The Art of Failure: Chuck Connelly Is Not for Sale
by Jef Burnham
Now showing on HBO. Check your local listings.
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Chuck Connelly was one of the rising stars in the art world of the 1980s along with Schnabel and Basquiat. He sold over a million dollars worth of paintings during that decade, but has not had a major gallery exhibit since 1990. This is all information presented in the open minutes of The Art of Failure. The reason for Connelly’s spectacular failure, though, is something that only getting to know Connelly over the course of this hour-long documentary can explain.
The Art of Failure is a portrait of an artist who never came to grips with ruining his own career. Once tall, dark and handsome, Connelly is now an overweight, alcoholic recluse, seen almost exclusively in the film inside his home in Philadelphia. His episodes of self-destructive screaming drunkenness make it no surprise to learn that Connelly was able to rise to the pinnacle of success and destroy his career in one selfsame move. The story is that Martin Scorsese became involved in a film called New York Stories, a compilation of three shorts by directors Scorsese, Woody Allen and Francis Ford Coppola. Scorsese’s portion of the film, Life Lessons, was based on Connelly’s career and even featured Connelly’s paintings and his hands doing the painting in the stead of star Nick Nolte’s. However, upon completion of the film, Connelly trashed the film to reporters and he was finished.
With over 3,000 paintings in storage, there was an endless supply of Connelly artwork for the filmmakers to infuse throughout the film and his work is stunning. To see such a vast array of topics and styles painted with such precision, color and imagination makes his story all the more pathetic. Pathetic not tragic, because tragedy does not even apply to Connelly, who is truly his own destroyer. Although the film sets out to catch up with this all but forgotten artist who many assumed was dead, the filmmakers captured Connelly in the process of destroying the new life he had built. As such, the film succeeds in a way the filmmakers could never have planned. In watching his latest bout of self-destruction, we get a better picture of how it is that such a promising artist could fade so quickly.
Jef Burnham is a freelance writer and film critic in Chicago.
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