Ed McCormack and I met Robert Cenedella at a National Arts Club event. It was long ago, around 2009, but I remember the evening: lots of people in artsy dinner attire and lots of talk. When it was time for dinner, we all sat at long tables on seats which were assigned with little name cards.
Whoever planned the seating must have known that Cenedella truly belonged at the head of the table, because he grabbed your attention without even trying. A very lively man with twinkly bright eyes and an amused expression which made you wonder, “What is he thinking?” You got the feeling he was observing everyone. He gave me the impression of amazing self-assurance, of a person who is happy in his own skin, a quality that gave him a magnetic presence.
In the 1937 book Painters and Personality, Sam A. Lewisohn, contends that “to produce great art the artist must have a sufficiently interesting personality.”
We soon learned that Bob not only possessed a rambunctious personality, but that he took delight in upsetting the art establishment. This was made clear when he reserved our full-page back cover with a very convincing facsimile of a Mark Rothko on which the word “Bullshit” was scrawled across the image. Ed and I were somewhat flummoxed since neither of us would ever have classified Mark Rothko’s work as such.
Ed wrote in an article titled “Robert Cenedella, Gadfly for the Cause of Art” that “being a pain in the ass is part of Robert Cenedella’s job description. The other part is being one of our most courageous, imaginative, and conscience-driven figurative painters and arguably the most charismatic and popular instructor at The Art Students League [from 1988 – 2016] since his own teacher, mentor, and artistic hero George Grosz.”
Cenedella is best known for teaching the foundational skills of drawing and in particular the human form. His aim is to teach the student to “think with the hand.” One of his former students, Jeff Tocci says “his teaching of how to use the line, the same lessons he was taught from George Grosz, were the most influential to me. On the first day I met him, he looked at my drawings and said, ‘I can see you’ve done this before. If you come back tomorrow I will change your life.’ And he did, in one lesson on the economy and potential of a charcoal line. Then we went to the bar.”
Like George Grosz who was fond of satirizing bourgeois types congregating in elegant settings, Cenedella takes delight in revealing the absurdity of certain social gatherings. A perfect example is a serigraph we own by Cenedella of an art opening titled Gallery Opening, 1962. Ed and I would look at this crowded scene many times and pick out certain figures. Ed would say, “You know who that looks like, don’t you?” And I would agree, “Oh yeah, you are right.”
There are also some figures in the crowd hanging upside down in various positions from ropes! Each figure has a distinctive face, revealing the humanity of the individuals in his works. They are never generic place holders. The strong human element is apparent in his life as well as his art.
In spite of the sharp satirical nature of the work in which each of the party-goers appears to be engaged in intense dialogue about artsy matters, these are individuals that Cenedella has observed and remembered as he appeared to be doing when we first met him at the National Arts Club.
Cenedella also takes great pleasure in satirizing politics such as his large work The Senate: No Taxation Without Representation 2011, as well as many other institutions which mainstream society holds dear.
As for the art establishment: He has painted a Heinz tomato soup image in the style of Andy Warhol, a replica of Robert Indiana’s painting of the word LOVE, with the letters for SHIT in its place, and large murals for bars around New York City are included in his extensive oeuvre.
Whenever Ed wrote about Cenedella for our magazine, we were given a list of bars— which were some of his preferred exhibition spaces—for delivering the magazine.
As it turned out Ed and Bob were kindred spirits, both Outsiders at an early age. Both went to the High School of Music and Art for a very short time, Ed only attending a few days of classes before returning to his preferred “Black Board Jungle” high school, Seward Park on the Lower East Side. Bob, on the other hand, was expelled for writing an article satirizing the school’s air raid drills as useless doomsday precautions.
Sam A. Lewisohn also says “the personality of the artist is key to his art.” In another way it could be said that Cenedella’s life is his art; his art lives through him and has always been an expression of who he is.
One of his more recent works is a 55″ x 96″ triptych titled So Many Roads, Grateful Dead 1965-Forever. As with most of his works, it is packed with a multitude of humanity, this time congregated before a mystical skyline which includes a bright sun in one section: a rainbow over the earth with lightning bolts in the middle. In the upper right of the third section, instead of bright sky, a moon shines above mysterious shadowy faces. The word “Forever” in the title adds a layer of mystery to Cenedella’s enigmatic Grateful Dead painting bringing an era of long ago back to life again . G&S
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