Before he earned international recognition for his fantastical pop-surrealist style, Kenny Scharf was another dreamer in the City . . .
Recorded & edited by Rachel Cole Dalamangas
Traveling through the galaxies
Looking for a home
Living like a gnome
Stretching like a comet tail
From star to star and back
Keep me on the track
NEW YORK CITY, 1976
When I arrived from Santa Barbara when I was 18, I was kind of surfery. I had that ’70s Farrah Fawcett, blonde hair. I grew up in California surf culture. My dad used to run a ladies’ knitwear line, basically the L.A. version of the New York schmata biz. My mom is a housewife, she got her hair done and she decorated the living room. My dad grew up in Brooklyn and he couldn’t wait to get out. It was a shit hole.
I was going to UC Santa Barbara and I had this art history course, which was a big class in an auditorium, taught by Eileen Guggenheim. She was, like, this savvy New York art lady. It was a course about 20th century art, and she was going into all the stages, and she gets to Surrealism and Abstract Expressionism, and I started to get excited. She got to Warhol and the Factory, and I was like, “This is GREAT. I’m getting out of here.” And I thought, okay, I know this is the ’70s and that was in the ’60s, but I have a feeling there’s something here along those lines that I can find. So I told my parents, “I want to go to New York,” and they said, “Well, then you’ve got to go to school.” I applied to like 10 different art schools allover and none of them accepted me except SVA.
I was super excited to be in New York. I sold my car and basically here I was with a bag of clothes. Right away I went to a Devo concert and on the way, I took a leopard skin coat I found in the garbage and I cut it up. I cut my hair all punky, spiky and I put black under my eyes, and went to this Devo concert at The Bottom Line. I waited in line with all the other New Wavers, and within five minutes I became friends with everyone in that line. From then on I was, like, punk rocker/New Wave.
My first week that I was there, I was a little disappointed, because all the kids at SVA were like suburban kids from Long Island. And I was like, this is just like suburban L.A. where I just came from, and I’d had this idea that I was moving to New York and people were going to be amazing. I was like, there’s nothing different about these kids, they’re just paler. Then a week later at school, I heard Devo music playing and I followed it and there’s Keith Haring in this empty room he had taken over. He had covered the walls and the ceiling and floor in paper and was painting his Dubuffet-like black lines. He was in the corner about to finish and I was like, THIS is the person I thought I was going to meet, THIS is what I came looking for in New York. It was like, BOOM. I started talking to him and we became friends instantly.
Then a couple of days later, I was hanging out in the cafeteria at SVA and there was this super-cool guy named Chris there with Basquiat. I was holding a little portfolio of these paintings I was working on and Basquiat locked eyes with me and said, “What’s in there? Show me your work.” So I showed him and he looked at me and said, “You’re going to be famous.” I was like, that’s a weird thing to say, the very first thing someone says to you.
The first place I lived in was bizarre. There was this saleswoman from my dad’s company, and she was moving to L.A., and I was going to sublet her place. So I took her place on 55th between 6th and 7th. What a weird neighborhood. Out the window, you saw that blue glass of that ’60s Hilton Hotel. On the other side, it was Nowheresville. Empty on the weekends, full of strangers all the time.
I got a job at this place called Health Works, which was a salad bar. They had these salad bars and this one was right next door to the place on 55th. Basically people would come up and go, “I want a Salad Niçoise,” and you’d take chunks of tuna and mix it up right in front of them. The manager was like, “You clean up, you close up, you’re just right next door.” So every night I would take big vats of yogurt like out of those machines. There was Perrier, it was the first time water that you pay for got introduced, that was a new thing. So it was Perrier, yogurt, and I’d take a bag of pre-cut turkey chunks, I’d take a bunch of that, and then these kids would come over after work, and I’d feed everybody. There were probably 10 or 11 of us, people I met at the Devo concert.
I had everything. My first girlfriend in New York was Kitty Brophy. She went to high school with my roommate in Santa Barbara, and she had just moved to New York for Parsons. Larry Ashton, my roommate, came to visit. He later ended up moving to New York and took part in Club 57 and everything. This Arizona girl, I met her and she immediately moved in with me in my apartment on 55th Street. That night we met, we went to of all places—we were pretending we were sophisticated—to The Plaza for drinks. She grabbed me under the table and she was like a crazy, fun girl.
About a month after moving into the place on 55th, I got kicked out because someone had robbed me. I was coming home from school and I saw a kid on the street holding a bag of weed and I looked at him and the bag of weed and was like, “Oh, he’s holding a bag of weed.” Then I went up into my place, the door was down and I was like, “Shit, that was my bag of weed.” I went crazy and raced down to the street to see if I could find him. I am running allover the streets, and every kid is looking like him at that point. Anyway, because of what happened, all that caused, and because I always had all these kids eating in my apartment, the owner kicked me out. After that I just kept moving. I moved to 23rd and 8th and then I moved to 9th between 1st and A.
