Failing Better

naves 3 Failing Better

In his invaluable book Temperaments: Artists Facing Their Work, art writer Dan Hofstadter profiled the painter Richard Diebenkorn. It’s a remarkable essay, not least because its subject is unexciting.

Diebenkorn comes across as a solid family man and a collegial instructor. He enjoyed the occasional drink, didn’t sleep around or throw punches. His lifestyle was bourgeois and his manner reserved. He went to the studio and painted pictures. Hollywood will leave him alone.

But Diebenkorn is a great painter all the same. Imagine that: A significant artist who wasn’t an inarticulate, womanizing and abusive genius who drank too much and who alienated family, friends, patrons and dealers. Most artists live lives of quiet disgruntlement. Not everyone is as trying as, say, Willem de Kooning.

Diebenkorn loved de Kooning’s paintings, and so does Chuck Connelly, subject of The Art of Failure: Chuck Connelly Not for Sale, a HBO documentary directed by Jeff Stimmel and premiering on July 7.

Actually, Mr. Connelly is in love with the AbEx ethos and milieu: Hard-drinking manly types duking it out for the sake of the Ultimate Painting. There’s truth to that, but history has fogged into myth. The beautiful-losers-make-good narrative is irresistible—ask Martin Scorsese.

Mr. Scorsese directed Life Lessons, the first of three vignettes in New York Stories, a cinematic valentine to the city’s quirks and excesses. (Francis Ford Coppola and Woody Allen directed the other segments.) In it, Nick Nolte is a successful painter whose ego (and insecurities) are as enormous as his loft. He’s manipulative, selfish, temperamental and, after a beautiful young assistant humiliates him, pathetic.

Mr. Connelly’s neo-expressionist dioramas, thick with paint and furious brushwork, were used for Life Lessons. The segment was, as it turns out, a not entirely fictional portrayal of the artist. Mr. Connelly didn’t like the film and took to task the "clichéd" and "mundane" Mr. Scorsese. Page Six picked up the story. Mr. Connelly’s invective prompted his fall from art world fame.

OR SO THE ART OF Failure suggests. A bear of a man with a bristly shock of gray hair, Mr. Connelly has no compunction in stating his opinions, however abrasive or demeaning. He’s a poor-poor-pitiful-me character. He stretches his own canvases and grumbles about how other artists have assistants to do the grunt work. He can’t afford them. A Connelly painting sells in an online auction for $550. That’s some downfall for an artist who once raked in big bucks and was represented by Jean-Michel Basquiat’s kingmaker, Anina Nosei.

The Art of Failure compresses six years of filming into 63 breathless minutes of cinéma vérité. Professional and personal relationships are collapsed into pithy and sometimes shapeless episodes. By the end of the film, you’re thankful for the brevity: Mr. Connelly is an unpleasant guy. His tantrums, while briefly revealing, are largely monotonous.

Mr. Stimmel brings in some talking heads—aside from Ms. Nosei, they include Artnet magazine editor Walter Robinson and the poor man’s Jeff Koons, Mark Kostabi. They testify to Mr. Connelly’s penchant for self-destruction. A friend calls Mr. Connelly a loser. He buys into it: "Stupid me!" he shouts, "shoot me!"

Mr. Connelly’s wife, Laurance, is less a partner than his shlep and a handy in-house target for drunken rants. The sole tender moment they share is when their parakeet Buddy dies; it’s wrapped in a cloth and placed under a Russian icon. But the haranguing continues. Laurance files for divorce. "Here’s the money," Mr. Connelly responds. "Get out of my fucking life."

We see Mr. Connelly visit his mother’s grave, shed tears and talk of how he didn’t see her for the last two years of her illness; he called her, mind you, but only to bitch about the art world. We see black-and-white films of the artist surrounded by innumerable well-wishers at a gallery opening in the 1980s. Mr. Connelly’s patron, Matt Garfield of Garfield Refining, crams his offices and home with paintings. A genial if not altogether sophisticated man, Mr. Garfield dumps his charge with no small measure of he-asked-for-it anger.

Toward the end of The Art of Failure, Mr. Connelly hires a young actor, David Nelson, to pose as "Fred Scaboda," a nom de plume the artist affected during college. Mr. Nelson approaches galleries with Mr. Connelly’s early work-in-tow claiming them as his own. Dealers come to the studio and are played for saps. Mr. Connelly sabotages the charade by signing the back of the paintings. Here you can feel him playing to the camera. It’s an ugly turn.

How much of Mr. Connelly’s troubled persona is based on intrinsic character traits, and how much on misguided hero worship? Dealer Mary Lou Swift goes both ways—unhappiness is part of it, but so is Mr. Connelly’s conflating alcoholism with creativity. Van Gogh is an important artist for Mr. Connelly; certainly, the pathos of the Dutch painter’s life made a dent. Van Gogh, Mr. Connelly claims, started the tortured-artist image.

He’s wrong: "Van Gogh" was the creation of a business savvy sister-in-law, Irving Stone and Kirk Douglas. Vincent painted because his life literally depended upon it; "branding" didn’t enter into it. That Mr. Connelly doesn’t realize this makes him all the more maddening: He’s mistaken a romantic lie for hard-won integrity. Mr. Connelly is a talented man; that he purposefully played into a cliché is sad.

DFN Gallery has mounted an exhibition of Mr. Connelly’s paintings in correspondence with The Art of Failure. Laurance told Mr. Connelly, "You make people fall out of love with you." How much the paintings compensate for the lack of love is for viewers to judge for themselves.

The Art of Failure: Chuck Connelly Not for Sale aired on HBO on July 7. Selected Works is at DFN Gallery, 210 Eleventh Avenue at West 25th Street, until July 18. Mario Naves can be reached at mnaves@observer.com.