Original street-artist, vet of the Lower East Side scene when it was still the scene, and Instagram-extraordinaire, Kenny Scharf is picking through a tabletop full of Brooklyn detritus as if he’s a foodie at a late-night buffet. He’s got all these knickknacks including baggies of bright plastic jewels and a turquoise plastic cup dispenser that he’s going to make into what he calls “space vomit” (and who knows what else). In 2013, Scharf has painted a mural for the pediatric and adolescent psychiatric ward of Kings County Hospital, collaborated a fashion show during New York Fashion Week, hosted a Cosmic Cavern party, been arrested mid-tag in Bushwick, and executed a spat of free paintings on cars.
On a warm Thursday September night, in a far corner of his otherwise dim home/studio in Williamsburg, bright lights shine down onto a painted canvas adhered with junk from Metropolitan Avenue. He drops colorless bits of plastic into wet gesso while talking about how much he dislikes the influence of market on art (and if there’s anything to pin on the guy—he’s a workhorse example of not selling out even if his work sells), the difference between Pop and Surrealism, what the Lower East Side was like back in the day, and what’s cool now.
Interview by Rachel Cole Dalamangas
How do you choose the junk that goes into your work?
Oh, it chooses me. I collect it and then I save it and then one day it comes in handy. It’s crazy. I mean look, look at all this crap. These are jewels, but there are also these little pieces of plastic. I found this in the street, Solo Cup. Right here on Metropolitan Avenue. That’s where I find most of my good stuff.
You just completed a mural at Kings County Hospital. How did the children react to your art?
They were so excited. It’s an institution so it couldn’t be more depressing and you want kids to heal. I felt really good that I was able to do that in that environment because it is really bleak and it’s really needed and it stands out. You can see [the mural] a mile a way, like there’s a sign of life in the hospital. It shows the kids that someone cares because it was done for them and no one else sees it because it’s in a children’s psychiatric ward.
You coined the term “Pop-Surrealism” and in another interview with I Think You’re Swell you described how the cartoons that make it into your work are coming out of your sub-conscious in a stream of thought rather than being intentionally chosen, so I’m curious what you think about contemporary art that’s appropriative.
There’s a fine line between appropriation and just taking something. The fact that the imagery alludes to or has come from common, popular imagery isn’t necessarily coming from the same place as Pop art. I’m a Surrealist purely, and information in my brain has Pop in it and that is just situational because of how I grew up and that’s a really different way of going about using Pop imagery.
We’re all always so inundated by Pop imagery.
Yes, we are. More and more and more. It’s insane. It’s funny because I’ve been using these images from Hanna Barbera and people ask me all the time, “Does Hanna Barbera ever go after you?” and I’m like I almost wish they would. I didn’t ask to be bombarded with this imagery so I’m just responding to what has been thrown at me and regurgitating it. I’m the television generation so the impact of TV was similar maybe to what the Internet has done to the kids today. It’s a similar kind of thing with the screen.
Done with working on “space vomit” while the gesso dries, Scharf suggests we go on his roof because he’s seen the moon earlier that evening and it’s huge and not to be missed he says. A large gray cat—his daughter’s—follows us up to the unlit, unremarkable roof where the sky is purple-gray and the harvest moon sliver by sliver rises above a neighboring building.
Ever since you started out, you’ve run around with some mind blowers, Keith Haring and Jean-Michel Basquiat in particular.
I met Jean-Michel and Keith within my first month of arrival [to New York] and they both became really important, inspiring people in my life.
The friendships were intense?
Yes, they were very intense. Keith and I always got along real well, and Jean-Michel and I had kind of a tumultuous relationship of intensity. They’ve been gone for a long time. They’ve been gone for what, 25 years already, or more. Oh my god, it’s crazy how many years they’ve been gone and how they’re still so important and part of my whole dialogue.
How does that impact your art?
When Jean-Michel died I was still in my 20s. When Keith died I was 30. That was very profound to be a 30-year old survivor. When you’re younger, you expect to lose all these people when you’re old so that was profound in so many ways. They were not only my art friends, they were my cohorts. I kind of felt very lost. It was a really strange feeling back then to be the survivor. Now we’re talking over 25 years later, it serves me in a different way. I feel like I’m continuing a lot of the spirit and philosophy that we had all believed in.
I know you’ve spoken about it before, but could you share some of that philosophy with me now?
