Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Tue Jun 22, 2021 11:19 am 
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A Vibrant Portrait of the LA-Based Pop Art Icon,
Co-Directed by His Daughter,
Launches in Theaters and Virtual Cinemas on Friday, June 25

This film by daughter Malia Scharf and cinematographer/director Max Basch, an 11-year project, is a generous portrait of colorful pop-style artist Kenny Scharf, a key figure of the early New York East Village eighties art boom close to eighties American art giants Keith Haring and Jean-Michel Basquiat, though he shares neither their tragic early death nor quite their current blue chip status. This is a complication that is an important part of this film.

Any film about this period feels personal to me, as one who, in my own quiet way, rode the art boom myself. It was the best of times and the worst of times: with its Yuppies and its eight years of Ronald Reagan and its AIDS devastation one felt as terror and tragedy living gay in San Francisco, it was the worst of times. But it was when I was in love, revived by a return to California and making art after a year of exotic stagnation in Morocco. It was the moment when in a few years my art career jump started. The superstar artists of the time, lodged in the East Coast, were a beacon and an amazement from afar. Only Haring and Basquiat, because Scharf was so close to them, play a part here. Others of equal fame, like Julian Schnabel, David Salle, and Eric Fischl, are not mentioned.

The film is nonetheless full of of good footage of the period's vibrant lower Manhattan creative ferment, when the city's economic devastation created a wasteland where young, poor artists and art students could flourish with their own artist-friendly clubs, like Club 57. With talking heads and Kenny's own present day interviews, this is a lively, light, emotional film that depicts a happy, vibrant time, but also the devastation of AIDS and Scharf's economic dead time when his work stopped selling and he fled New York.

While this is, early on at least, as much about the time as about Kenny, it's a film that's necessarily biased and personal, and generously projects Kenny's fun-loving, pop sensibility, his art-making obsession, his passion for fun, silly things, for trash and for plastic. It shows us a lot of his art, and it's very interesting, some of it very beautiful. It's more varied than we may have known. I particularly like the dark post-AIDS work, glimpsed here; its combination of buoyant pop imagery with the darkness of tragedy is fresh and unexpected and I wish there were more of it (was there?). This film is really isn't meant as an explicit art critic's or collector's delineation of the range and variety of the artist's work as it a lively, profusely illustrated account of his life as an artist and of the period. It may leave out some important details: it may underplay dealer Tony Shafrazi's role in the artist's early successes.

Kenny, who lives back in his native Los Angeles today after an interlude in Florida, came from Southern California, where he was originally born and raised, to New York in the late seventies, and got a BFA at School of the Visual Arts, where he said "they take anyone," and was soon in the thick of it, the club scene, the art scene, making art every day and partying every night.

He and Keith Haring were like brothers. (Only later do we see Kenny today revealing he had a gay side, that he would now be called sexually fluid, a bisexuality which may have been a key element to their bonding.) He was good buddies also with Jean-Michel Basquiat for a while, and numerous photos show the tree of them pressed together to pose. The Basquiat friendship's decline Kenny insists was not a falling out though he's unable to explain it. A great deal of period footage shows Haring, and Haring and Kenny. There is relatively little of Basquiat or mention of him.

We see a lot of Kenny's work, street art, murals, wall art, constructions, installations, and painting on anything, from appliances to furniture to clothes. We see the artist making paintings with brushes and spray cans. We learn about street art and how it came to life then - he, Haring, and Basquiat all were street artists first. No one exactly describes Kenny's imagery. In a live description he makes his paintings sound very random but another description by Ed Ruscha points out his work is careful. Clearly it's bright, shiiny, precise, drawn in part from a television-obsessed fascination with early animated and Hana Barbara cartoons and bright and shiny and 3D-on-a-flat wall surface, rounded, highlighted, full of serpentine twirls and buggy eyes on the end of stalks. These are my observations; they are not offered by voices in the film. Part of any film like this is simply the opportunity to see the work in quantity looking alive, in a sympathetic atmosphere. That we get here.

Kenny reports going to cities primarily for their garbage and finding the garbage of Bahia best. His wife is Brazilian, met on the plane on his first trip to Brazil with SVA friend Bruno Schmidt (one of the warmest talking heads).

