As if a continuation of the film The Art of Failure: Chuck Connelly Not For Sale, a documentary (premiering tonight at 9 on HBO) about an artist whose deep personality problems and alcoholism eventually caused his exile from the art world, my colleague ran into the subject in the men’s room after the film’s recent preview in Tribeca. “This is going to sound strange, but I like your work a lot,” he told Connelly. “That’s not strange,” the artist replied, a light arrogant tone permeating his slurred words. “Well, it is when you consider I’m telling you this at a urinal.”
Somehow this seems like exactly the kind of interaction Chuck Connelly is accustomed to: a long string of mildly amusing and uncomfortable drunken exchanges about art which together make up the bulk of his experience — or at least the documentary. “[It’s about] a working-class outsider who is fighting ageism, elitism, and cronyism” says director Jeff Stimmel, glossing over his depiction of Connelly’s anger issues and alcohol abuse in exchange for the age old crowd pleaser underdog versus elite establishment. The use of such art world stereotypes as a promotional ploy will feel strikingly familiar to those who in 2006 saw Who the #$&% is Jackson Pollock?, a film marketed on the unsubstantiated premise that art-world elitism held up the evaluation of a painting many others believe to be a Pollock.
“Everything I do is fucked because I have negative energy????” the artist violently screams at his wife after his painting sells for a paltry $500 online. Setting the tone for the documentary, he then launches into a tirade consisting primarily of expletives. Art professionals, including dealer Annina Nosei, Artnet editor Walter Robinson and artist Mark Kostabi, attest to Connelly’s difficult personality and stunning ability to emote through paint, even as his alcoholism and verbal abuse ultimately force his collectors, galleries and wife away. Finally, in an act of desperation, he embarks on a scheme in which he hires a young professional actor to play the role of himself and win back his career.
Spoiler alert: It doesn’t work. The artist shoots himself in the foot even as he attempts to remove himself from dealer interactions, withholding the fact that he no longer owns the paintings he’s asked his surrogate to shop around. When the gallerists visit Connelly’s studio, they are presented with paintings different than those they thought they had come to see.
Such poor decision-making skills are not traits inherent to artists, though Connelly, perhaps as a means to avoid taking ownership of his surliness, falls back on the myth that they all must suffer for their craft. For the most part, the Tribeca audience rewarded his laziness, finding amusement in virtually any art cliché Connelly uttered on the subject of artist pain. “Dying is the best career move [Warhol] ever made,” he remarks while visiting the star’s grave — the oldest joke in the book, sparking uproarious laughter from nearly everyone around me. Though to be fair, every once in a while the artist would say something genuinely funny — usually again at somebody else’s expense. At no point was he ever illuminating or self-reflective, instead indulging in behavior so abhorrent it is almost impossible to feel any empathy for the man.
Yet scene after scene demonstrating his various personality issues might amount to a more substantive documentary if they didn’t come at the expense of factual details. For example, Connelly’s wife leaves him during the filming of the documentary, but the year is never mentioned, and her motivations barely discussed. Perhaps even more important to the film, early on we’re told the artist stopped showing in 1989, but Connelly himself never discusses why that occurred. The documentary suggests that his disavowal of Martin Scorsese’s Life Lessons, a short film based on his professional practice, was the nail in that coffin, though a single ill-advised comment tanking the career of an artist with whom many dealers and collectors have a vested financial interest seems unlikely at best.
Moreover, Stimmel’s slideshows exhibit only a few of his subject’s unpredictable neo-expressionist works — a dark painting of Santa Claus, for example, with the pun “ho-mo” scrawled across the surface — among countless easy, representational paintings. It makes you wonder why Connelly is the topic of a documentary at all. The artist’s “failure” is never fully defined, though a few brief reprieves from the intense internal rage pervading Connelly’s life provide remarkable context by comparison. Stimmel never capitalizes on the dynamics of Connelly telling his wife she’s beautiful or his drunken, genuine conversations with the actor he works with, though Robinson and Nosei shed some light on how his art-making practice might similarly offer Connelly peace. Such connections could have prevented The Art of Failure from fulfilling the prophecy of its title: a series of excruciating episodes composing an inconsequential look at an artist whose time has come and gone.
Related: Edward Winkleman, The Art Gallery’s Being Mean to Me.