The Art of Failure

Article excerpt

His paintings once sold for as tens of thousands of dollars. His name was linked in New York art circles with those of Jean-Michel Basquiat and Julian Schnabel. His flamboyant, boozy persona served as the inspiration for Nick Nolte's portrayal of a New York artist in Martin Scorcese's film "New York Stories: Life Lessons."

Today, he struggles to pay the bills.

His name is Chuck Connelly. He may be the greatest Pittsburgh artist you never heard of.

The story of Connelly's rise and fall is chronicled in "The Art of Failure: Chuck Connelly Not For Sale." Its producer and director is Mt. Lebanon native Jeff Stimmel.

The documentary airs at 9 p.m. Monday on HBO.

Nearly six years in the making, Stimmel's film paints a portrait of a brilliant and charismatic artist who sabotaged a promising career through hubris, bad business decisions and a seemingly pathological inability to keep his big mouth shut.

"The Art of Failure" features interviews with collectors, critics, gallery owners and fellow artists. But it draws its power from the almost feral domestic scenes, where Connelly paints, swigs beer and rages like a drunken King Lear at the indignities of his life.

In one scene, the man who sold $1 million worth of artwork during his '80s heyday watches an online art auction where one of his paintings fetches just $550. In another, he pays his accountant by giving him a painting.

Connelly and his now ex-wife, Laurence, filmed many of the domestic scenes themselves in their Philadelphia home and sent the footage to Stimmel.

"You should see some of the stuff that's not in the movie," Stimmel says. "It's really out of control."

Art versus commerce

Stimmel cut his teeth scouting and managing locations on Pittsburgh-made films like "Wonder Boys" and "Dogma." He met Connelly in 2002 when he was working for the television division of the New York Times. Stimmel now lives in Los Angeles.

He conceived the idea for the film when he attended the opening of an exhibition of Connelly's paintings. He says he was impressed with the work, but puzzled at the sparse audience -- he could see they were mostly friends of the artist there to lend moral support.

"I thought 'Man, this art is amazing. Why isn't he more successful?' " Stimmel says.

Even by art world standards, Connelly was difficult. Though handsome, charismatic and generous, his abrasiveness managed to make enemies almost as quickly as he produced paintings. He bad-mouthed the Scorcese film, possibly alienating a man who could have promoted his paintings in the Hollywood community. He refused to "brand" his paintings by sticking to one recognizable style. He fell out with wealthy collectors, whom he alternately courted and resented.

Connelly particularly despised the fact that his paintings were viewed as an investment, like stocks, to be traded and sold.

"It's too easy to pick on the art world, that they don't know what they're doing, that they're shady or dishonest," Stimmel says. "Most of them have passion. A lot of them don't make millions and millions of dollars ... but there are also a great deal of art dealers, consultants and gallerists who, more and more, think profit first, the quality of artwork second. I think that is what irritated Chuck."

It's basically a stock market of image. 'OK, Connelly's stuff is not worth much anymore. Let's unload it.' "

Portrait of the artist as a young man

Born in Pleasant Hills in 1955, Connelly attended Thomas Jefferson High School. (Connelly says he was thrown out of his 20th year reunion for raising a stink when a picnic that was scheduled was canceled without explanation).

He grew up with an abusive father and a mother who drank too much. His two brothers both struggled with drug use. He is estranged from his only sister.

Connelly attended Tyler Art School in Philadelphia and eventually moved to New York. …