My old college bud, Kenny Scharf, is arguably the original green artist – a brilliant guy from L.A. who began his career nabbing trash from the streets of Manhattan and embellishing old appliances with his phantasmagorical, Fifties-inspired, squiggly creatures and symbols.
Working alongside East Village graffiti muralists like Keith Haring and Jean Michel Basquiat, his uproariously spacey icons were quickly embraced by Andy Warhol and other enthusiasts with clout. He quickly rose to the ranks of artist superstar.
Scharf conveyed his erumpent celeb status to me when I caught up with him back in 1984. I was covering festivals and parades during my first big break as a TV reporter in Central Pennsylvania.
“I’m really big now, Luanne,” he informed me. “I mean really big.”
Oh, yeah? Well, I just downed my 10th funnel cake at another Keystone country shindig, so there!
A few decades later, the prolific, globally-acclaimed pop star is still doing what he does best: painting, scavenging beaches for trash for his sculptures, performing at his recycled Brooklyn live-work space and enjoying the fanfare of a new retrospective book, Kenny Scharf by Rizzoli.
Oh, and another thing he’s still doing – riding his bike instead of driving whenever possible. It’s been his favorite mode of transport for the past 30 years. In fact, he was riding with cell in ear when I caught up with him, yet again, huffing only so slightly. Quite admirable for 51.
“I ride my bike everywhere,” he says. “I live in Brooklyn and ride over the bridge and back, sometimes twice a day. Why drive a few blocks when you can walk or ride?”
His biking is admirable not only for cutting fuel emissions, but also for keeping him as fit as the new crop of young artists who form his entourage in New York. They include Daniel Heidkamp, who encouraged Scharf to lend his magic to one of the many empty commercial storefronts hit by the recession.
Landlords have been luring in artists to keep up appearances in the darkened spaces with that edgy, gallery feel. According to the New York Times, the goal is to deter crime while attracting tenants who can afford the rent. Scharf agreed to be part of a group show in one of these pop-up galleries, finding it exciting to be part of the scene.
“I said I didn’t have work I could donate, but I could do something directly on the wall like a spray painting,” he told me. “I will do that pretty much anywhere. So I did my spray painting and there was a photographer and a reporter from the New York Times waiting for me there.”
The unexpected coverage boosted the opening of the show, entitled ‘Too Big to Fail: Big Paintings’.
“I went and it was nice, like a bunch of 20-something artists,” he says. “I liked the work and to be part of the youngsters [scene].”
I assured him he’s still a youngster, too. After all, I still sense a wide-eyed wonder in his current work that merges organic earth elements with sensual, knobby creatures in the perspective of a damaged Cable Guy way over-exposed to TV Land stimuli. The familiarity of his fantasies make us laugh as we drink in the irony and nostalgia.
Today, the high-energy Scharf divides his time between homes in Brazil and NYC.
He enjoyed a recent show of his paintings (above) and sculptures at the Honor Fraser Gallery in Venice, Ca. At home in Brooklyn, he lives in a basement studio called the Cosmic Cavern A-Go-Go, which moonlights as a psychedelic nightclub for parties and performance art.
“I have been working with garbage and refuse for all these years, and the Cavern is made out of found objects from the street that I pull in and decorate,” he explains.
The Cavern attracts a following of young visionaries (like the space Cadette with Kenny, below) eager to talk trash with the painter and celebrate his lighthearted sensibilities.
“We have actual performances when the music stops playing,” Scharf tells me about the club. “People appear as art objects and they go all out. It’s about being inclusive and everyone being allowed to be a part of it.”
The lucky patrons who come unadulterated get a quick Scharfian make-over.
“I just paint their faces,” he says. “Then they sweat it off dancing.”
Guess we can’t really call that sustainable craft, but the artist himself is enduring longer than most of his peers, many of whom passed on years ago from AIDS (like Haring).
“I miss my dead friends very much, but I’m used to not having them around,” Scharf says.
Instead, he surrounds himself with their art (he used to trade his for theirs) and his golden memories, while forging ahead in a brave, new and green world. A world where the resourceful painter is as much at home in Orbit City as George Jetson.
“I’ve been an eco-artist for a long time,” he tells me. “Though I’m not some puritan. I use spray paint; I take airplanes; I make sculptures out of resin when I need to, but I’m very conscious of it.”
I believe you, Kenny. You are really big and you are really conscious. Anyway, it’s not easy to spray paint with vegetable dye and ride a bike to Brazil. But if you could, you would.
Main Image: New York Times
Image One: Kenny Scharf
Image Two: RizzoliUsa
Image Three: Honor Fraser Gallery
Images Three, Four, Five : Kenny Scharf