Reflecting the polyedric mind of its author, the Renaissance Man series is the site of unexpected encounters and perspectives that challenge the boundaries of visual culture. In this issue, Jeffrey Deitch discusses the work of artist Kenny Scharf.
New York in the 1980s may be the last time the vanguard art community converged in one place. Ambitious artists, musicians, writers and others who dreamed of connecting with a community that shared their interest in progressive culture could emerge from the subway at Broadway and Prince Street and immediately join the conversation. Almost all of the galleries, performance spaces and studios were within walking distance. You could meet nearly every artist, curator and art writer, from Andy Warhol to students just off the Greyhound Bus, right on the street corner.
It was on one of those street corners in SoHo that I first met Kenny Scharf, recently arrived from Los Angeles to enroll at the School of Visual Arts. I don’t think it took Kenny more than a few days to connect with his fellow SVA student Keith Haring and Jean-Michel Basquiat, who, although not a registered student, would hang out at the school for the free art materials and studio space.
Within a year of his arrival in New York, Kenny was at the center of one of the most dynamic group of young artists, musicians and performers in the world.
From the start, Kenny had a distinctive aesthetic and a unique touch. He created a dynamic mixture of optimistic and innocent Los Angeles pop culture with a tough New York attitude. In Kenny Scharf’s new artistic world, his favorite TV family, The Jetsons, would ride the subway on their way to outer space. The smiling faces of Jetsons and Flintstones were combined with sinister graffiti tags to create a new artistic language that is still at the foundation of Scharf’s work.
After extended sojourns in Brazil and Miami, and the re-establishment of a studio in New York, Kenny is now back in his native Los Angeles. Along the way, his engagement with Brazilian Tropicalia and Miami’s Cuban culture has given another dimension to his work. His Los Angeles indoor/outdoor studio, with his customized Cadillacs parked in the yard, is the ideal venue to build on his unique cross-cultural aesthetic.
A dynamic mixture of optimistic Los Angeles pop culture and tough New York attitude
As his career has progressed, Kenny has developed an increasingly powerful dialogue between his youthful artistic exuberance and the history of modern painting. Kenny was always an “all-over” painter, filling the entire surface with swirling forms. As he has matured, he has been able to create a new dynamic fusion, mixing his streetwise Pop aesthetic with the compositional strategies of Arshile Gorky and Jackson Pollock. In addition to his deepening connection with the modern painting tradition, he remains deeply committed to his belief that art can improve the world. Kenny’s Oil Painting of 2010, acquired by the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, addresses the environmental hazards of oil spills though his unique fusion of Pop and Pollock.
While most artists confine their aesthetic vision to the canvas or the discrete art object, Kenny’s vision has always extended to every space and surface that he chooses to take on. The first of his immersive “Cosmic Caverns,” where every Day-Glo surface is covered with the plastic refuse of pop culture, was installed in his Times Square studio. Cascades of used detergent bottles, discarded toys, radios and hundreds of others artifacts of consumer society are shaped into stalagmites and stalactites. Pulsating colored lights and a disco soundtrack complete the experience. Versions of the Cavern continue to be created, culminating in an immense party last year in the basement of his former Brooklyn studio where the decoration extended to the painted faces of his guests.
Kenny’s ethic has always been “art for all.” In addition to his commitment to studio work in painting and sculpture, he has created public art, both authorized and unauthorized, from the beginning of his career. His work in public spaces has ranged from tags on Lower East Side walls to his legendary lounge for the Palladium night club, to the façade of the West Hollywood Library. He is one of the few artists of his stature who is always up for a week of working in the hot sun to complete a public mural. Last year, Kenny had an open call for anyone who wanted his or her car customized without charge with the signature Scharf imagery. Kenny loves this subversive intervention into the Los Angeles streetscape, seeing his work speeding down the freeways. His most recent public work is a spectacular mural at the entrance to the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles.
In the past several years, he has pushed his public mural projects to a new level of mastery. His recent work is characterized by a dynamic interplay between figuration and abstraction, his Scharfed figures, which in earlier works were painted in discrete space, now swirling together in complex all-over compositions. He has also achieved a new level of fusion between the Pop and abstract strains of contemporary painting. His work plunges into the fascinating and confounding confrontation between vernacular culture and the elevated tradition of modern painting.
Kenny is an artist of our time whose work will help future generations to understand what it was like to be alive in 2016. His work portrays the science fiction future that children of his generation once expected, now overwhelmed by excessive consumption and environmental destruction. Despite the sense of unease that permeates the recent work, Kenny preserves his fundamental optimism. His work embraces the wonder and the joy of life.
Kenny Scharf (American, b. 1958) is an artist who lives and works in New York. He is represented by Honor Fraser Gallery, Los Angeles, and Fredric Snitzer, Miami. Solo exhibitions are on view at Hammer Museum, Los Angeles, through 22 May and at Nassau County Museum of Art from 19 March–10 July.
All images: Palladium, 1985, New York. Photo credit: Tseng Kwong Chi. Courtesy of the artist;