-ART ARTICLE: Kenny Scharf Interview

Article written for "M" aka "The New York Art World" and it was their December 2010 issue cover story.

The printed article was of course quite edited-down.
This is the full text before editing (except for exhibit date).

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Master Artist Interview :
Kenny Scharf
Paul Kasmin Gallery, "NaturaFutura".
293 Tenth Ave / 511 27th Street, New York, NY 10001
(Nearest subway: 23rd St Station via C or E trains.)
Jan 27th - Feb 26, 2011.


Crack open most art history books printed after the Reagan era, and there’ll be a mention of Artist Kenny Scharf. Scharf’s typical imagery differs from that of his deceased contemporary and colleague, Keith Haring. They were friends who both honed their early technique by graffiti-painting City subway property, but Scharf focuses on engaging, welcoming, “fun” spraypainted cartoonoid motifs, while Haring’s iconotoons exuded a more totemic quality. Haring’s crawling or dancing people were devoid of facial details ---cute while also visually powerful, yet also blank. Scharf’s typical creatures are wiggly cartoon sperm-Schmoo hybrids propelling themselves through space or through some sort of colorful protoplasm ---sometimes with determination, more often with either a perky rave-dancer’s Red Bull induced wide awake smile or with a somewhat sleepy-eyed look of tipsy merriment.

The latter two evoke the artist himself as he grooves along through life. He is a key figure in keeping the sometimes-threatened New York “art party” scene alive. In fact, it was a sudden drop-off in Scharf’s epic partying, a suspension of the then-monthly “Cosmic Caverns A-Go-Go” blacklight-parties/happenings/debauches, which first tipped off the interviewer that “something” was up: certainly a health issue or a major art show. Thankfully, it’s an art show ---more about it in a moment.

Scharf’s other recurring imagery includes 1) realistic depictions of snacks or consumer products, and 2) cartoons ---whether his own (like his vaguely Pink Panther-oid, one-eyed space-mutant great cat named CatEyeGuy) or mash-ups (playful or edgy) of 60’s animated television classics like the Flintstones or the Jetsons. New York City museums with Scharf in their permanent collections include the Guggenheim, the Whitney, and the Jewish Museum. Scharf also hangs in the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam, the Sogetsu Museum in Tokyo, the Museu de Arte Moderna in Rio, the Miami Art Museum, and many others.

Terry Ward , an artist and occasional writer for “The New York Art World,” had this exchange with Kenny Scharf:

Kenny Scharf: …(About the Cosmic Caverns party)…the next one (and last) is Friday July 2. Invite will appear in a couple weeks.

Terry Ward: LAST ?!? Wha?

Kenny Scharf: Yes. So don’t miss it!

Terry Ward: Last? What's the story?

Kenny Scharf: Going away for the summer and focusing on my show in the winter show.

Terry Ward: Where's the show to be?

Kenny Scharf: Paul Kasmin Gallery.

[Note: Of course Chelsea is the heart of New York’s art market. Located near the corner of Tenth Avenue and 27th Street, Paul Kasmin Gallery is in the aorta. Other blue chip artists Kasmin handles include Andy Warhol, Frank Stella, Robert Indiana, Jules Olitski, Al Held, and David Hockney.]

Terry Ward: The new artwork for the big show at Paul Kasmin ---what're ya' planning?

Kenny Scharf: It’ll be very different from the other shows I've had with Paul which were very geared toward Pop Art ---it was just Super-Pop. I think the other show was called "Deluxe" or “Pop-Deluxe.” I can't remember just now. They were a very advertisement-mixed-with-abstract-art type of all-over-ness. They were very meticulously-painted, and mixed with very rough and silkscreen and other grounds.

Terry Ward: What in this artwork just defies photography or description and just needs to be seen in person?

Kenny Scharf: The texture and scale.

Terry Ward: What do they picture?

Kenny Scharf: My new work is looser, more relaxed ---maybe some would say more “pure”: its just I’m not looking at any imagery at all. Its just “pure” from my head. A lot is basically nature-based. I spent a lot of time in Brazil: in the forests, in the beach, just studying birds and trees and water. And I'm kind of getting into "paint" ---the looseness of the paint itself. I'm really having fun with painting ---as a physical thing. Though they really are grounded in nature and there's representation in it, its very "freeing" to me to not have to use any resources, you know, other than me. Its me: my head and my brush ----nothing else.

