Kenny Scharf – Beyond The Streets

Kenny Scharf

Photo by Martha Cooper

Lord of Funkytown

By Caroline Ryder

In the 1960s, the heady Abstract Expressionism of Rothko, Pollock, Motherwell, et al., had all but given way to its young and unruly usurper, Pop Art, forcing museums and collectors to wrap their heads around a new paradigm whose muse was mass culture and whose reigning monarch, Andy Warhol, presided over a strange cabal of glorious freaks, drag queens and junkies. While Warhol did manage to completely flip notions of good and bad taste, the power structures of the gallery system remained largely intact, as the monied who floated amid the austere walls of galleries and museums got to decide who was worthy and what was “good.”

Then the 1970s rolled around — something was cooking in the new multicultural bohemia that was emerging in downtown New York. The so-called downtown scene was, in a sense, the dysfunctional bastard child of Pop Art, mutated from the cross-pollination and manic postmodern energy of the streets and nightclubs of the city. Embedded in this lunatic fringe was a young painter — his name Kenny Scharf, founding father of a feral expression that exists between street and gallery, an outsider art that is not entirely naive, but rather possessed of a high-low mobility that has earned it followers and detractors in equal measure. Many call it street art — but Scharf never really liked that term.

Scharf grew up in the safe, perennially sunny suburbs of the San Fernando Valley, just north of Los Angeles, California. The year he was born, 1958, is the same year the first satellite, Sputnik, went into space. “In school, when they told us that by 1984 we would be able to get on our own rocket and fly to the moon, I believed it,” says Scharf. As a child, he ruminated on ideas of outer space and inner space, stardust and the similarities between the solar systems and the insides of his own body. “A solar system looks and acts the same as a proton and a neutron in an atom,” he says, “the electrons rolling around, just like planets rolling around the sun. It’s pretty amazing when you think about how inner space goes on to infinity, as does outer space.”

As he contemplated the macro-micro infinitude of it all, America was upgrading from radio to TV as its primary source of family entertainment. The Flintstones and The Jetsons, with their candy-colored depictions of the 1950s American Dream transposed onto prehistoric or space-age environments, inflamed Scharf’s imagination. “The Jetsons sparked all my obsessions with cars, jets and the American Dream,” says Scharf, “but as enticing and wonderful as these images are, I always felt like they were somehow selling our impending doom. Gas-consuming, smog-producing petroleum — it’s our liberation and our destruction.” (To illustrate his inner battle: Scharf was a leading campaigner against deforestation of the Amazon in the 1980s; he also owns a beautiful 1959 Cadillac.)

Scharf moved from L.A. to New York in the late ’70s to attend the School of Visual Arts and became roommates with a young, passionate artist called Keith Haring, who was interested in Jean Dubuffet’s approach to aesthetics and Art Brut, ideas that favored art born purely from creative impulse, art without professional aspiration — much like the art that was being made by the subway graffiti artists all over the city, which inspired Haring to explore the subway system as a venue for displaying his own deliberately primitive markings.

Scharf, meanwhile, was confounding his teachers by melting plastic dinosaurs onto TVs, among other sculptural experiments. He too was inspired by the emergent graffiti scene and became interested in spray paint as a medium for his own work, befriending graffiti artists like DAZE and HAZE. Unlike Haring, who rarely used spray paint, Scharf loved to apply swirling, precise Krylon lines to his own painterly ideas, his visions of Pop Surrealism rooted in cosmic iconography, psychedelia, Googie architecture and The Jetsons, in a garish, saccharine palette. His work was too out-of-the-box for mainstream galleries, so with nowhere to show his work beyond the audacious but tiny FUN Gallery, he bombed the street, injecting the grim, dangerous landscape of urban decay with comic-surreal blobs and happy H-bomb mushroom clouds. The sheer space and possibility afforded him by the street allowed Scharf’s work to take on monumental status.

“I never professed to be a graffiti artist, nor a street artist either,” says Scharf. “I just found that hitting the street was the best way to get out there. Especially living in New York City, where all these art people weren’t interested in looking at my work or accepting me in a gallery. I wanted to confront them, I wanted them to have no choice but to see me.”

