Kenny Scharf

Eighties art star Kenny Scharf, who has been showing steadily but hasn't had a New York show in about four years, is opening an exhibition today at Paul Kasmin Gallery in Chelsea. Could it be part of a larger revival? Eighties strains are to be heard in popular rock bands like the Killers, and then there's the Duran Duran revival, and more obvious nods in fashion — indeed we've been in an eighties moment for a few years now. And in art?

A couple of years ago, Artforum magazine resurrected the decade over two massive issues, and last year the raucous East Village art scene, of which Scharf was a part, was brought back into the limelight with a survey exhibition at the New Museum. It's just possible that some of that eighties zeitgeist has seeped into the soil: as proof, there is Scharf's work at Kasmin, and in early November a new series by David Salle will go on view at Mary Boone.

Then again, there are an equal number of signs that the New York of the eighties, and certainly the free-for-all spirit that pervaded the East Village scene, are gone for good. The Palladium, an enormous nightclub on 14th Street for which nightclub impresario Ian Schrager got eighties art stars like Scharf, Basquiat and Francesco Clemente to make artworks, was replaced several years ago by a bland looking New York University dormitory. A shiny building full of luxury apartments looms over Astor Place, that ad hoc convention center for skaters and punks. Last month, Keith Haring's Pop Shop in Soho shut its doors, and several years before that, Kenny Scharf's own Scharf Shack, in which he semi-jokingly sold items such as tee shirts emblazoned with motifs from his paintings, became an outpost of the upscale coffee and gourmet food purveyor Dean and Deluca.

Part of Scharf's appeal from when he first began showing his work, when he was leaving his street/spraypaint work behind for galleries, is its seeming insouciance. In his paintings, characters from the Jetsons and the Flintstones would mingle with blob-like creatures of Scharf's own devising, evoking a world in which fun seemed a high priority. Appropriately, Scharf, Basquiat and Scharf's one-time roommate Keith Haring all showed at one time at the Fun Gallery, and were known to pit themselves against the more stern, theoretical work of the Neo Geo artists, such as Ashley Bickerton and Peter Halley. spoke with Scharf about his new work, his past work, his enjoyment of switching styles and his politics as he was putting the finishing touches on his exhibiton to open at Chelsea's venerable Paul Kasmin gallery. Scharf, who by his own account fled New York for Miami after the eighties, was in town from Los Angeles where he has now lived for nearly seven years.

The show consists of a series of paintings in the main gallery on 10th Avenue, and, around the corner in a small adjunct space on 27th Street, one of Scharf's signature "closets," rooms installed with detritus painted in Day-Glo colors. Even the phone and the air conditioner had been turned into what look like decorations for a graffiti-inspired nightclub. Adding to the somehow strangely soothing effect of the place was the muffled strains of pop music from a wall-mounted (and, of course, brightly painted) boombox.

So, here we are inside Closet number 24. Where is all this stuff from?

Mostly from the garbage.

The garbage near your home in Los Angeles?

Some from near my house, some of it goes back to New York in 1980.


I can show you some items that date back to the early 80s…From P.S.1 when I had a studio there, for instance.

Here is a boombox. Is there a specific soundtrack for the installation?

I'll have a few things I like. But a friend of mine is making me a tape, so things might expand.

Do you have any drawings or plans or anything before you make one of these installations?

No, [my assistant and I] just put it up. What is finished here so far, we've done all this in one day!

This trail of detritus on the floor…

We're not done! It will all be on the walls and ceiling…[to his assistant] I think these fake flowers have to be hand painted, not sprayed. They're not taking the spray. They don't make plastic plants anymore! Now it's these silk things, they soak up all the paint, You just can't get quality plastic plants.

So, there is renewed interest at the moment…


in the 80s.

Oh, I thought you meant in me.

When you were making work in the 80s there was this rivalry between the Neo Geo guys like Ashley Bickerton and Peter Halley versus the Fun Gallery artists like yourself and Keith Haring. Is a rivalry like that possible these days?

No. I think the notion of one movement at a time, it ended with the 80s. Pop, Abstract Expressionism, Minimalism. Then the 80s happened and that was all over. There are so many different ways of making art. Personally, I like to switch around from one style to another.

Didn't you coin the term "Pop Surrealism"?

Yes, and it's been overused!

There was even an exhibition called Pop Surrealism at the Aldrich Museum.

I was in it. I was glad to be included, but I made sure to Xerox this pile of documents from 1981, and there was a stack of them in the show, so people would know that I coined the term. Because I did!

Who are the Pop Surrealists of today?

You know Juxtapoz magazine? Well, they've sort of made it their scene, but I'm not so crazy about a lot of that work…Pop Surrealists of today? Everything blurs into each other these days, so it would seem odd to name a movement. Certain artists like to have something they can label, but I feel it restricts you. There are lots of styles for the taking. I say mix them up.

You were in the East Village show last year at the New Museum. What is it like to see your work in that context?

Well, it's part of that history.

So what happened to the work you did for the Palladium? Those painted phone booths?

About 10 minutes into the opening of the Palladium, people ripped everything apart. They took the phone booths and the dinosaurs and destroyed them. I said, people are going to destroy this! And the club said, we have a guard watching. There was no guard watching. And there was also a mural…I took my paintings down. I think to this day Ian Schrager probably doesn't want to talk to me for that reason. But people were putting their cigarettes out in the paintings! I took the paintings home.

What kind of experience do you want people to have in this installation?

