American Painter and Street Artist
Los Angeles, California
Summary of Kenny Scharf
Like many kids growing up amongst Pop Art's cultural explosion in the 1960s, Kenny Scharf was heavily influenced by the images of popular and commercial culture that infused and informed American collective consciousness. But unlike most kids, Scharf's obsessions would extend beyond cutting out photos from magazines to pin on his bedroom wall. Instead, he gleefully found expression on the streets, where, with spray paint can in hand, he could share his distinctive, Day-Glo, psychedelic illustrations with the people. Mixing joyous visuals bred from a decidedly Southern California upbringing awash in cartoons, muscle cars, sunshine, and the burgeoning possibilities in space travel and future technologies, he was pivotal in transforming the public's perception of graffiti from a low brow form of illegal mark making into the viable medium of art it is today.
From his roots on the West Coast through later immersion into New York City's seminal East Village art scene, Scharf brought his animated visions to the public, contributing to a new Street Art lexicon that continues to position itself an equal player on the contemporary art world's main stage.
- Scharf's passion for infusing the "everyday" with art would spill over into every aspect of his life where no object was sacred. From walls to household appliances to cars, no surface escaped his ebullient expressions. In his world, everything is alive with creative energy and his work continues to accentuate this notion.
- Although originally influenced heavily by the iconography of his youth and upbringing, Scharf's style has evolved into an unmistakable and signature look marked by bold, illustrative lines and comic cosmic characters that seem to inhabit their own playful worlds in which fun is the underlying impetus.
- Scharf has defined his cartoony world as a way to articulate emotion. Growing up in a world that vacillated between societal tragedies such as the AIDS crisis and the Cold War and the optimism of scientific and technological advancements, his work allowed him to process society's communal feelings in a way that ultimately provoked joy.
- Like one of his Art Brut heroes, the French artist Jean Dubuffet, Scharf believes that true art derives from an internal impulse to "make," rather than a conscious drive to pursue art as a career. Even as his own success has catapulted, Scharf remains committed to this concept, seeing art as his essential mode of being rather than a strategized ambition.
Biography of Kenny Scharf
Cartoony and cosmic, the psychedelic world of Kenny Scharf delivers spray paint infused joy for the people from the streets.
Important Art by Kenny Scharf
This work comes from a series of paintings called "The Death of Estelle," painted in a style that recalls realist 1950s commercial advertisements. The series, when viewed in sequence, tells the story of a "jet-set woman of the future" with brightly colored hair and clothing that directly references the fashion from the futuristic TV cartoon series The Jetsons. In the series, Estelle is enjoying a pizza party when she is approached by extraterrestrials who emerge from her television to tell her how to travel into space. In Escaped in Time, I'm Pleased, the fifth painting in the series, Scharf explains that Estelle is "inside the space ship and she's looking out the window and she sees the world exploding in a nuclear explosion. And she's pleased [...] she's fine as long as she got away."
Visual studies scholar Natalie E. Phillips asserts that this series, as well as several of the works Scharf created throughout the 1980s (often adopting imagery and characters from The Jetsons) was his response to the fear and anxiety that pervaded American society at the time due to the Cold War and the threat of nuclear holocaust, Ronald Reagan's "strong doomsday rhetoric," and the sobering reality of the AIDS crisis. Phillips writes that Scharf's work "vacillates between opposites (good vs. bad, heaven vs. hell, parody vs. sincerity), refusing to occupy a fixed position," and that it is rife with "odd juxtapositions [...] between the horrific and the benign [which] are the artist's means of coping with his own apocalyptic anxiety, as well as a critique of the self-destructive behavior of American society."
Phillips asserts that in this work "The horror of the mushroom cloud she views from space is mollified by Estelle's cheery smile and the mediation of the explosion through the television screen. Like Scharf himself, Estelle is the ultimate escapist. The Estelle paintings help allay anxiety by trivializing nuclear holocaust, transforming it into a gleeful, nihilistic celebration. Estelle's fashionable, non-stop interplanetary party is seductive. Yet the obvious absurdity of her nonchalant response to the demise of the planet simultaneously underscores Scharf's intentionally ridiculous, escapist desire to dodge Earth's problems by simply moving to outer space."