Depicting the times, Scharf, and his work, many voices are heard and heads talk, including (I'm trying to list them all): Dennis Hopper, Yoko Ono, Ed Ruscha, curator Jeffrey Deitch, collector/publisher Peter Brant, artist friend and Juxtapoz mag founder Robert Williams, artist Marilyn Minter, Rose Scharf Kenny's mother, childhood friend Stefan Hayes, gallerist Tony Shafrazi, art critic Carter Ratclif, Whitney curator Jane Panetta, Brazilian-Italian SVA artist friend Bruno Schmidt, English artist (girl-)friend Samantha McEwen, Fab 5 Freddy, artist friend Kitty Brophy,writer historian Carlo McCormick, art critic Linda Yablonsky, wife Tereza Scharf, former assistant/friend Min Sanchez, collectors Andy and Christine Hall, arty real estate developer Tony Goldman, artist Kaws, and curator Dan Cameron.

As there was an element of infantilism (noted in voiceover and shown in film clips) among the eighties art stars. Kenny Scharf in turn, with his childlike love of art fun, is described as never having been practical, always losing his checkbook or passport. He also had a hard time facing up to the tragedy of AIDS. The disease is described here as the eighties generation's "nuclear holocaust." It destroyed at least a third of the best artists of the time. Weeping, thirty years later, Scharf describes to his wife holding Keith Haring's hand and coaxing him into an acceptance of death. AIDS and Haring's death devastated Kenny and led him to flee the tragedy, moving to Miami with his wife and children. Today, his wife says she thinks it might have been better if he had stayed in New York and "pushed through" his troubles.

Anyway, Kenny's work became unfashionable, and his work was not selling. An art dealer talking head notes how rare it is for any artist to become known. (This might apply better to me than to Kenny.) Apropos of his economic bad period, Scharf says art making was all he has ever known - he has never been "a businessman," and had, apparently, no teaching, writing, or other alternative way to make money when the art stopped selling.

The film isn't very specific about dates and details of the long period between the early 1990's and the 2020's. Scharf appears highly productive today, with a big studio, but also a lot of public and informal art made out and about, like signs and murals and the spray-painting a clown face on an admiring young black man's jacket at his spur-of-the-moment request.

The West Coast artist Ed Ruscha is a friend and supporter and his respect obviously carries weight here. So does the friend who says what makes Kenny "a mensch" is that with him family has always come first. Scenes over the years suggest Scharf has been a good father and his artist's family has been a fun place, with all the crazily "customized," Scharf-ed objects around declaring every inch to be a house of art and fun. He always looks healthy and in shape. Dare one guess that Kenny didn't do a lot of drugs? If he did, that would be a fact that's glazed over. We do hear from addiction expert Gabor Maté, but not about drugs or recovery.

The film follows the now gray and bearded but youthfully leather-jacketed Kenny and his wife to the major Jan.-May 2017 Whitney Museum "Fast Forward" retrospective of American art of the eighties, where the giant joint 1985 painting by him and Keith Haring When Worlds Collide was prominently displayed. In the work, Haring's art appears to be a giant black and white frame for Scharf's large colorful painting in the center. He says the painting's intended meaning is that there can be calm in the middle of chaos. It also signifies that he is a significant part of eighties American art that must not be forgotten. Younger people keep saying they have never heard of Kenny Scharf. That just means they don't thoroughly know the American art of the eighties.

At the film's end it takes a rest and stays with him, showing both him at work and colorful worlds he has made, which celebrate magical multicolored rooms using black light and objects to create a childlike world of psychedelic color. He says the time has come for the environment he creates, "The world has caught up with me." His showmanship, his work is art that invades life, in a spirit of celebration crashing boundaries between fine art and popular culture, boundaries this film says are more and more coming down right now, today.

This may be true. But despite Scharf's impressive productivity, it's not just their early demise that makes Haring and Basquiat seem the more distinctive artists - and Basquiat the one whose complexity and intellectual depth make him the one of all the eighties superstars whose work keeps on giving, and growing in the world's admiration.

Kenny Scharf: When Worlds Collide, 80 mins., debuted at SXSW Mar. 2020 and also has been shown at Slamdance (Park City), Woodstock, Annapolis, Perth, Provincetown, DocNYC, and other festivals. It opens in select theaters and virtual cinemas nationwide, including New York, LA, Chicago, Miami, San Francisco (The Roxie), Boston, Seattle, Minneapolis, Houston, Portland, and Denver: June 25, 2021

Review by Drew Rowsome in My Gay Toronto, "Guilty of the 'f' word: Fun."

Review by Caroline Ely in Film Forward, "Naiveté came naturally to Tiny Tim. For artist Kenny Scharf, is it schtick?"





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