On 23rd, I was in a studio apartment and I remember there was hardly any heat and there were holes, the window was broken. I remember waking up one morning when there had been a blizzard and there was a snow pile on my sink. I saw it floating in. It was cold, but pretty. I had to paint with gloves on in there.
I discovered that Jean-Michel lived near 23rd, and we became closer and started spending more time just walking around tagging. I remember just going around, he would do the SAMO, and he had this big Fat Cap marker and let me have it. I remember I drew a TV set with antennas and inside it said, “The Jetsons.” We went around, and it was really cool. Then one day we were going around, and I turned to take the Fat Cap marker, and all of a sudden he was like, “I’m not giving that to you.” All of a sudden he turned on me, and I thought, “Uh-oh.” That was my first inkling that he had a double side to him, a scary side. He would change on the drop of a dime, you never knew what you were gonna get. He had an intense, demonic side sometimes.
Anything below 23rd Street was kind of fucked up. I quickly learned about the street. Especially back then, New York was the street, a very intense place. I got mugged a lot when I lived in the East Village, with knives, a gun. Even a guy in my building on 9th would wait for me in the hallway with a knife and I used to have to go to a building next door up on the roof over to my roof and down the fire escape into my apartment to avoid him. The reason why he was waiting for me with a knife, is because he was fucking his dogs and I overheard it and I reported him to the ASPCA. He was like this crazy Vietnam vet. There were a lot of Vietnam vets running around back in the ’70s, these crazy guys that were just let loose in the street. And he was one of them. He was fucking these big German Shepherds and I heard them crying. For some reason, he caught on that I was the one that reported him so he started waiting for me in the hallway. It went on until I left and went back to L.A. for the summer.
We all worked at nightclubs. It wasn’t right away for me. It was around the time I stopped going to school that I started working the clubs. About year after being in New York, I quit school. Keith stopped going and we were more excited about what was going on in the street than what was going on at the school. We were like, “Why do we need to be here for this?”
One day, I walked into Fiorruci with Kitty, and Joey Arias was working and he jumped on us and we became fast friends. I had him over at my studio. Around the same time, I was introduced to Klaus Nomi and I was thrown on the stage. All of a sudden I’m on stage at Max’s Kansas City and Hurrah and Danceteria. I was dancing this robot dance with Joe Arias behind Klaus. It was overwhelming. After Joey discovered me, and they saw the paintings I was working on, they said, “You’re a Nomi.” We did a one-day rehearsal and then we did a show.
Around that time, I got a job with Diane von Furstenberg because she saw the New Wave show I had at Fiorruci in 1979 and hired me to do her lipstick and nail polish campaign called, “Hot Pinks.” I did this whole campaign for her and I promptly learned I shouldn’t ever do commercial art. I went up to Diane’s office. It was a sleek uptown office. I went up and there was a shag rug and she was wearing a high slit skirt and big high heels, and Barry Diller was sitting behind her. And she was like, “Darling, I’m so excited to do this campaign. We’re only going to pay you like $50, but we are so excited because we’re going to introduce you to Andy and Halston and Bianca.” And I was like, “Oh my god, that sounds like so much fun, okay.” They ended up using the image for the campaign and gave me $50 and that was it. They never answered my calls. So one day, I just went up to the counter at Bloomingdale’s and took the advertisement and said, “I made this thing and they can’t answer my phone calls and I’m sorry but this is all I have,” and I just took it and left. It was a hand with fingernails all different colors pink and rockets were shooting out of the fingernails, but the rockets were lipsticks. It was really New Wave. I was like, “Fuck this.”
A few years later, after Keith became famous, he got invited to Sean Lennon’s ninth birthday party and I went with him and I’m standing there with Keith and he’d heard that story like a million times, how much I was complaining being treated like that. Then Diane walks in and I said, “I just wanted to thank you.” And she didn’t remember me and said, “For what?” And I said, “Because of you, I decided to go from commercial art to fine art and everything has been going great.” Because after that experience I went back to school and was like, I’m not doing this commercial art thing anymore because they just treat me like shit. Because that was how you thought you were supposed to make money, do commercial art. A week later, Diane found the painting and I got it back. Someone had painted over my logo for the Hot Pinks with a new logo on it. I ended up painting over that.
EDITORIAL NOTE: When I first interviewed Kenny Scharf in October 2013, I was struck by how muralistic the stories about his experiences were, in particular those that took place in New York during the 70s and 80s. Listening to Scharf recount his many anecdotes, one gets a strong sense of landscape as well as the radiant infinity of sprawling micro-narratives that go into the blockbuster of the City. I realized that in the course of conducting interviews with various artists for zingmagazine, I had encountered a treasure trove of personal tales ranging from the quotidian to the hilarious to the tragic to the absurd to the enigmatic that accumulate into a depiction of the lives of artists struggling as often as succeeding in the art capital of the world. Thus, I was inspired to prioritize the telling of these stories in the voices among us to tell them, as a sort of living history.
—Rachel Cole Dalamangas