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Pop, Street, Whatever: The Undeniable Relevance of Kenny Scharf


Pop, Street, Whatever: The Undeniable Relevance of Kenny Scharf
We see Scharf’s technically accomplished ability in Black Rubble (2012), a work that realised USD $187,500 at Christies, August this year. Image courtesy of Christie's

"I think it’s Pop, but there’s spray paint so maybe it’s street art… No no, it's definitely Contemporary Art!”.

The fluidity and blurriness of artistic styles has always been up for debate. For art historians and scholars, perhaps the quest to clearly define an artistic style is a matter of specialising in a field of study or a period in time. But for most of us, is it really that fruitful to draw such distinct boundaries on what kind of Art it is? 

Today, not only do artistic genres crossover; rather we find ourselves in a place where luxury, design, and art converge. Artists like KAWS or Takashi Murakami have collaborated with fashion designers, while Sneakers are being sold in Major Auction Houses for hundreds of thousands of dollars. As a result, the term street art has been broadly thrown around for art that reflects our street culture. Oftentimes, these beginnings began with Graffiti but now, we find canvas works, prints, toys, and even sneakers falling under that multifaceted umbrella. 

Kenny Scharf's wall for Wynwood, Image courtesy of Wynwood Walls

When we think of street art today, we think, “Banksy!” but did such a world exist before the Banksy craze? Who were the pioneers of Street that elevated the world of Graffiti from kitschy vandalism to high-brow bidding? 

One of these pioneers is Kenny Scharf (b. 1958). A week after moving to New York from his native California in 1978, Scharf met Keith Haring and Jean-Michel Basquiat in his early 20s. Scharf, Haring and Basquiat took to the streets of the East Village and spearheaded the graffiti art scene of the late 1970s and early 1980s. Scharf and Haring lived together in a Times Square loft in the early '80s, where the two greatly had an influence on each other's careers. Scharf is playfully referred to as the "Hieronymus Bosch of Kool-aid, sci-fi, space-age kulture," in a 1984 New York Times review. The Californian’s work consisted of vivid, spray-painted fantasias in a style he dubbed as ‘Pop surrealism’.


Horizontal Blockheads - Kenny Scharf


Chilaxia - Kenny Scharf

Scharf has always subverted images in popular culture. His paintings of cartoon characters, such as the Flintstones or the Jetson’s might have worm-like bodies and be distorted over a space-age background exploding with colour. Scharf was following the advice he’d received as a very young man ‘to paint what you love’, and what he loved were the cartoons of Hanna-Barbera.‘It’s a masterly combination of the figurative and the abstract,’ says Noah Davis, who is the Post-War and Contemporary Art specialist at Christie’s (Christie’s, “When street art and cartoon culture collide — Kenny Scharf’s Black Rubble”, July 2020). Noah also adds that Scharf’s early work has the raw energy you’d expect from an artist associated with graffiti.

Kenny Scharf Mural on the former Deitch Projects wall, Image courtesy of Huff Post

We get the Pop, but why Surrealism? Well, one reason might be that while we find ways to cope with the Coronavirus Pandemic right now, Scharf dealt with the AIDS Pandemic back in the 80s - which eventually took the life of his dear friend, Keith Haring. For Scharf, maybe the cartoony and fantastical world he creates is meant for us to laugh and escape to a brighter reality of the world we live in. And, it seems rather fitting that Scharf made this freely available for us on the bustling streets of New York City, where we can often get caught up in the world of materialism and consumerism. 

Art Critic Linda Yablonsky said in a statement, “He worked with a speed necessitated by police who treated street artists as vandals, rather than as highly moral citizens who pushed back against officials to humanize the city they’d left for dead and make it a nicer, even a dazzling, place to live" (Estiler, Keith. "Kenny Scharf Creates New Pop Surrealist Paintings for New York Exhibition". Hypebeast. 2020).  Scharf seemed driven to provide the New York downtown art and club scene with sweeter eye candy, everywhere and all the time.

When the Worlds Collide - Kenny Scharf, Image courtesy of the Whitney Museum of American Art

The Whitney Biennale in 1985 was pivotal in shaping the way we view street art today. It reflected the art world's rising interest in graffiti artists -- bridging the gap between the institutional high brow art world and kitschy street artists that was once considered vandalism. 

This eventually paved the way for the institutionalisation and public admiration for contemporary street artists, who are able to fetch millions of dollars in Auction today. One of the first paintings the viewer saw at the Biennial was Scharf’s enormous and variegated mural, ‘When the Worlds Collide’. ‘Street art has become such a hugely popular genre, and Scharf’s influence on key figures such as Invader and KAWS is clear’, says Noah Davis, Post-War and Contemporary Art specialist at Christie’s.


Racecide - Kenny Scharf

Scharf's work has now been shown at the Venice Biennale; his paintings are included in the permanent collections of the Whitney and the Guggenheim in New York, the Ludwig Museum in Cologne, Germany, the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam, the Monterrey Museum of Art in Mexico and the Sogetsu Museum of Art in Tokyo.

Where the intersection of art and consumerist culture can often be taboo, much like a MoMA gift store, or a Basquiat x Coach handbag collaboration, Kenny Scharf is someone who has always challenged and embraced the fluidity of our artistic narrative. And, it is only a matter of time until Scharf receives the recognition and praise that his friends, Keith Haring and Jean-Michel Basquiat received.


Blah Blobs - Kenny Scharf

The Artling is happy to announce that we will be launching a street art category very soon as part of our website. Our street art category will feature works by exciting and emerging street artists from all over the world, along with works by Yoshitomo Nara and Kenny Scharf. 

Click here to see Kenny Scharf's available works on The Artling!

Browse our wide selection of artworks from our curated art collection here.

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