Scharf collected ephemera from the streets of the old, feral New York he fondly remembers as “funky town.” (In those days, Scharf could often be spotted walking down Broadway with his “pet” — a vacuum cleaner he had painted a multitude of colors.) He hand-painted broken appliances in Day-Glo colors, which he built into installations, the first one in the closet of the Times Square apartment he shared with Haring, dubbed the “Cosmic Closet.” (Later the Closet became a Cavern.) He made a bigger version at artist hangout Club 57, where resident freaks FUTURA 2000, Klaus Nomi, Ann Magnuson, FAB 5 FREDDY and other luminaries of the NY underground would dance amid his neon artifacts, pulsing disco anemones on the walls and ceiling. Largely unappreciated by the art establishment (except for Warhol, who had taken Scharf under his wing), these artists created a private fantasy world of their own imagination, far too vibrant and far too exciting to remain unnoticed for long.

New York/New Wave at P.S.1 in February 1981 brought graffiti luminaries (FAB 5 FREDDY, HAZE, SEEN) together with artists such as Scharf, Warhol, Haring, Robert Mapplethorpe and Jean-Michel Basquiat, exploring the vital connections between graffiti and contemporary art. In 1982, Haring painted a huge mural on a wall on Houston Street just off the Bowery — his first large-scale public artwork. It cemented that corner to this day as a preserve for street art. “Keith painted it first and the rest of us followed,” remembers Scharf, who painted it twice shortly after it was established, once with the FUN Gallery crew.

“Apart from its illegality, the very idea of enshrining graffiti — an art of the streets impulsive and spontaneous by nature — in the traditional, time-honored medium of canvas, is ridiculous.”

So said critic Grace Glueck in The New York Times on Christmas Day 1983, in her infamous review of the Post-Graffiti group show at the Sidney Janis Gallery, where Scharf, Haring and Basquiat were shown alongside 18 graffiti artists, whose art Glueck found “unsettling” and fundamentally out of place on canvas, more readily associated with the graffiti-covered subway trains that were a menacing reminder of the city’s violence and lawless youth.

Scharf felt protective of his friends transitioning from concrete to canvas for the first time. Much as he’d tried to learn the rules of the street when he entered that environment, he urged his graffiti friends to read up on the hierarchies and culture of the American fine-art system if they wished to succeed in the gallery system. “I said, ‘You should study some art history, because you’re entering this other thing now.’ The ones who made it were usually the ones who did.”

In 1985, on the heels of his successful solo show at the Tony Shafrazi Gallery, Scharf was invited to participate in the Whitney Biennial, as the art world finally realized that the downtown art scene, so deeply influenced by graffiti culture, was among the most interesting things happening in American art. Only five years later, at the peak of his career, Scharf stepped away from the street, his lungs poisoned from spray-paint inhalation and his heart broken following the AIDS-related death of Haring. Scharf turned his attention to acrylic and set his aerosols down.

There were solo and group shows every year (at Tony Shafrazi, Michael Kohn, Honor Fraser and Gagosian galleries in the U.S.) and museum exhibitions at the Whitney, Institute of Contemporary Art in London, P.S.1 and LACMA, among many others. A TV pilot, The Groovenians, was developed for Cartoon Network’s Adult Swim, with a theme song performed by the B-52s and voice talent including Vincent Gallo, RuPaul and Dennis Hopper. Kenny Scharf was creating furiously, building a gigantic body of work across media — but not on the street.

In 2004, the Pasadena Museum of California Art mounted a retrospective of Scharf’s work. Kenny Scharf: California Grown featured paintings, screenings of The Groovenians and bronze sculptures in the third-floor gallery. When Scharf laid eyes on the bare walls of the museum’s 10,000-squarefoot parking garage, he had an idea. “I asked them if I could paint the garage, knowing that it would last a lot longer than the show,” he says. Spray paint seemed the most appropriate solution for the space. The result was a permanent installation called the “Kosmic Krylon Garage,” bringing life to an otherwise dead space and reawakening a part of Scharf that had been dormant for nearly 20 years.