In Judy, one of Scharf's earliest graffiti murals, we see a crudely-drawn version of Judy Jetson from the futuristic cartoon The Jetsons, executed in red spray paint on a white brick wall. Here, Judy's head is atop a one of Scharf's signature swirling cosmic shapes, giving her the appearance of flying. A comic strip speech bubble near her mouth contains a small squiggle as if to denote an unimportant comment.
What mattered most for Scharf in his early graffiti art was not so much what the work said, as its placement in a public space. This attitude would go on to inform Scharf's career for the next several decades, as he believes that art should enter into and coexist with, rather than be separated from, everyday life.
Friend and artist Keith Haring shared with Scharf his interest in Art Brut and the theories of French artist Jean Dubuffet, who asserted that true art derives from an internal creative impulse rather than a conscious drive to pursue art as a career. This attitude led Haring and Scharf to develop a strong interest in the subway graffiti of New York City, to become friends with graffiti artists like DAZE and HAZE, and to begin creating their own graffiti works. Scharf explains, "I never professed to be a graffiti artist, nor a street artist either. 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."
In 1981, at the same time he began creating unsanctioned graffiti in public spaces, Scharf also had the urge to decorate interior, private spaces with what he coined "Cosmic Caverns." He first had the idea when he came across a black light, and placed it in a small closet in his East Village loft. He proceeded to fill the room with a variety of brightly colored "junk" (like appliances and toys), and to paint the walls in fluorescent colors. He says that at first, "People didn't look at what I was doing as very original because black light was very popular in the '60s with the hippie culture. In the '80s, it was kind of weird to bring something back that was already from another generation. But I didn't care. I loved and I still love what black light does to a space." The installations became immersive, psychedelic, multi-sensory environments that he has since re-created in various venues.
The Cosmic Caverns were largely informed by Scharf's lifelong "fascination with junk and garbage." He explains, "I had been making art out of trash for awhile before that. I like appliances and things with dials and toys, things I can transform into these science fiction/fantasy objects." He also notes, "When I moved to New York in 1978, the city was basically a trash heap. And I found it fascinating because there was so much great stuff. As punk rock and new wave kids, we were finding all this cool 1950s stuff which we were inspired by and allowed us to both mourn and make fun of the 'death of the American dream.'"
Scharf later recreated the Cosmic Cavern on a larger scale at Club 57, a popular hangout and dance venue for artists like FUTURA 2000, Klaus Nomi, Ann Magnuson, Andy Warhol, and FAB 5 FREDDY. Scharf explains, "parties started happening in them. I love having art that you can dance in. It becomes alive. Visual art itself is alive, but when you have music and people, it's a great performance. [...] Art is so solitary that when you get to do something involving a party and a bunch of people it's great."
Influences and Connections
Useful Resources on Kenny Scharf
- Kenny Scharf: In Absence of MythOur PickBy G. James Daichendt
- Kenny ScharfBy Richard Marshall
- Kenny Scharf: KolorsBy Jeffrey Deitch
- A Nuclear Rapture: The Apocalyptic Art of Kenny ScharfOur PickBy Natalie E. Phillips / Religion and the Arts / January 2013
- Kenny Scharf's New Paintings Will Melt Your FaceBy Carlo McCormick / Garage / October 25, 2017
- One Joint with Kenny ScharfOur PickBy Alyssa Shapiro / One Joint With / September 17, 2018
- Spray Paint and 3-D: Kenny Scharf Interviewed by Marilyn MinterBy Marilyn Minter / Bomb / July 22, 2019
- You Can't Plan Fun: An Interview With Kenny ScharfOur PickBy Emily Colucci / Art21 Magazine / June 27, 2012
- Kenny ScharfBy Rachel Wetzler / Art in America / February 1, 2018
- "It Was Magical": Kenny Scharf on Club 57 and the East Village Art World of the Early '80sBy Loney Abrams / Artspace / November 21, 2017
- Kenny Scharf's Cosmic CavernBy Sanja Lazic / WideWalls / November 20, 2014