It’s an anti-elitist philosophy. I don’t want art to be an elitist thing that only certain people can understand what I’m doing. I know that there’s an elitist audience and I went to art school and I studied art history and I’m aware of that and it’s important to me to be part of that dialogue, but at the same time, I’m also aware of so many people who don’t know about that. It’s important to me to reach out to everyone and offer something for all different audiences, whether it be the art elitist or the art-uninitiated person on the street.
There is also a language of beauty in your work too.
I get inspired by things that I find beautiful and I would think that maybe I could add to the notion of beauty. Not always, but often. I want to express beauty and embrace it.
On that note, I think it’s important to try to discuss what beauty is.
Notions of beauty are so different. There’s the notion of beauty that society says is beautiful and then there are things that a lot of people would find ugly that I find beautiful. For example, what I’m doing now with the space vomit. It’s crap, it’s garbage. I find beauty in things that aren’t necessarily what people would think of as beautiful. I like to find it and bring it out and celebrate the beauty in ugly. If you can get other people to see what you can’t photograph because it’s in your mind, that’s pretty cool and I think Surrealism can definitely do that.
How has New York changed since you arrived?
When I first arrived, it was punk rock. It was a big free for all. It was a very raw place. Here we are sitting in east Williamsburg. Back then we wouldn’t be sitting in east Williamsburg right now. No one would ever want to go here. Where we all lived on the Lower East Side was bombed out enough. I’m sure over here must have been really funky back then. I can’t imagine how funky it was. It was a completely different world. I can’t think of a better place to spawn amazing things.
Why is it that intense landscapes have that impact on art do you think?
Depression, economic depression. A lot of it has to do with the fact that it’s not based on any kind of market. Maybe there was a market, but not so far as we were concerned and what we were doing, and that’s very liberating when you’re not like, “Oh I hope it sells,” or “I hope this collector likes it.” It was the farthest thing anyone ever thought about.
You could find a weird abandoned floor in some building somewhere and claim it as your studio. The opportunity to make things without money—it’s still there actually. That’s why I use all that trash and junk in my work, it’s right there and it’s interesting to me. It has a life, it has a history, it has a meaning beyond what the object is. It has connotations of being garbage. There are so many levels to me about garbage that I find really interesting.
How has your art responded to this change in the landscape?
When I started making art out of trash in the early ’70s, I was using old radios and ’50s refuse. Now I’m finding keyboards and computer pieces and cellphones, so just the actual electronics themselves have changed over the years.
Oh—I just saw a shooting star. It looked so close. (Points to the sky). In the city! It was really bright. It went straight down and then it stopped.
You do have this fascination with space too. Where does that come from?
That comes from my childhood. I was born the year the Space Age started. The first satellite, Sputnik, Russia, took off 1957 and burned up 1958, the year I was born. So my childhood, everything outer space was the huge thing. I was always and still am all for the fantasy of space and what space represents to me is the ultimate spirituality. What is beyond the universe makes you seem very small and it makes your problems and everything we are so concerned about materialistically seem insignificant. That’s the kind of thing that turns me on.
Regarding this “bigger awareness” you mentioned, do you have a spirituality that is being exercised in the creative process?
Totally. My spontaneity in a way is my spirituality because I’m having faith in something outside of myself that will guide me and take me somewhere that I don’t even know. So every single time I’m faced with a big white wall and I’m like, “Here I go,” I’m putting faith out there that something outside of myself is going to come to me and I’m going to bring it out. Every time it’s that exercise in faith that something will get me to that special place. All you are is the facilitator. There’s something big out there and you let it enter you and then you let it out, it comes out your hand, and there it is.
Speaking of technology and the mortal condition, Google just announced that it’s going to try to solve mortality. Which is interesting because the question of class arises and who could afford the benefits of such technology.
Why would you want that? How would you know it’s not better when you’re not living? Maybe you’re just running around out there in outer space. Just because it’s unknown doesn’t mean it’s not 100 billion times better.
You’ve been called an arbiter of cool. So what’s cool now?
When I see kids doing stuff now and I think, “These kids are really cool,” the attitude and their ideas of success are not the traditional ideas of success, like the idea that in order to be successful you have money and this and that and your car and your house and you’re obtaining all these things. I think it’s cool when you can just say, “I’m going to do great stuff, I’m going to create, I want to help, I want to add.”
You know what’s cool? Being conscious. So many people just live and they’re not even aware that they’re part of some whole system designed by people’s pockets. I’m not saying I’m Mr. Perfect and I’m above it because I take airplanes and I go to the store and buy food that was brought in a truck and has packaging on it. It’s not like I’m moving some place off-grid to grow my own food, which is an alternative and I have thought about that before, but I also want to keep my foot a little in this Pop—popular world—so I’m part of it.