Around this time, the work of artists on the streets of London, Paris, Melbourne and across the U.S. reinvigorated ideas of urban space as a legitimate canvas, with a new aesthetic distinct from graffiti. For the new generation of street artists, many of them art-school graduates, people like Scharf, Haring and Basquiat served as inspirational touchstones, founding fathers of their world.

In 2009, Scharf was asked to contribute a mural to a “museum of the streets” — the Wynwood Walls — in tandem with Art Basel Miami Beach, as envisioned by the late arts visionary and developer Tony Goldman and Jeffrey Deitch, then director of the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art. As he prepared to paint his first outdoor mural in 20 years, Scharf felt a sense of homecoming. “It felt like, wow I’m doing this again. Only bigger. And sanctioned.” In 2010, Scharf was invited to return to the Houston Bowery wall (also owned by Tony Goldman, who had dedicated the space to street art). He painted a huge, ecstatic psychedelic wallscape with aerosol paint, in an emotionally charged return to a place that held so many memories and symbolized the beginnings of an entire movement, the genius of a fallen friend. In a blow for Scharf, the mural was almost immediately tagged over, with such deliberate and malicious precision it was hard for him not to take it personally.

“I had a really tough time after doing that wall,” says Scharf. “It’s such a high-profile space, and there are so many writers that want to get on it, and a lot of them don’t know who I am. I come from a different world and time, and, well, let’s just say they annihilated it. Annihilated it.” Had a protective coating been applied after Scharf completed the mural, it would have been easy to power-hose off the tags — but somehow that step had been forgotten. So in the middle of winter, Scharf climbed up a ladder in front of the Bowery wall again and began to repair the mural. “It was freezing, very difficult to see what was underneath and much more difficult than initially painting it. So there I was, looking at somebody’s big, ugly tag and trying to bring back what was there. It was 100 times harder than doing the original mural.”

Midway through painting, a blizzard hit. Scharf left the site and when he returned, the mural had been bombed again. Scharf expressed his disappointment on graffiti blogs and found himself the subject of death threats from people who, presumably, had no idea of his involvement in the earliest days of the wall they were claiming as theirs. “They were, like, threatening to kill me,” says Scharf. “Yes, it’s the Internet; yes, people say a lot of crazy shit. But it was clear they didn’t know or care about their own history.”

Which was why when MOCA launched its Art in the Streets exhibit in 2011, the first major museum retrospective of graffiti, Scharf welcomed it as a vital educational opportunity. The show included a re-creation of the FUN Gallery where Scharf had his first show, and a full re-creation of the “Cosmic Cavern.” It was the most successful show in the history of MOCA, and seeing the lines snake around the block, Scharf was inspired — unlike museum trustees, who felt that the show was skewed to the wrong kind of audience. This irked Scharf, almost as much as his mural getting painted over. “The people who came to the Art in the Streets show were not the people buying tables at the gala dinners,” says Scharf. “Sometimes I think museums would rather remain ghost towns than pack the place with people that make them feel uncomfortable. The art world looks at art for the people as dumb art, but I see it differently. I look at it like . . . let’s bring up the masses. Let’s help people smart up.”

When he paints on the street these days, he paints alone, without assistants, and fast. “I knock out these murals in two, three days. Sometimes when I get there, there are these younger artists working on their own murals. They’ve been there two weeks and they’ve got crews with them, and then I walk in and I’m just like, OK, I’m done, goodbye. I like to be able to show the kids that getting older doesn’t mean you become any less powerful.”

He recently installed a 3D mural in Bombay Beach near the Salton Sea (at the Bombay Beach Biennale, curated by Lily Johnson White), a post-apocalyptic desert landscape about three hours east of Los Angeles. There, it’s cheap and wild enough for young artists to go and develop their voices without enduring the crushing overheads of New York or L.A., assuming they are OK with 120-degree heat, isolation and a preponderance of meth labs. “The Salton Sea . . . that place is such like, end of the world,” muses Scharf. “Like, the world’s over, let’s just live here . . . kind of like New York in the ’70s.” Which would be most challenging for an artist, though — Bombay Beach in July, or crime-ridden New York City in the ’70s and ’80s? He takes a second to think about it. “You know . . . they’re probably actually on a par.”