Terry Ward: So no consumer products, no hovering doughnuts this time?

Kenny Scharf: [Chuckle] No no no. I've had my fill of doughnuts for now---

Terry Ward: [Chuckle]

Kenny Scharf: ---although in the inside gallery I am having maybe a two-dozen doughnuts gallery show because really I'm always “baking doughnuts” ---even if I'm making, you know, the “pure” paintings that I was just talking about.

Terry Ward: Mmmm

Kenny Scharf: I grew up with the TV and the remote control and I look at it almost like changing channels: going to different shows or commercials ---and its a completely different show and then you can watch that show and then you go to the next show or change the channel and they get scrambled up…. You know I just “turn the channel” and “watch the other show” for while ---and then go back to the nature show, watching the “nature” channel for a while instead of those doughnuts.

Terry Ward: And so is the Kenny Scharf Nature Channel going to be ---like--- pink coconuts that smile? Or---

Kenny Scharf: [Chuckle] There might be some coconuts smiling --ah-- basically I've done two large paintings already and they're very much based on spending time in the swamp there in Brazil. They’re about just being in that swamp and looking at the wading birds and the crabs and the mangrove and my interpretation of that ---which I think is very timely with what has happened in the Gulf ( ---the BP Oil Spill Disaster).

[Note: Kenny shared a photo of one of the not-yet-titled Brazil mangrove-related paintings-in-progress. Rather than the typical Scharf backgrounds of spraypaint flourishes or adver-static or outer space, here is a calm expanse of tropically-colored water and sky. Mangrove trees have been Scharf-toon-ized into lively characters with "leggy" roots spread and with cheery grins in their treebark "faces". Cartooney S-hook wader-birds perch and loom. Pink orchoid-oids and green fruits abound. It looks like the spraypaint took a breather this time: everything seems brush-painted or (in the background) drip-painted. Pinned up along the bespattered studio wall, the canvas appears to be wall-sized ---perhaps six by eight feet.]

Terry Ward: Love it. Some of the earliest shows of yours like the Fun Gallery and such were sort of an all-encompassing crazy "environment" ---and there seems to have been a progression more towards items on canvases, and I'm wondering: is it partly because its easier for galleries to deal with that? And I'm also wondering: the epic parties you've been throwing in Brooklyn for --oh-- I don't even remember how long, where its sort of an all-encompassing art-fun environment, is that kind of an attempt to get back to the old days of all-around fun for-its-own-sake sort of art-fun?

Kenny Scharf: [ponders for a moment] Hmmmmm well I never really stopped making the installations ---after the early 80's with the installations there was actually throwing the parites and having the dancing mayhem that goes on now which is fun and an important part of it because its not just the visual thing. The party itself is the human element. The party is like one big art-piece in my opinion: all the living bodies and the dance and the colors and the movement ---its all one big experience. And then sometimes I'm very traditional: I approach a canvas with oil paint ---I mean “oil paint on canvas”--- its very very traditional and, oh, you know, "old fashioned." I have a lot of different ways of going about it and I often do them all at the same time. And different caterogies: one day I'll work on a painting, next day I might do an installation, next day I might do performance, so its very broad…. Sometimes things get mixed up into a crazy mish-mash and some other times they maintain the purity of the one “TV channel” ---one show. I like to think I’m constantly expanding sometimes in many directions at the same time. There are no rules.

Terry Ward: I've got to think the next generation of folks would find that easier to deal with, mentally, just because---

Kenny Scharf: [anticipating where this is going] Ha yes!

Terry Ward: ---They're already a multi-tasking generation: texting while being on FaceBook while looking up something on the cel-phone ---while driving.

Kenny Scharf: Yeah I would say the younger generation would probably be very at ease with that way of going about it ---and then I would say that I've probably confused a lot of the old generation with the way I have so many different styles.

