Biography of Kenny Scharf
Kenny Scharf grew up in the suburbs of the San Fernando Valley, north of Los Angeles, California. He was raised Jewish, and attended a Hebrew elementary school, which he hated. He was much more inclined toward the contemporary pop culture climate. Art historian and critic G. James Daichendt asserts that, because of Scharf's L.A. upbringing, "the importance of hot rod culture, van art, album covers, punk music, along with all the futuristic architecture of southern California's imagined future played a huge role on his aesthetic." His parents supported his interest in art from a young age, taking him to visit museums and galleries.
Scharf was born the same year as the first satellite Sputnik was launched into space. He recalls, "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." He spent his childhood fascinated by the parallels between the macro- and micro-cosmos, saying, "A solar system looks and acts the same as a proton and a neutron in an atom, 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."
Scharf was fascinated by television, especially after his parents bought their first color set when he was seven years old. He loved cartoons like The Jetsons, which he says, "sparked all my obsessions with cars, jets and the American Dream." Although he adds, "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."
At the age of fourteen, Scharf transferred from public high school to Oakwood, a "hippie" private school in North Hollywood. At a party in ninth grade he smoked marijuana for the first time, and has continued to use the drug almost daily ever since, preferring it to alcohol or other substances. He recently stated, "I think if everybody was on cannabis instead of other freaky drugs, everybody would be in a much better place."
Education and Early training
After one year of college in Santa Barbara, where he fell in love with Andy Warhol's work in an art history class, Scharf moved to Manhattan as he believed it would be a more conducive environment to starting an art career. He received his B.F.A. from the School of Visual Arts in 1980 with a major in painting. While studying in New York, he learned from teachers like Judy Pfaff, Elizabeth Murray, and Barbara Schwartz.
During college, Scharf became close friends with his roommate, another young artist named Keith Haring, and the two began experimenting with creating unsanctioned graffiti in the city's streets and subway lines. Scharf and Haring were also part of a larger group of seminal artists, including Jean-Michel Basquiat, who translated the graffiti aesthetic onto canvas, showing their work at the Post-Graffiti collective show at the Sidney Janis Gallery in 1983.
Critic Grace Glueck responded negatively to the Post-Graffiti show, calling it "unsettling," and writing, "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." Scharf was defensive, however, and encouraged his fellow graffiti artists to familiarize themselves with the "hierarchies and culture of the American fine-art system." He explains, "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."
Scharf developed his own personal style, which he calls "Pop Surrealism," using Krylon spray paint in Day-Glo colors to create psychedelic, cosmic images. He also experimented with creating sculptural assemblages out of household appliances and ephemera, like televisions, answering machines, and plastic toys. These works perplexed his professors, as well as mainstream gallery owners, limiting his potential exhibition venues to smaller independent galleries like the FUN Gallery (1981) and the Tony Shafrazi Gallery (1984), as well as unsanctioned public spaces like city streets and subway lines, where he executed colorful, large-scale murals.
As was common with the artists of the East Village Art scene of the 1980s, Scharf turned himself into a spectacle, for instance, walking down Broadway with his "pet" vacuum cleaner. Scharf found the period to be extremely liberating, noting that "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.'"
In 1983, Scharf and then-wife Tereza (a yoga teacher whom he met while on vacation in Brazil) had their first daughter, Zena, and a few years later, a second, Malia. He later stated, "I was way too young to know what I was getting involved with, but I was 25. 25 thinking I was a full on adult and I should have a child. But now I have grandkids from her, so it was all worth it. [...] I'm so happy. I'm so lucky and blessed." Zena now works in the art department of fashion photographer Patrick McMullan. Malia is now an actress and artist, who has collaborated with her father on projects including a clothing line titled Scharftees.
It wasn't until the mid-1980s that Scharf started to find recognition within larger institutions, when he was invited to participate in the 1985 Whitney Biennial. Five years later, he decided to stop painting in the streets, turning instead to acrylic paint, in part because his health had been affected by years of inhaling spray paint, and because he was devastated by the death of Basquiat (due to heroin overdose) on August 12, 1988, and the AIDS-related death of Haring on February 16, 1990. Scharf recalls, "Even though we were making money and successful at that time, it just wasn't as fun because we didn't get to enjoy it when people are dying. [...] It's kind of hard to celebrate your success when people or friends are dying."
Scharf's friendships with Haring and Basquiat in the East Village Art scene of the 1980s were a foundational aspect of his art career. He says of Haring, "Keith was a very close friend of mine. We shared a space together up by Bryant Park. [...] became my daughter's Godfather. We were very close. He was one of the most important people in my life... he still is." The slew of deaths in Scharf's community gave him a sense of survivor's guilt. He says, "I felt like I was being punished for not dying with the rest of my group."
