For a lot of people, the new Rizzoli book about Kenny Scharf will seem a perfect match for his artistic personality: it’s big, it’s brash, it’s brightly colored, and it’s got a big-nosed, one-eyed cartoon character grinning out from the middle of it.
Rarely can an artist have been so inextricably linked with a particular time and place as Kenny Scharf. He arrived in New York City from California in 1978, and swiftly became a key figure, alongside Keith Haring, Jean-Michel Basquiat, and their delighted mentor Andy Warhol, in the 1980s post-punk downtown art scene. Focused initially on what were primarily music venues like the Mudd Club and Club 57, this scene quickly established its own galleries like the Fun Gallery, and annexed both alternative spaces – for the infamous 1980 “Times Square Show” – and existing ones like P.S.1 – for 1981’s “New York/New Wave”.
At the centre of all of this were Mr Scharf’s paintings – all graffiti spray, cartoon characters, and bilious color schemes – his various performance activities – at the above mentioned clubs as well as The Kitchen and out on the street – and his eager, smiling, partying self, always ready for another East Village all-nighter it seemed.
But the Kenny Scharf that I spoke to in his Brooklyn studio on Wednesday is a rather more serious and reflective character than I had imagined. He is very conscious of art’s social function, and of the morality that attaches to that, and he gives a lot of thought to his work’s relationship to the art of the past. On the other hand his studio/home is suitably anarchic. Crazy faces and patterns are painted on the furniture, the word “FUN!” is stenciled all over the place, there are Kenny Scharf rugs on the floor, paintings in progress on the walls, and – I am delighted to report – he does have a nightclub in his basement. (It’s all fluorescent toys and “bits of junk,” as he calls them, hanging from the ceiling and picked out in the UV lights. He has regular parties down there. The next one is in July.)
Kenny, what’s the point at which art meets good taste?
The point where I fall asleep! I didn’t deliberately set out to be bad taste. It’s just more fun. Good taste is a bore. And what is good taste, anyway? I have my taste, and I don’t consider it good or bad. It’s just what I like.
And what is it that you like? And how does it find its way into your art?
I love art. I love it so much. The art that I grew up with is the art of the latter half of the twentieth century. I suppose the first art that I was aware of were the psychedelic posters in hippy head shops in the San Fernando Valley, and with those they’d have Dali and Magritte, so I discovered surrealism through hippy rock posters. Then I started going to school, and I started looking at abstract expressionism and Pollock, and Pop Art and Warhol. All of the twentieth century movements. Art was so movement based. But then at the very end of the century, and now, there’s no one movement any more. There are all the ingredients of all of the ways of making art, and I want to play with them all, combining the different movements. It’s almost like cooking – you take a little bit of abstract expressionism, and a little bit of surrealism, and a little bit of pop art, and you put throw them in the blender with my brain and hand, and you come up with something new. That’s what my paintings are: abstract expressionism, pop art, and surrealism all rolled into one, and I think it makes for a new fun brew! That’s what I get excited about.
I know that in the past you’ve talked about having a subconscious that’s full of pop art.
I made up the term “pop surrealism”. I don’t get credit for it, but I’m claiming credit for it. I consider myself a surrealist. I take my imagery from my subconscious, from my dreamland. It just so happens that because I was sitting in front of the television at three years old and taking in all this pop imagery from the media, it got into my brain. So when I bring stuff up from my subconscious, it’s full of all this pop imagery.
It’s different from the pop artists, who would go to the supermarket and say, “Oh look at that can of soup, if I take that off the shelf and look at it, it becomes a whole different way of looking at the world.” That’s amazing, and I love that, but I’m not doing that. This is what’s inside of me and I’m just bringing it out. It just happens to be full of cartoons, and products, and all this crap that’s been shoved down my throat all these years.
Did you ever tell Andy Warhol that you felt your subconscious was full of pop art?
I don’t think I ever said it. We had a really great relationship, but we never really talked about art. We didn’t need to. He knew that I worshiped him, so I didn’t need to spell it out, what I was doing and why. But I did see that connection early on. I am the next generation, the metamorphosis of pop art.
Tell me why you decided to come to New York City in the first place.
I had been making art since I was a little kid. It wasn’t as though I came to New York and then started being an artist. I had made art before then. But I just knew that New York was the place where I was going to meet other artists, and I was going to make it happen for myself. L.A. has this big art scene, but I just didn’t feel connected. I found it very hard to fit in. I remember when I was growing up people would talk about jobs they wanted to do, and I thought, “That doesn’t sound like what I want to do. It sounds like a dead end.” So when I learned about Warhol in school I thought, “Oh God, that is the fun scene that I’m looking for.” I knew that the Warhol’s Factory scene had been happening in the sixties, and that that it was over, but I thought, “Well, there’s got to be something like that happening. And there certainly isn’t anything like that in L.A., so I’m going to New York.”
