The Documentary ” Kenny Scharf “
80’s Downtown New York Cult Figure Searching for Fun
For the general public, the Downtown New York scene of the era is related to two artists: Keith Haring and Jean-Michel Basquiat. Their work is still the subject of record-breaking auctions, major surveys, and partnerships with clothing brands. But we should not forget other artists who made significant contributions. People like Tseng Kwong Chi, Greer Lankton, David Wojnarowicz, and Martin Wong, who all died of AIDS-related causes. Perhaps the 80’s Downtown scene we remember is not what it really was.
What is This Documentary About?
The new documentary called Kenny Scharf: When Worlds Collide is about a close friend to both Basquiat and Haring and tries to prove it. Scharf may have been the third-most famous artist of the era, with less reputation compared to his friends. He has never been the subject of a super-sized retrospective and his auction record stands at something about a fraction of what Basquiat paintings can attract. This film, Directed by Max Basch and Malia Scharf, centers Scharf in his cultural period.
Since today people rewrite 80’s art history to show artists of color and under-recognized queer artists, it seems an odd goal. But the positive point is that this documentary goes about its mythologizing in a way that befits its subject. It shows the brash sensibility of Scharf’s art. His paintings are phantasmagoric worlds full of smiley figures rendered in Day-Glo tones.
Characteristics of Scharf’s work
The paintings may look childish to some, but Scharf once said to him, this is serious art. Carlo McCormick, a critic, says this high quality of Scharf’s work is a result of the anxieties of his generation. A generation who were promised a great world, but didn’t find it.
Scharf, dissatisfied with middle-class living in the city, chose to relocate to New York in 1979. In NY Andy Warhol spurred him on by how he made art fun. He attended the School of Visual Arts, where he linked up with Haring.
Soon, he was producing jokey video art, painting TVs in bright hues, and changing his apartment to an artwork to vanish the distinction between his art and his life.
There was something special about Scharf and his cohort that anyone could feel. Basquiat once said he knew Scharf was gonna be famous the moment they met. Basquiat appreciated Scharf’s disregard for the art world and everything it stood for and ignoring haughty conceptualism and French theory in his works.
Scharf didn’t need the art world to operate. According to Jane Panetta, Whitney Museum curator, his idea was to make art less precious and more accessible by working outside, in urban spaces.
By the late 80s, the excitement surrounding him had begun to attract attention. At that time, the Downtown scene grew commercial and figures like Basquiat and Haring got famous.
The Movie Kenny Scharf
The film shows these years with an attempt to puff up Scharf, awkwardly placed at the center of the scene and tragedies take place around him. In a part about the AIDS crisis, there is a memorable sequence in which Scharf is on Haring’s deathbed. This gives way to a bizarre montage showing images of other artists who died of AIDS-related complications, like Tseng Kwong Chi and John Sex. These artists are not given more than just a name and a face in this documentary. The strangeness goes on: the story of how Scharf found love in Brazil and married a woman whom he met on a plane is what you see next.
The other issue is Scharf’s art itself: why hasn’t his art become more famous in the following decades? Obviously, we can’t ask a film co-directed by his daughter to show the true art-historical value of his work. In 1988, Roberta Smith, the critic, wrote that Scharf’s early works tended toward visual overkill and a frenetic optimism. She believed his new works are better, with a color of darkness as a reflection of the current mood and can be counted as a step toward maturity. But we can’t say she was right. Three decades later, Rachel Wetzler addressed Scharf’s newest paintings as idiotic canvases which are a riot aesthetically.
But the movie is more interested in asserting that the art world just doesn’t like having fun rather than examining the formal qualities and the concepts behind Scharf’s art.
The kind of art Scharf creates is now accepted in the art world to some extent. We can see them in museums and it performs well on the market. Scharf’s work seems to need a revival, but he is too busy caring about entertainment.