Scharf's relationship with Basquiat was more tumultuous. He explains that he and Basquiat "used to go around the streets together and we had a very, kind of, intense relationship. And then it kind of soured [...] He would sabotage me all the time, and then apologize. I would be so happy that we were going to be friends again, and then the very next day it was as if that never happened and he just treated me the same. [...] And then we kind of reunited towards the end, right before he died."
In 1993, Scharf decided to leave New York. He relocated his family to Miami for six years, before returning to Los Angeles in 1999, and then back to New York in 2000, where he lived in Brooklyn for five years. In 2005, he chose to settle permanently back in Los Angeles, in a home just above fellow artist Ed Ruscha's studio, in the Culver City area. He explains, "When I would open [my door] in Brooklyn, [there] would be trucks banging. And then in my yard in LA, I have, you know, hummingbirds. I was like, hmm, why do I want to live up there?"
More recently, Scharf reflected on the major moves he has made in his life, stating, "New York will always be my city. My desires, dreams, and ambitions were shared by like-minded young minds in a strategic time in our evolutions as artists. Growing up in LA shaped much of my visual language. Living back here where I grew up feels good and allows me to be connected to the art world, yet I am much closer to the sky, trees, and the Pacific Ocean. [...] Now I live a few blocks from my grandkids so I am not going anywhere far away for too long!"
Scharf has been involved in a number of pop culture collaborations. In 1986, he created the album cover art for the album Bouncing off the Satellites by the B-52s, his "favorite band ever." He recalls, "When I first saw them, I was like, 'Oh my god, this is the musical counterpart to my art'. [...] I felt very connected immediately. All I wanted to do was to do everything for them." In 1987 and 1997, he collaborated with Absolut Vodka. In 2012, he created designs for Fendi purses and Kiehl's cosmetics.
At a 2004 retrospective of his work at the Pasadena Museum of California Art, Scharf requested to paint the 10,000-square foot parking garage, which now stands as a permanent, spray-painted installation called the Kosmic Krylon Garage. In 2011, the Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA) in Los Angeles held the first major museum retrospective of graffiti, titled Art in the Streets, for which Scharf re-created his Cosmic Cavern of the 1980s.
Scharf became frustrated by the MOCA trustees' disdain of the type of visitor that was attending the show. He says, "The people who came to the Art in the Streets show were not the people buying tables at the gala dinners. 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. [...] Let's bring up the masses. Let's help people smart up."
Scharf continues to paint, both on canvas, and in the streets. When doing public works, he prefers to paint alone, using acrylic Montana Gold spray paint, without assistants. He says, "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." Scharf's daughter Malia recently said about her dad, "At this point in his career he is able to reach more people than he has ever reached before. [...] There are few artists who were born knowing nothing but to create and Kenny is a rare example."
The Legacy of Kenny Scharf
As one of the few surviving key artists of New York's East Village art scene of the 1980s, Scharf has managed to carry on the unique attitude originally embodied by the group. In particular, he has made it a priority to create art that is part of everyday life, by blending art with useful objects like appliances and clothing, and by painting murals in the streets as well as in spaces like children's hospitals and event venues, with the intention of creating images that add to the overall experience and enjoyment of a pre-existing environment. He says, "Part of what I do and what I want to do is to bring art into the everyday life. If you're just walking in the street and you're confronted by something, that might change your day - it might inspire you." Recently, this has meant Scharf's creation of custom facemasks in response to the coronavirus pandemic, which feature the colorful mouths of his cosmic characters that add a dose of levity to the act of social distancing.
As arts writer Demetria Daniels notes, Scharf's oeuvre also serves as a prominent example of the potentially powerful role of hope, joy, play, and optimism, and a sense of love in contemporary art. Despite being criticized at times for creating pop-like imagery without any real conceptual depth, art historian and critic G. James Daichendt asserts that Scharf "will leave the world a much brighter and unique place to live. His artwork [...] is part of his desire to spread joy and happiness. Kenny likes to have fun and wants his artwork [...] to have the same impact on viewers. It's hard not to smile when you see it."
Daichendt also recognizes that Scharf's other significant impact on the contemporary art world has been his role in bridging the gap between illegal graffiti and street art culture and the institutional art world, and in opening dialogues regarding perceived dichotomies such as insider/outsider, and high/low art. Daichendt writes, "These accomplishments also transitioned into commercial products and customizing boring everyday objects with Kenny's unique aesthetic. These ideas abound today by contemporary street artists - so its no wonder why he's considered one of the grandfathers of the movement." Many of today's most famous and successful artists, like Banksy, Zevs, and Jeff Koons, share in Scharf's sentiments, creating works that straddle the boundary between consumer culture, lowbrow art, and fine art.
Content compiled and written by Alexandra Duncan
Edited and revised, with Summary and Accomplishments added by Kimberly Cooper
Content compiled and written by Alexandra Duncan
Edited and revised, with Summary and Accomplishments added by Kimberly Cooper
First published on 19 Dec 2020. Updated and modified regularly