Street artist Kenny Scharf on the ups and downs of friendship, the absurdity of life
Recorded & edited by Rachel Cole Dalamangas
People need to be made more aware of the need to work at learning how to live because life is so quick and sometimes it goes away too quickly.
NEW YORK, 1976
I was invited into the Time Square show by John Ahearn who came to my show called “Celebration of the Space Age” at Club 57 in 1979. I didn’t ask anyone for permission, I just brought Keith Haring and Jean-Michel Basquiat with me and said, “You guys have to be in this show—join me.” Jean-Michel’s painting made a huge sensation, he got noticed and got into the “New York New Wave” show at PS1. He had a show in Italy, and boom—his career took off. I believed in him, for sure.
My friendship with Jean-Michel was very rocky. He had a double personality. He kind of turned on me more than once. He used to make me completely uncomfortable. Just tried to torture me sometimes. Once, I was at a party and there were lots of people and music and whatnot. It was a very crowded room and I felt really uncomfortable, like, something just felt really weird. And I turned around, from across the smoky room, he’s beaming an evil eye into the back of my head. I felt that and I caught his eye doing that, and I just started sweating. And it would happen a lot. It would always be the same thing and he was trying to make me feel intimidated and it worked.
About a month after I had the show at Fiorucci, Jean-Michel was making a painting with John Sex, and they made this wet oil painting and cars were driving over it—it was so cool and punk rock—and Jean-Michel was kind of spastic and he decided he wanted to have a show at Fiorucci. So he goes up to Fiorucci with these wet oil paintings and in that spasticky manner he used to have, he managed to get wet oil paint all over the clothes, and they kicked him out.
I heard later that Jean-Michel kind of had a problem with me because I didn’t sleep with him. I went to visit him at this apartment he had in Chelsea. He had his art, these collages, on the wall in the kitchen and I was just totally blown away by this crazy energy they had coming from them. The colors on these collages were amazing. That’s when he came onto me. I had just arrived to New York. I’d never done anything with another guy. I was scared.
Jean-Michel was really sweet, charming, funny. He adored Keith, he was always nice to Keith, which was really hard on me. It was one of those things where I liked Jean-Michel so much and when he would be sweet to me, I would be all forgiving and then he would turn on me again.
One time, years later, Jean-Michel and I were both in Italy at the same time and he apologized. And I was like, “I can’t believe you’re apologizing. I never knew what this was about. Why were you so mean to me?” And he said, “Because I’m jealous of you.” And I said, “Why?” Because he was famous at that point, I wasn’t really famous at all then. I wasn’t selling my work. Nobody cared about what I was doing. I was like, “Why would you be jealous of me?” And he said, “Because you’re happy.” I just had this incredible moment of empathy for him and was completely forgiving him for all the stuff and the very next day, it was like my heart was open and he took a knife and just went, “Rrrrrrr-nuh.” Immediately, he turned on me the very next day after apologizing. After that, that was it. I shut down. I swear it was like a month before he died, we kind of connected again. I felt sadness in him and he seemed really in such a sad place that I couldn’t keep that thing I was carrying anymore. Then he died.
John Sex was my first guy. John had moved from Long Island to New York with Wendy Wild together as a couple. I was living with Kitty [Brophy] as a couple. I met John at SVA and the four of us would go on double dates. We’d go to music venues like everybody did. Me and John Sex left the girls and ran off one night. There was a place called GG Barnum’s. It was this disco back then and it was crazy wild and all these dancers were above the dance floor on these nets. And the dancers would jump off and land almost on top of your head, this circusy kind of thing. Then they had these drag queens come on stage and do a show. By then, John and I were really drunk, and we got so excited that we jumped the stage during the show. We went back in the dressing rooms and the bouncers got us and threw us out and that’s how our thing started. Drunk and allover the ground.
Wendy was kind of distraught about what was happening to her boyfriend. Not long after that, Kitty went back to Arizona leaving me to continue my New Wave Punk Rock Bisexual studies.
John and I were involved awhile off and on. He was an amazing person in my life. Really amazingly smart and talented. He taught me a lot about art and Dada. One day he decided that art was bullshit and he threw all his art away in the garbage and announced that he himself was art and he only did performance art after that and became the John Sex persona that people know him as. But nobody knows that he was a really amazing visual artist.
I met Andy Warhol twice. The first time I met him was right after the “New York New Wave” show at PS1. I was in this group show that Andy Warhol was in and I went to this opening at a club called Peppermint Lounge, and Andy showed up there and I went right up to him and said, “Hi, we’re in a show together.” It didn’t impress him much. He said, “Oh, that’s so great,” and wasn’t even listening. He had these rude guys with him and he pointed to one of them and he said, “Make out with him.” And I was kind of like, stunned a little bit, shy and uncomfortable. I can’t remember if the guy did or didn’t honestly. I have the feeling that I chickened out and didn’t go with that. So that was it and he didn’t know who I was. Then later, Keith became famous and was invited to The Factory on Union Square for lunch and I just invited myself to go with him. I was creaming in my jeans. It was everything I could have dreamed, not only meeting Andy, but having lunch with him. I was used to a diet of bad pierogis and pizza and donuts, and they had food delivered from some nice place. So many celebrities were going to The Factory then. Andy was taking their picture and the celebrities were getting into Interview magazine. All of a sudden, I went from only knowing East Village celebrities in my sphere, to, “Oh, there’s Farrah Fawcett, or there’s Arnold Schwartzeneger.”
The artist David McDermott and the artist Peter McGough were around the scene then. And there was this guy Diego Cortez, who was the curator of the PS1 “New York New Wave” show, and his boyfriend was named Johnny Rudo. And Johnny Rudo had this loft in Time Square that he was renting from the artist Jimmy DeSana. Jimmy was a very interesting artist who died very early of AIDS, and he did these really intense sadomasochistic photographs that were very Mapplethorpy. So Johnny Rudo called me and was like, “I’ve got this room in this crazy place. There’s space for studio work and whatever, do you wanna come here?” So I left my East Village place and then two weeks later, Johnny Rudo couldn’t handle me. He was intimidated by my intense procreation of art making. I just got there and started hot gluing this and finding trash and painting that and taking over and celebrating the fact that I had some space to work. I was overwhelming him. I got home from school one day and all my bags were packed, and Johnny had brought David and Peter over. I was like, “What’s going on here?” And they were like, “We are here to kick you out. Johnny Rudo doesn’t like you. His dad is a lawyer. And we are here to kick you out.” I just looked at them and was like, “I got news for you. Someone’s leaving and it’s not me.” And the next thing I knew, Johnny Rudo put his tail between his legs and ran away, and David and Peter left too. So I called Keith and I was like, “Keith, I got this great place.” Because Keith was living in this weird men’s shelter, sharing a room with three old men. Keith was like, “Okay.” So Keith came up. There was even a painting that David McDermott and Peter McGough did of this scene. On one side, it’s me with space ships and dinosaurs, and on the other side is them with all their doilies and clocks, and they’re making a face at each other.
Life is just little crazy stories.
EDITORIAL NOTE: Lessons of New York is an oral narrative series told in parts and based primarily on interviews with artists who were involved in the Lower East Side scene during the ’70s, ’80s, and ’90s.