Kenny Scharf: Here to Stay

Whether on a gallery wall or the side of a car, Kenny Scharf’s exuberant cartoons infuse daily life with a dose of whimsy.

Kenny Scharf grew up during that brief period when television had created a unified popular culture.

Kenny Scharf: I grew up in the Valley, but so and so in Pennsylvania was watching the same show, and that's why when I first started doing my stuff in the street I knew that everyone knew these characters that were dear to my heart, not only my heart, it was in my dreams.

AJC: And, it was in the collective memory?

Kenny Scharf: In the collective memory.

Scharf's early work drew heavily on the Flintstones and the Jetsons. Juxtaposing these thoroughly modern visions of the past and the future. Then in 1983 he created a universe of his own populated by mutant cartoons with infinite potential.

AJC: They do have a happiness in them with the bright colors. I don't even know how to phrase it. It's a lot of positive energy they give off.

Kenny Scharf: Well, thank you. I mean, if I'm gonna contribute something into the world I want to put good energy out there, and I want to improve things. It's not like everything I do is all about happy and fun because right here behind me these are about fracking and the petroleum industry, but it's full of joy. They're fracking gas monsters and it's not their fault. They're just being released into the beautiful rainbow environment that they're destroying.

AJC: What reactions do you enjoy to the work?

Kenny Scharf: The thing I enjoy most is a reaction. The one I don't like is when there's no reaction, people don't notice.

AJC: But, how could that happen?

Kenny Scharf: It's happened.

AJC: Really?

Kenny Scharf: For instance, back in my early days I shared a studio with Keith Haring, and he just became really famous while we were living together, so people were coming over night and day, and they had to walk through my art to get to his, and it was literally like my art was a white wall. It wasn't there, so that's an example.

Scharf met Haring when they were both students at the school of visual arts in Manhattan. They became close friends, and spent countless nights together at the now legendary Club 57, a 1980's answer to Andy Warhol's Factory. With a vibrant artistic community behind him Scharf's creativity knew no boundaries.

Kenny Scharf: You could be in a band, you could be 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."

But, Kenny Scharf remained undeniably drawn to cartoons, a fact that would alienate him from the art establishment.

Kenny Scharf: I thought to have cartoons in the art world is a no-brainer. I'm not the first one that did it. I mean, pop artists were doing it, and I thought that ground was broken way before me, yet I encountered a lot of resistance, and maybe because my cartoon use wasn't ironic. Pop art is taking that and looking at it from a distance and saying, "Oh, that's art." I'm just saying this is me, and this is coming from me.

AJC: Without the snarkiness.

Kenny Scharf: Yeah. So, I think that people a lot of times didn't like that. They thought it was kid stuff, and I wasn't being a serious adult artist.

But Scharf was too serious about his style to give up on it. Since coining the phrase pop surrealism in 1981, he's persisted and has been embraced sporadically over the years, a spot in the Whitney Biannual here, a solo show at the Dali Museum there, but never the deluge of affection he would see bestowed on so many of his contemporaries, most notably Keith Haring and Jean-Michel Basquiat.

Kenny Scharf: I had to sell my friends' work to survive, and I was doing bartering. I was bartering my dentist, my landlord. I did it. I mean, I had to do it.

AJC: And, you have a young family at this point, right?

Kenny Scharf: Yeah, I had a young family, two little girls. They're all grown up. I'm a grandpa now.

AJC: It was a lot?

Kenny Scharf: Yes it was, and not only did I have that to deal with, but all my friends pretty much died, so I was like oh you didn't die. I felt like that. I felt like I was being punished for not dying with the rest of my group, so not only did I have my own pain of losing my friends.

AJC: You were being punished for surviving?

Kenny Scharf: Exactly!

But, Kenny Scharf persevered, and in 2000 he tried something brand new, animation. His characters already so full of motion seemed poised to be put in sequence. However, the Groovenians fell victim to the Hollywood machine and was canceled after just one episode.

Kenny Scharf: I felt like I had a baby, and I had to throw it in the gutter, and walk and just drive away. It was really hard, but what I did learn was important and really good for me was when that whole thing ended I was broke, I left my art career for two years in a way to work on it, thinking it was gonna be a huge hit, and so I'm back here, and I'm like, you know what's so great? When you make a painting, you don't have to get anybody's approval, so that gave me a real kick.

AJC: It's a pretty good conciliation.

Kenny Scharf: It is.

AJC: When you think you've given up everything to find out that you still exist.

Kenny Scharf: Yeah, and I basically said, "Okay, what am I gonna do now?" I said I'm gonna make the greatest painting that is gonna blow everyone away so bad they can't deny it.

AJC: That painting was City of the Future, and it began as a comeback for Kenny Scharf. Whatever you have now you've earned twice and three times.

Kenny Scharf: I have paid my dues, that's for sure.

AJC: You really have.

Kenny Scharf: You won't find me complaining 'cause I don't and I won't. Stick to your thing, and just keep doing it, and you will prevail, and I think I'm hopefully thinking I'm not a young whipper snapper anymore.

AJC: But, you're not an old man.

Kenny Scharf: I'm not an old man, and I've got plenty left in me, but I'm hoping that maybe I will be accepted as here to stay.

And, to look around his native Los Angeles it would seem that Kenny Scharf is indeed here to stay.