Alyssa Shapiro

One Joint With Kenny Scharf

Alyssa Shapiro
One Joint With Kenny Scharf


The pop-surrealist painter Kenny Scharf received his education at New York City’s School of Visual Arts where he studied alongside and befriended the artists he would ultimately come up with, including Jean-Michel Basqiat and Keith Haring. It was then, in the 1980s, that Scharf made his initial impact on the art world through contributions to the East Village interdisciplinary art scene, including the Cosmic Caverns, immersive Day-Glo painted black light installations that doubled as venues for disco parties. (Its first iteration took shape in the apartment Scharf sharing with Haring in Times Square). In 1985, he was selected for the Whitney Biennial, and his work has been shown in exhibitions at the Hammer Museum, the Honor Fraser Gallery in Los Angeles, Jeffrey Deitch in New York, and the MoMA in New York. His paintings aren’t limited to these respected institutions; Scharf’s emotive characters can also be seen on passing cars (he calls them Karbombz) and on the sides of buildings throughout NYC and LA. Elitist he is not. His work is currently on view at the David Klein gallery in Detroit, with a solo show at the Lotte Museum of Art in Seoul, South Korea, opening this October. In preparation, Scharf painted the finishing touch-stars on his paintings while we smoke—I mean spoke.

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Alyssa Shapiro: What’s this two-joint minimum your gallery told me about?

Kenny Scharf: That was a joke.

AS: Well, I came prepared. 

KS: Is it a sativa? As long as I don’t want to go to sleep. I need a daytime, coffee [high], and by nighttime I’m always so tired I don’t need anything to go to sleep.

AS: You just wear yourself out? I brought four, just in case.

KS: I’m painting stars right now, so maybe we can do that at the same time. You have a lighter? Oh, this is very exciting.

AS: So weed factors into your creative life? You smoke all day?

KS: I like to tell people: I’ve been smoking pretty much daily for over 40 years.

AS: What would happen if you took a day off?

KS: Well, one time, my daughter was in school, and there was Just Say No, she was like ‘Dad, you’re a drug addict.’ And I said, ‘No, I’m not.’ And she goes, ‘Well then, why don’t you stop?’ And I said, ‘Well, I can.’ So I stopped for three months. It’s not hard. And then one day I was in my yard, looking up at the trees, and I thought if I smoked a joint, these trees would be so much better [laughs], and that’s when I started again. And it’s true. It’s mother nature, they call it mother nature for a reason.

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AS: Will you tell me about the first time that you got high?

KS: Well, I grew up in Southern California, and when I was 14 I went from public school in the valley to a hippie, private school, Oakwood, it’s still there in North Hollywood. So I was in ninth grade, at a party, you know, whatever. L.A.… Southern California… It’s part of the culture. Where are you from?

AS: Colorado. 

KS: It’s part of the culture there, too. Have you been to the Church of Cannabis? In Denver? Well I painted a mural on the outside of it. It’s a real church, an old church.

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AS: What made you choose art?

KS: I started doing something—not unlike this watery thing you’re looking at that I did before you got here today—finger painting, I was three years old, and I remember it very vividly. The sensation and the excitement. And I never stopped. I swear I’ve been constantly doing it since I was three.

AS: It was never a question?

KS: The only question came up when I got out of high school, and you’re like, ‘Ok now what do I do to make money?’ That’s always the question. It really wasn’t considered something I could do as a living then. My first thought was that I would be a commercial artist—they needed commercial artists more then, because they didn’t have computers to do everything. I was like, ‘Ok, I’m going to take graphic design.’ And I learned stuff, but quickly realized after my first job that I didn’t really like the way I got treated. And I felt if I was going to get taken advantage of and not make any money, I might as well do my own thing. So then I left that and I started to take fine art. And got lucky as hell.

AS: Turned out great for you.

KS: It was a lot easier then than it is now. Because to live in a place like New York City then, it was cheaper than living in any other place. It was cheaper because no one wanted to be there. So that was a really good opportunity for young people without money to live in a real urban environment together. Everything changes, so I’m not saying it should stay the same…

AS: Are you involved in any kind of art scene here like you were in New York?

KS: I know some artists in the neighborhood. I am always knowing artists and hanging out with artists, the only problem is I don’t get time to hang out. I don’t have time to go to openings, or anything.

