Art's Real Thing Was Never Sold on Success

By John Anderson
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, July 6, 2008

LOS ANGELES -- Back in the star-drunk, money-laundering days of the '80s art scene in New York, painter Chuck Connelly was accosted by a good-looking young woman at a downtown restaurant opening.

"This girl corners me and says, 'Are you Julian Schnabel?' " Connelly recalls, referring to his better-known contemporary, now an award-winning film director. "I said, 'Yeah!' and so she says, 'Come with me,' takes me down to this phone booth and starts making out with me. Then I said, 'I'm not Julian Schnabel,' and she, like, slaps me and runs away."

So did the art world, and largely for the same reasons.

Chuck Connelly wasn't Julian Schnabel, or Jean-Michel Basquiat, or Cindy Sherman. He was Chuck Connelly. Talented, no doubt. Problematic? No kidding. As documented in Jeff Stimmel's "The Art of Failure: Chuck Connelly Not for Sale" (debuting Monday on HBO), people who buy art may romanticize the image of the pugnacious, independent, oil-smattered, artmaking reprobate. But they aren't quite as enchanted when the real thing comes along. Horrible things might happen. Pinot noir might end up on your white Prada shoes.

Considering the life and style portrayed in Stimmel's film -- Connelly drinks, rages, charms, drinks, rages -- he's a bit out of his element on this particularly balmy, sun-drenched afternoon on the patio of the W Hotel in Westwood. A number of Los Angeles Film Festival cadres are in breezy conversations (the Connelly film is in the festival). An episode of "Entourage" was shot here in the morning, hence the parade of supermodel-wannabes and other extraterrestrials parading around the pool. If all of the preceding sounds cliched, it is. It's also true. Connelly's art dealer looks like an agent, so he's able to chat up the girls. Connelly, half a beer in his mitt, puts on sunglasses, so no one will know he's ogling.

But he's safely anonymous, as he's been, more or less, since not becoming someone more successful.

So what happened to Connelly? Did he sabotage himself?

"I wasn't too cooperative with things I was uncomfortable with," he says, working a Newcastle Nut Brown Ale in a tapering pilsner glass that refracts the light coming off the Pacific. "Like, they'll call you a difficult artist if you question them stealing your money or something. You just don't want to make any waves. People you've never met say, 'I hear you're a difficult artist.' Oh, from who? The galleries who stole my money?"

It's been commonplace for years that the movie business is cutthroat, the music business is worse, and the art world makes the rest of them look like amateurs. It's also the creative field in which the aesthetic is anchored to the most amorphous parameters: If someone spends $50 million on a painting, is it a good painting? Yeah, as an investment. Maybe. Part of Connelly's commercial dilemma is/was his lack of a "hook" -- the broken-crockery signature of Schnabel, for instance. As evidenced during a stunning survey of the 3,000 paintings Connelly has in storage, his style recalls van Gogh, Chagall, Soutine and de Kooning. Still, the "Art" of the movie's title really refers to Connelly's flair for sandbagging himself.

Connelly once sold millions of dollars' worth of paintings and, as the film tells us, was the model for Nick Nolte's character, Lionel Dobie, in "Life Lessons," the Martin Scorsese contribution to the 1989 trilogy "New York Stories." Dobie's art was Connelly's. When Dobie was applying paint to a canvas, what we saw were Connelly's hands working the brush. Then Connelly told the New York Post he thought the movie was mundane, cliched and not as good as "Raging Bull."

"Scorsese had been like, 'Come here, Chuck, we're gonna talk to the New York Times together . . . ' We were all pally pally. Then he gets the vendetta going. I wrote him a letter -- 'Dear Marty: "Cliche's" not really a bad word . . . most good things are . . . you know you're my favorite director.' I didn't get any reply. And now it's gonna make him feel worse when he sees this."

Why? " 'Cause I keep bringing it up."

Regrets -- he has a few.

"Someone asks, 'What would you take back?' " he says. "It would be those words."

Scorsese might have given Connelly entree to any number of high-spending art collectors, but "that was the end of Chuck Connelly," at least one dealer says about the painter's brief foray into movie criticism. Whether that was really the whole problem is unlikely, given the tenor of "The Art of Failure."

"It was very challenging," says director Stimmel. "He was just always concerned about how he was going to come across. I think it's a very honest film. People were amazed I could get along with Chuck -- unlike a lot of people. We've had a few moments. But who doesn't?"

Part of the challenge, Stimmel says, was making a movie about a living artist, one whose story isn't over. (Connelly's says he's been selling more paintings since the film began screening.)

"I'd say, 'Chuck, I don't know how it's going to end.' And he'd say, 'Well, I could shoot myself in the head on the roof of the house.' I said, 'That'll work, actually. Let me know when you're ready.' 'Nah nah nah, I don't want to do that. . . . Maybe I'll burn all my paintings?' 'Okay.' 'No, that's not gonna work . . .' "

Connelly can be a pit bull, but Stimmel is more of a puppy. "I wish every director was like Jeff," says Diana Holtzberg of the Montreal-based Films Transit International, one of the movie's co-producers. "We had creative differences, but most of the time we agreed on things." She had seen Stimmel's five-minute clip at the Independent Feature Film Market in New York 4 1/2 years ago and, being a Chuck Connelly fan, got involved with the film. They reworked the treatment together and worked toward getting the presentation to "the point where people say, 'I love it, I'm in,' rather than, 'We like it, show us more.' " The people who loved it and were in were the BBC, Arte (another European network) and eventually HBO.

No good deed goes unpunished. Or at least unrewarded. "Chuck told Jeff, 'If Diana can bring in the money to get this movie made, she can have any painting she wants,' " Holtzberg says. "Now, I love his art so much, I'd like to fill my home with it, surround myself with it. So, I guess it was when HBO finally came on board, Jeff said, 'Chuck I think it's time to show your appreciation to Diana,' and Chuck said, 'I'm not giving her anything for free! I never said that!' " Did she ever get a painting? "Yes," she says, "he gave me a discount on one."

Connelly has had a weird ride: A Pittsburgh native like Andy Warhol, Connelly kick-started his art career on a Lower East Side where "junkies walking around like zombies" and muggers would come out of parked cars at 4 a.m. He rocketed to the upper reaches of the art world, and now lives in Philadelphia, divorced from his wife Laurance (who is a major, long-suffering part of the film) and with a career that might just be rescued by a movie. He has a new patron, he says, someone who deducts taxes from his monthly checks. He is restless to get back to Philly and paint.

"I haven't painted in weeks," he says, blaming the mini-movie tour. "I don't even remember what it is to paint."

He still paints every day? "Every day, pretty much. I'm not like a 9-to5-er, get up and paint. I can lounge around all day, get up and put a couple of strokes on something. It's not how much you do. It's that you do the right thing."

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company