And really we created our own little Factory scene with Club 57 which was the same combination of visual art and performance and music and so on. So I did get real lucky because the eighties was an amazing time, as you know.
One principle of that scene seemed to be provocation. Do you think artists have a duty to be provocative?
Yes, I do. I always like to challenge the status quo, or preconceived notions of how you should behave. There is a long historical line of artists as provocateurs, because they are usually the people who see things earlier or more clearly than other people: things in society that everybody just accepts without questioning. I think that one of the roles of artists is to question what is the status quo, or what is considered right or normal, and to provoke other people’s questioning.
Society puts pressure on people to behave in a certain way which is considered “normal”. I don’t think there’s such a thing. People are incredibly different and there are a billion different ways to be. I think that being an artist is about freedom, and the freedom to be who you really are and to express yourself without worrying about somebody thinking it’s weird or wrong.
That’s what I loved about New York, because as soon as you arrive you think, “Oh I can just create whatever it is that I want to be, because they’re all a bunch of freaks here, and nobody’s judging!”
You very quickly became a public figure at the heart of that eighties scene. How important was that to your art?
It’s still important. There are a million different artists and a million different ways of making art, but I am someone who enjoys the whole performance aspect of art. I like to be creative in all sorts of different ways. I like to paint, by myself, in solitude. But there’s another side of me that I need to express in a more theatrical way. It’s the same as doing these parties in my basement. I’m not calling that art, but it could be. I don’t like to label things – this is art, and this isn’t. It’s all part of everything.
Think of someone like Dali. He was an amazing painter, but he also carried himself as a person in the world. He was someone who raised eyebrows. Warhol was the same. I don’t consider myself just a producer of objects. I consider myself an artist, and in order to be an artist I have to live art in all aspects of my life. It’s not just having a show in a gallery and coming to the opening. It’s about doing performances, about getting out there in the world and changing people’s perceptions, or maybe just changing their day. Plus it’s fun. I like fun.
Do you think today’s art scene is fun?
Well, I think the whole money, money, money thing is just a bore! I need money like everybody else. Everybody needs money. But when a lot of money comes into the art world, like it did until very recently, it also closes things up, because unfortunately money does not usually signal great creativity. Hard as things might be right now it’s opening up ideas about ways of being an artist that is not just about selling your work. It’s about being an artist making a statement. I think that the more people care about the market, the worse things get. I don’t want to know about the art market. I hate the art auctions. I wish Sotheby’s and Christie’s would just tank. I don’t think they give a shit about art at all. It’s only about making money. There’s nothing wrong with making money, but I’m more interested in making art. The fact that I make money by making art, I feel very lucky about that! But that’s not why I make my art, not because it’s a money maker. It’s because this is what I do and this is who I am. I don’t want to be a business man. That’s just not interesting to me. I want emotion, I want to be moved, I want to see things that touch me. I don’t want to know how much the goddamn thing sold for. I don’t care. It means nothing to me. It makes me sick.
Tell me, is there a serious side to Kenny Scharf?
I’m very serious. Even though I profess fun, and just being crazy and letting it out, I couldn’t be more serious about what I do. I’m dedicated. I don’t sit here and watch TV, I work. All this stuff that I do, I do it by myself. I don’t have a team of assistants working for me. I have one guy who helps me here in New York, and even he doesn’t come every day. And I have another guy in LA and he helps me with correspondence and the taxman, and that kind of stuff. But the actual art making, I do it all by myself, and I never really wanted to delegate that to anyone. This is what I love to do. This is why I am an artist. I don’t see why I should give that to somebody else. I’ve worked really hard so that I can do that myself.
But is there are a serious side to your work?
With a lot of the imagery, you look at it and you say, “Oh, that is fun! There’s eyeballs and smiles and stuff,” and on the surface it seems as if it’s just fun, but there’s a lot of very serious subjects that I care about and that I tackle in my work. I don’t want to tell people what to do. I don’t want to hit people over the head and say, “YOU MUST STOP POLLUTING!” It’s up to the viewer to see beyond the surface, which I love to make inviting and intoxicating and beautiful, even though the subject might be frightening and something that people might not want to think about. In fact, although I say I don’t want to be dogmatic, there were some paintings I made ten, twenty years ago that were very dogmatic. They were about environmental catastrophes, and nuclear annihilation, and hypocrisy in government. These are things that I’m very aware of and that I address in my work. I just do it in a way that’s layered: if you choose to simply look at the surface you can do, but if you want more, it’s there.
So is there a moral dimension to being an artist?
Oh I absolutely agree with that. I think that art has amazing powers and I definitely like to take advantage of them. Art’s not just something to look at an enjoy – though of course it is that as well – it can transform people’s lives.
It can turn their lives upside down!
I love that! I think that chaos is a lot more exciting than tranquility. Tranquility can get boring. Things need to get shaken up for energy to flow, for ideas to be created, for new things to arise. I think that’s a very important role for an artist.