AS: Is that because of studio hours you keep, and family?

KS: It’s basically my traveling. And I do all this by myself [gestures around the studio]. Nobody else is doing it. It’s a lot of hours.

AS: That’s unusual for an artist who produces the amount of work that you do, not everyone does it all themselves…

KS: Nobody does!

AS: Right. Was that a conscious decision for you?

KS: See, well I don’t really have a game plan. It’s not all mapped out on a computer and I just say, ‘Ok you paint that.’ No, I just make it up on the spot. To me, that’s the fun of it. I mean I have done sculptures where you do all the design and then someone fabricates it. And it’s really cool to have that done those. I don’t know—how would I tell someone what to do when I don’t even know what I’m doing [laughs]? It’s more fun. I can’t imagine having to plan it all out. Planning it out means you have to make a drawing, and then I feel like that’s homework. I don’t like homework.

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AS: Ha. Your work is, from the outside, very bright and pretty happy, but it’s is kind of candy coated on the outside, and then there are deeper issues that, if you look for them, you can see in the canvas. What issues are going into your work now?

KS: It all depends on what work we’re talking about. But all the stuff in this room, all this black background stuff, they’re really just about emotions. The different characters are emotions. You can look at emotions as political, which I guess I do in my own way because I’m reacting to what’s going on and having my own emotions. When I make a freaking out face, to identify it feels kind of good. Even though they’re cartoony blobs, they’re really, I think, conveying emotion. That’s how these might be, you can look at them as, what are emotions? and start thinking in a deeper way. 

These are a lot about relationship and how people can be together, coexisting, but very different. There’s a lot of metaphors you can make up for these pieces. They all change.

AS: The characters and the personalities—those emotions—in your painting, how did you first come up with their form?

KS: I love surrealism. One of my favorite painters from the ‘30s and ‘40s is Yves Tanguy. He was part of the surrealist school with Duchamp, Dali. Tanguy was the guy that looks like these little weird blobby things. Very small on a big canvas. I saw that work at an early age, and Dali’s work. Magritte. I was looking at surrealist art when I was a kid. 

AS: You’ve spoken about your work coming from a subconscious or unconscious place, so how do you tap into those places? Therapy? Does weed lead you? Psychedelics?

KS: Oh. Yeah, all of the above. Sure. I don’t really do psychedelics anymore. It’s not like I’m saying I will never do them again. Every couple years maybe. But when I was younger I experimented. And definitely, you learn a lot from it. And then weed, they call it Mother Nature. It gets you in touch with the things that I want to be in touch with. I’m really into plants and trees and flowers, those are the good things. I want to be more in tune with those. 

I know there’s all this shit going on at the same time, there’s sirens and people getting killed, crazy shit all the time. I know that exists and I want to help. By focusing on the good stuff that cannabis can do—I think if everybody was on cannabis instead of other freaky drugs, everybody would be in a much better place. 

AS: What’s the best thing to ever happen to you?

KS: Right now it’s my grandkids. They’re four and six. I see them all the time. They actually help me paint sometimes. I let them throw paint. People have no idea how great the grandparent thing is; I’m free like I was before the kids to be 100% into my art, yet I still have all that cuteness around.

AS: I know you came up in the art world with Jean-Michel Basquiat and Keith Haring. Can you share your favorite memory with them?

KS: Oh god, there are so many. I just liked walking around the streets with them, and everyone would do their little thing. Walking around, showing off for each other, by drawing without getting caught or whatever.

AS: On buildings?

KS: Yeah. Back in the east village, we all lived in the east village.

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AS: One more question: can I ask you to draw your inner self?

KS: That’s easy. So, my birthday—this I found out later—is these numbers, right? So this symbol, something that I’ve been doing forever, way before I found out that this symbol is the Fibonacci sequence, which is the mathematical sequence for a spiral, which goes 1+1 is 2, +3 is 5, goes on to infinity. So I always was using spirals before I knew that. Spirals were always just that thing that would slide off my hand.

AS: That’s very Jungian.

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KS: [Going back to painting stars] See, I’m playing god.

Photographed and interviewed at Kenny Scharf’s studio in Inglewood, CA.