[Note: Not to put too fine a point on it, another shared photo is indeed in a different style: appropriated Jetsons cartoon characters freeze in panic or flee in response to an unseen awful something. Angular orange shapes intrude into one side ---perhaps an explosion rendered in the comic book “pow-zowie” style. Angular lettering in voice balloons shouts “OMG!” and “WTF?” The background is exterior Jetson-ian architecture on a mottled green-blue-yellow-white wet-on-wet color field.]

Terry Ward: What were some of your influences and milestones?

Kenny Scharf: Growing up in L.A. in the 60’s, I was immersed in pop culture, googie architecture, and nature too. All of these had a profound effect on my vision…. I’ve made art ever since I was a little boy…. Art school was great because of the people I met like Keith Haring, Basquiat, Jon Sex. Also, I had a great teacher there who taught me the photorealism technique; his name was Noel Mahaffey. Andy Warhol was a great friend and inspiration to me as well. I guess I got noticed in the early 80’s after tagging the City and then showing at Fun Gallery. Also the Times Square show got me my first notice in an art magazine-art forum ---written by J. Deitch.

Terry Ward: How about recurring themes?

Kenny Scharf: There are recurring themes. I mean there's pop. The pop part, which would encompass cartoons and popular imagery and advertisements ---a lot of them from my childhood of the late fifties, early sixties, Americana, and then encompassing abstract stain-painting, to Jackson Pollock allover-painting to surrealist art. They all go together in my version of me being a pure surrealist: someone who paints from their subconscious ---my subconscious is filled with pop imagery because I grew up in a television age so saturated with these images that they're in my psyche. They're under my brain, so if I'm asked to paint as a surrealist in the 40's ---oh it does come out full of pop imagery.

Terry Ward: So you don't always go the canvas with a preconceived notion of what’s going to be on there ---more like you go to a canvas and kind of action-paint out whatever’s in your head?

Kenny Scharf: Yes, but I mean I have many different ways of painting and creating art ---often I walk up to a canvas and I have no idea what I'm going to do and its just like whatever happens to flow from my head is the starting point and then it just goes from there and I just let it happen. And then other times I'll have a distinct image in my head and I'll actually draw it out on the canvas ---so there really are no rules. I don't really set up any rules for myself ---in fact all the rules I do set for myself are made to be broken. That’s usually when you find, you discover new things, when you break rules ---your own rules or anyone else's rules. So there really is no one-way of doing it; there are millions of ways. I do often work without a plan and I like the spontaneity and there's a lot of what I call "magic" involved when you don't plan and you just kind of let things happen.

Terry Ward: How’s the approach different when you’re making your own private, personal “fun” art or “cathartic” art or “play” art ---versus making “gallery” art?

Kenny Scharf: I have so many different ways of making art sometimes its all fun, play and cathartic and sometimes its very focused and studious ---all depends on my mood and motivation…. I might make art to fit a certain gallery’s walls but I try not to consciously gear my vision or inspiration to what sells. Sometimes an art gallery will request something and if I’m into it, I’ll oblige with pleasure. Sometimes certain work is not "sellable," but I don’t "change." Some of my art made from trash doesn’t sell but I do it anyway…. The true artist will make art out of anything…. I’m very anti elitist. I believe art should be for everyone; I don’t like walls or boundaries in art.

Terry Ward: How do you get ready to create? What gets you ready?

Kenny Scharf: I like music on ---and the phone turned off.

Terry Ward: And if someone had no art-historical context, …how would you describe your art?

Kenny Scharf: Pop Abstract Surrealism! Basically it encompasses every aspect of 20th century art and puts it into the blender and out comes ---that.

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M's "In The Art World" December 2010 cover picturing Kenny Scharf's OMG! WTF?

Kenny Scharf, OMG! WTF? 2010, Acrylic on Linen, 30 x 40 Inches.
Photo: provided by the artist

Kenny Scharf doin' the do at his main studio. Unfinished painting pictured below is visible on the wall to Kenny's right ---giving an indication of the scale.

Kenny Scharf, in-progress view of not-yet-titled art, 2010.
Photo: provided by the artist

Kenny Scharf, installation view of spraypaint mural for Brazilian schoolkids created during the artist's 2010 Brazil art-trip.
Photo: provided by the artist

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