I want people to enjoy themselves, to leave their worries and thoughts somewhere else. At first they think it's chaotic and crazy but, in actuality, it's calming. It's like a refuge…well, that's how it started in 1981. I was living in Times Square and I created one of these installations in a closet as a refuge. It was actually in a closet. I found a bunch of things, and painted them. I found a little black light and bought it and put it in the room. And then it just became this thing I did.

You were living with Keith Haring at the time?


But it is chaotic in here…

Yes, but a jungle is chaotic, and also calming…

Is that an upside down vacuum cleaner with a face on it?


You recombine elements in these, from different periods…

Over and over, I'm fixated on this piece of machinery I wanted to show you that dates back. Where is it? Look, here is a fuse-box thing that dates to the Times Square show.

Is there a relationship with a collage aesthetic? Like Kurt Schwitters's Merzbau, for example, when he turned a whole building into a giant work of art?

Definitely it's a collage, pretty much. It's just a collage of the garbage of our society. Everything is just shoved up together and it creates what, in my opinion, is a kind of magical space.

You once said you don't consider yourself a graffiti artist even though you used to spray paint on the street…

I never considered myself a graffiti artist other than that I used to spray paint around town and I had my signature style. I never tagged. I did lots of different things. But I was part of that whole…well…the Times Square show was where the downtown punk artists met with the graffiti South Bronx guys. It was very interesting. Keith Haring developed his style using graffiti. At the time, I just didn't like the term. I wasn't a kid from the South Bronx. I had studied art.

But now there is this new generation, mainly West Coast. Like Barry McGee, when he had his show at Deitch a few years ago and he included this jacket you could use when you were doing graffiti, with all these secret pockets to hide your various paints and things. Kind of embracing this notion of doing things on the sly.

I've always embraced that. I would say I was a street artist quicker than I would say I was a graffiti artist. The reason why we did art in the street is that art had nothing to do with what was happening in people's lives. And most people in the street could care less about what's going on in a gallery, and it's true to this day. They don't go to museums, to galleries, but seeing things in the street gets people to think differently, it inspires them. That's what we enjoyed. Reaching people, getting out into the real world. It's not as though we were saying we wanted nothing to do with the art world, but it was a way of recognizing that the art world can be a very elitist place that doesn't include joe schmoe from the street. I've always been against an elitist sensibility.

Everything is very professionalized these days. You have always espoused art as fun. But now young artists are learning in school how to function in the world of galleries, etc.

Well, that's careerism. But I think we are going to see a backlash, and there are always artists who are making work for the right reasons.

It does seem as though money is the new art criticism, for instance. Everybody loves to talk about the market.

It's like in the eighties, but that moment has been going on for a long time. I remember I'd go to a dinner and there was this way of talking about art — someone would say the name of an artist, and then a price. It was really sad. Like now. People talk about how much money they are going to make. I mean, there's nothing wrong with talking about the market, but when it's more important than the art itself, that's pretty bad.

Two years ago, you made this piece in LA, at the print fair, it was very critical of Bush and the war, there were missiles and pictures of Bush, and so forth. Are you very political?

I am. No one would get it from first glance, but there are lots of things I'm concerned and angry about. I've been making work about environmental degradation for years, that's where my politics lie. I have opinions about the ridiculous things this administration is doing. Although I've made some pretty dogmatic work, I don't like hitting people over the head with things.

In the paintings here, in the main gallery, there are things about mass consumerism, our society, America, selling people this lifestyle we know is destroying us, yet we will continue on this path because of the administration, and oil companies, and people who are interested in selling products. Of course, I'm interested in fun, not in a complacent way, but in the sense of, all of this is going on, but I want to continue doing what I do. It's a kind of optimism.

Well, what about these paintings in the main gallery. Are these a change of pace for you in terms of style?

People get confused because they think of the cartoony faces I often paint, but if you look at everything I've done over the past 30 years, I'm like a television child, I make channel changes, stylistically. And that is what confuses people. They know me for the cartoon channel. But when they look at the whole body of work, they will see that. If you look at my work from the late 80s, early 90s, you will see this same silk screening and Pop imagery. So these are more Pop oriented, with some Abstract Expressionism. There are elements of Rosenquist, Rauschenberg, Warhol, graffiti. There's Bush's head, speaking of politics. And some S.U.V.s.

There is an exuberance in these, and also something dark.

Exactly, that's my work. At first glance, people look and they think, oh, it's so pretty but if you really look, there's a lot of messages and things that aren't so happy, and that's how I want to get my message out. I don't want to bash someone over the head with it. I want people to really look. In this painting, it's not just escapism. This is about America the pig, we're the ones who are drinking all the oil. If you look closely, there is Arabic writing there, and an Iraqi flag. But the things I love, I also hate. I love America, the 50s cars, the fast and the fun, but I also hate what it's doing to our world, this consumerist madness, but at the same time I love products and displays, its an art form we are really good at.

Yes. Look at this painting. It's a cornucopia of products! The one you were just describing, with the car driving into the clock. Where is the image from?

I lifted it from an advertisement. I mean, it's my hand, I painted it. But the image is appropriated directly from a 1959 ad for GM cars.

And this one, Donut Jamboree, there are a lot of donuts floating around. What is the relationship with Jeff Koons' Easyfun paintings?

Well, as I say, people get confused, but I've been doing this particular style for many years. It's just that people associate me with the more cartoon work. And I do all the painting myself. I'm not criticizing, but I would never give someone a brush and ask them to paint a donut for me.