point, no one really thought Trump would win. As time went on I began to see Trump as the devil. It was started a year before the election and Trump became more devilish in the painting and in real life.
I usually don’t do a painting for money but because I want to do it. In this case, a collector gave me a down payment thinking I could express his dismay at the present condition of the universe well. He said, “If I was a painter I would do it myself.” When he saw it though, he didn’t want to make the final payment because my perceptions were a little harsher than his. He claimed it didn’t look finished so I bought it back and the collector bought a different painting.
9.It sounds like you have had many neat opportunities to share your work. Could you tell us about a specific memory?
Saatchi and Saatchi gave me a space for a one man show – they are known as avant-garde collectors of contemporary art. It was to be my breakthrough show, until they saw my painting of Santa being crucified. It was taken out of the show. The irony is, Saatchi and Saatchi is known for a show they did named “Sensations.” They obviously wanted a different sensation.
Ten years later, The Art Student League asked me if I had a Christmas painting to display because they had some window space. I had it framed for them and it was hung. A day later the painting went viral. The news had a huge article about it. The Catholic league wanted it down and was a lot of controversy. 10 years earlier it was censored!
A quote from my documentary, “Art Bastard,” comes to mind: “It’s not what they show that bothers me it’s what they don’t show.”
10.What do you think of social media?
I still type letters on a 1940’s typewriter. I call myself a Luddite.
Social media supports me because it’s free of censorship, unlike the world. I’ve gotten commissions just because it’s easier to see my work. However, I have to have other people operate it for me.
ABOUT PENCE ON EARTH:
A monstrous crowned behemoth rises from a darkened planet Earth, cloaked with seemingly random objects of Americana. In line with Cenedella’s past works, which offer a harsh critique of the American media religion, this portrait of Trump embraces the polarities of dominance and emasculation, gravity and foolhardiness, reverence and ridicule. 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 reminds us that major religions such as Christianity are built upon hierarchy – at times tyranny – and an unholy concentration of power in the hands of the humanly fallible.
But what is the meaning of this crowded conglomerate of an image, of blind justice juxtaposed with footballs, baseballs and a bald eagle, and of Trump holding his own head in one hand? The artist himself admits that he just paints what he feels, from the gut rather than from the brain, and so one has to search for meaning with intuition rather than external logic.
In Trump’s severed head and broken and withered arms there is a distinct element of wounded humanity. Nobody is escaping this unharmed. This figure may be a Frankenstein’s monster of historical transgressions, but he is a monster on the verge of implosion. In a world where the gilded realm of the sports entertainment industry rivals that of politics on our television screens, where social media holds dominion over minds and education, where Fox News replaces presidential briefings and Twitter takes the place of press conferences, there is no way we can assume that liberty and justice hold as much power and influence as the mass media cartel. These brightly colored, joyful playing cards, bowling pins, twitter birds, and billiard balls that crowd the canvas are child’s play. They are delusion and illusion, drowning out freedom, equality, and sanity, just as their garish colors wash out the grey and beige of our Bill of Rights and Constitution.
If wounded weakness signals the humanity within the monstrous, then there’s only one figure that stands eerily untouched – Pence. Tiny Pence in his spotlessly white, apostolic suit perches at the bottom of the totem pole, a position occupying the most power in many traditional carvings. The garish and confusing clash of objects and games on the canvas does more than symbolize the mainstream media’s failure to report the hidden truth – it literally distracts us from the real focal point of the painting itself. That something or someone could be so powerful and yet pass by us almost unnoticed is the frightening truth of this piece, and the secret to the anomaly that is this stricken presidential beast.
In Cenedella’s 2016 painting Fin del Mundo, the artist depicted the landscape of our apocalypse. In Pence on Earth, he scrutinizes the actual instrument of our undoing. Trump is the distraction, the dust in our eyes, the horned Beast – but Pence, the wizard hidden behind the curtain, the hand on the monster truck’s steering wheel, the albeit less entertaining and much more obscure man with the remote control, is the one who urgently calls our attention in a still, small voice.