I’m standing in a dark garage in an anonymous Brooklyn neighborhood, an area where unprepossessing strips of row houses give way to old factories. In the gloom, I can see my breath (it is a bone-chilling January morning). And I can barely make out what appears to be a dangerous-looking mound of debris.
The lights flicker on. And it’s as if I’ve woken up in the middle of a hallucination. All around me are heaps of old toys, astronomical arrangements of discarded paper cups and random bits of plastic—all drenched in luminous Day-Glo colors and illuminated by black light. Before me, a six-foot tower of bright plastic pumpkins rises out of an old paint bucket. Dangling from the ceiling is a vast array of incandescent objects: a paint-splattered record player, a nuclear-orange tennis racket, and a handful of electric-blue hair. (At least I think it’s hair.)
“This is the Cosmic Cavern,” says the man standing next to me. He is none other than Kenny Scharf, denizen of the Manhattan downtown scene of the ’80s, friend of Jean-Michel Basquiat, former roommate of Keith Haring, and painter of a galactic array of psychedelic inkblot cartoon characters. The “Cosmic Cavern” we are standing in is a grand version of the “Cosmic Closet,” a fantastical room-size construction Scharf built in his apartment in the early ’80s that ultimately morphed into full-blown installations at MoMA PS1 and the 1985 Whitney Biennial. The current Cavern is on the ground floor of his Brooklyn studio and is used for parties whenever he’s in town.
“I stand right by the door and paint everyone’s face as they come in,” he explains. “The whole point is you just come and dance and have fun.”
Having fun has always been Scharf’s principal M.O. “There’s no reason not to,” he says matter-of-factly, even if the years haven’t been a steady party. Scharf was white hot in the ’80s, known for his loopy, Pop-saturated paintings that featured cartoon figures, space-age skyscapes, and visuals plucked straight out of commercial design. He was profiled in magazines and newspapers and featured in prestigious museum group shows. But as the ’90s rolled in, things cooled. Fellow scenesters Basquiat and Haring died young. The fervor for Pop art waned as conceptualism and minimalism came into vogue. In the early ’90s, Scharf left New York City for Miami. Six years later, he moved to Los Angeles, where he was born and raised and where he now keeps his principal home and studio.
Since then, his projects and exhibitions have occasionally brought his name back into the headlines. In 1996, Scharf had his first solo museum show, at the Museo de Arte Contemporáneo in Monterrey, Mexico. In 2002, he worked on an animated series called The Groovenians for the Cartoon Network (which didn’t get past the pilot). And in 2004, he was featured in the group show “East Village USA” at the New Museum.
On each occasion, the media talked of a comeback. Scharf says he has learned to ignore the chatter, preferring to focus on the art. “I’ve been in and out of fashion so many times,” he says. “The first time it happened, I was like, ‘Oh my god, this is terrible—they’ve dropped me!’ But then I was popular again. And then suddenly no one was calling anymore. But then things get good. These days, I don’t take it too seriously. You just can’t.”
Now, at 52, Scharf is enjoying a fertile patch. Last October he collaborated with the Virginia Beach art collective Dearraindrop for a show at The Hole, a new SoHo space run by former Deitch Projects directors Kathy Grayson and Meghan Coleman. In January he opened a two-part solo show at the Paul Kasmin Gallery and its related project space in Chelsea: a series of large, surreal naturescapes, along with three-dozen paintings of donuts, inspired in part by midcentury advertising. And now (through August 8) his work is featured in “Art in the Streets,” an exhibition exploring the history of graffiti and its influences, at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles. “The past couple of years,” says Scharf, “have been very good.”
Kasmin, who has represented the artist for about a decade, says that younger people have begun to discover Scharf. “New generations of artists are vocally embracing his influence,” Kasmin wrote in an e-mail from Istanbul, where he was overseeing construction on his new gallery. Currently being planned for the new space is an exhibition of Scharf’s work, which is priced between $35,000 for smaller pieces and $250,000 for oversize canvases.
Dan Cameron, the director of Prospect New Orleans and the curator behind Scharf’s 1996 museum show in Mexico, thinks that the recent interest in the artist is part of art history’s 30-year cycle. “It usually takes the art world that long to get serious about looking at a particular period,” he explains. Cameron has known Scharf since the ’80s and included his work in the first exhibition he ever curated—a show in a nightclub. He thinks that the upper echelons of the art world have underestimated Scharf’s talent. The Monterrey show was his only solo museum exhibition; there have been no midcareer surveys or retrospectives.
“He’s an important artist who is too easily overlooked as a lightweight,” says Cameron, who compares Scharf’s distinctive surrealism to that of Peter Saul, another painter who has received institutional acknowledgement late in life. “There’s an inventiveness there—in the way he uses abstraction, color, shading, and composition. He’s very skilled and has extended the medium into new forms.”
When it comes to creating work, Scharf generally eschews sketches and studies, preferring to let his subconscious guide his hand. He attributes having been overlooked by institutions to the fact that so much of his imagery is inspired by cartoons. “I think it’s been a stumbling block for people to take my work seriously,” he says. “But, as a painter, I think the language of cartoons is really important—it’s very American.”
It’s not a language he’s about to give up. Scharf remains a diehard fan of The Jetsons and The Flintstones, along with vintage commercial design. He also remains true to the idea that thoughtful art can be fun—even if life isn’t always.
Carolina A. Miranda is a freelance writer in New York and a regular contributor to WNYC. She blogs at C-Monster.net.