Kenny Scharf: Here to Stay
Whether on a gallery wall or the side of a car, Kenny Scharf’s exuberant cartoons infuse daily life with a dose of whimsy.
Kenny Scharf is a celebrated artist known for his colorful cartoonish paintings and murals.
Born in Los Angeles in 1958, Scharf moved to New York to study at the School of Visual Arts. Together with classmate and roommate Keith Haring and contemporary Jean-Michel Basquiat, he formed a key part of the 1980s East Village art scene. Scharf describes his art as “pop surrealism.” It features stylized alien creatures and popular culture icons in bright cartoonish arrangements. He designed the cover art for the B-52’s album Bouncing Off the Satellites (1986) and created the short-lived animated series The Groovenians (2002) for the Cartoon Network.
His murals can be seen in Los Angeles, New York, Philadelphia, Miami, and other cities around the world and his art is held in the collections of the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, Sogetsu Museum in Tokyo, the Whitney Museum of American Art, and other major institutions.
Kenny Scharf grew up during that brief period when television had created a unified popular culture.
Kenny Scharf: I grew up in the Valley, but so and so in Pennsylvania was watching the same show, and that’s why, when I first started doing my stuff in the street, I knew that everyone knew these characters that were dear to my heart—not only my heart, it was in my dreams.
AJC: And it was in the collective memory?
Scharf: In the collective memory.
Scharf’s early work drew heavily on The Flintstones and The Jetsons, juxtaposing these thoroughly modern visions of the past and the future. Then, in 1983, he created a universe of his own, populated by mutant cartoons with infinite potential.
AJC: They do evoke happiness, with the bright colors. I don’t even know how to phrase it. It’s a lot of positive energy they give off.
Scharf: Well, thank you. I mean, if I’m gonna contribute something into the world, I want to put good energy out there, and I want to improve things. It’s not like everything I do is all about happy and fun. Because, right here behind me, these are about fracking and the petroleum industry, but it’s full of joy. They’re fracking gas monsters, and it’s not their fault. They’re just being released into the beautiful rainbow environment that they’re destroying.
AJC: What reactions do you enjoy to the work?
Scharf: The thing I enjoy most is a reaction. The one I don’t like is when there’s no reaction, people don’t notice.
AJC: But how could that happen?
Scharf: It’s happened.
Scharf: For instance, back in my early days, I shared a studio with Keith Haring. And he just became really famous while we were living together. So people were coming over night and day, and they had to walk through my art to get to his. And it was literally like my art was a white wall. It wasn’t there. So that’s an example.
Scharf met Haring when they were both students at the school of visual arts in Manhattan. They became close friends, and spent countless nights together at the now legendary Club 57—a sort of 1980s answer to Andy Warhol’s Factory. With a vibrant artistic community behind him, Scharf’s creativity knew no boundaries.
Scharf: You could be in a band, you could be a performance artist, you could be a painter, you could be a filmmaker, all at the same time. There was nobody saying, “You need to focus on one thing.”
But Kenny Scharf remained undeniably drawn to cartoons, a fact that would alienate him from the art establishment.
Scharf: I thought to have cartoons in the art world is a no-brainer. I’m not the first one that did it. I mean, pop artists were doing it, and I thought that ground was broken way before me. Yet I encountered a lot of resistance, and maybe because my cartoon use wasn’t ironic. Pop art is kind of taking that and looking at it from a distance and saying, “Oh, that’s art.” I’m just saying, “This is me, and this is coming from me.”
AJC: Without the snarkiness.
Scharf: Yeah. So, I think that people a lot of times didn’t like that. They thought it was kid stuff, and I wasn’t being a serious adult artist.
But Scharf was too serious about his style to give up on it. Since coining the phrase “pop surrealism” in 1981, he’s persisted and has been embraced sporadically over the years—a spot in the Whitney Biennial here, a solo show at the Dalí Museum there, but never the deluge of affection he would see bestowed on so many of his contemporaries, most notably Keith Haring and Jean-Michel Basquiat.
Scharf: I had to sell my friends’ work to survive, and I was doing bartering. I was bartering my dentist, my landlord. I was like… I did it. I managed to do it.
AJC: And you have a young family at this point, right?
Scharf: Yeah, I had a young family, two little girls. They’re all grown up. I’m a grandpa now.
AJC: It was a lot?
Scharf: Yes it was. And not only did I have that to deal with, but all my friends pretty much died. So I was like, “Oh, you didn’t die.” I felt like that. I felt like I was being punished for not dying with the rest of my group, so not only did I have my own pain of losing my friends, I… My career was…
AJC: You were being punished for surviving?
But Kenny Scharf persevered, and, in 2000, he tried something brand new: animation. His characters, already so full of motion, seemed poised to be put in sequence. However, The Groovenians fell victim to the Hollywood machine and was canceled after just one episode.
Scharf: I felt like I had a baby, and I had to throw it in the gutter, and walk, and just drive away. It was really hard. But what I did learn was important and really good for me was, when that whole thing ended, I was broke. I kind of left my art career for two years, in a way, to work on it, thinking it was gonna be a huge hit. And so I’m back here, and I’m like, “You know what’s so great? When you make a painting, you don’t have to get anybody’s approval.” So that gave me a real kick.
AJC: It’s a pretty good consolation.
Scharf: It is.
AJC: When you think you’ve given up everything, to find out that you still exist.
Scharf: Yeah, and I basically said, “Okay, what am I gonna do now?” I said, “I’m gonna make the greatest painting that is gonna blow everyone away so bad they can’t deny it.”
That painting was City of the Future, and it began as sort of a comeback for Kenny Scharf.
AJC: Whatever you have now, you’ve earned, twice and three times.
Scharf: I have paid my dues, that’s for sure.
AJC: You really have.
Scharf: You won’t find me complaining, ’cause I don’t and I won’t. It’s just, stick to your thing, and just keep doing it, and you will prevail. And I think—I’m hopefully thinking—I’m not a young whipper snapper anymore.
AJC: But you’re not an old man.
Scharf: I’m not an old man, and I’ve got plenty left in me. But I’m hoping that maybe I will be accepted as here to stay.
And, to look around his native Los Angeles, it would seem that Kenny Scharf is indeed here to stay.