A Conversation with Kenny Scharf

An exclusive interview with artist Kenny Scharf at his Los Angeles studio by Galerie Perrie founder Gabé Hirschowitz

Picasso once said, “Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once he grows up.” Perhaps for many of us that’s a tightrope we will never be able to walk, but for iconic contemporary artist Kenny Scharf, balancing the acumen of a professional painter with childlike wonder, innovation and creativity is just one of his many talents.

Scharf’s calm, cool, and creative energy instantly produces a feeling of ease and excitement as you step into his world: his Los Angeles art studio, where he’s worked for nearly 20 years, is itself a triumph of the creative spirit,  an environment in which the artist can be free and, in many ways, revert back to childhood. Every feature is personal and special, from the trees he personally planted in the front yard to his colorful, paint-filled walls, to his paintbrush collection.

Of course, for anyone familiar with Scharf’s work, the impression that his studio is a paean to creative innocence is hardly surprising, as he attributes much of his genius to growing up in post-war Southern California, amid the buzz of Golden Age Hollywood, the advent of TV, and the futuristic modern-design movement of the 1950s and ‘60s. Eventually, these influences would make him one of the foremost avant-garde painters of New York’s 1980s art scene, in which he collaborated with the likes of Jean-Michel Basquiat and his former roommate Keith Haring to develop a unique, do-it-yourself approach to street art, fashion, video, sculpture, painting, and performance art.

Ever the innovator, Scharf’s career has since continued to take him in ever more fascinating directions, and today pieces of his reside in the likes of the Whitney, LACMA, MOCA, The Hammer, and MoMa, among many others. As for commercial success, he has had plenty of that as well; for example, this year he collaborated with Dior Men’s Artistic Director Kim Jones to create an iconic fashion line that had everyone buzzing.

Still, Scharf’s childlike kindness has also meant that he’s never let all this success go to his head: for instance, recently he donated and painted an art mural placed in Downtown Los Angeles’s Skid Row in support of non-profit LA Mission, one of the nation’s largest providers of support to homeless individuals. Suffice it to say, then, Kenny is not only a dear friend but also one of my personal heroes and I was especially excited to have the chance to sit down with him and discuss his life and work.

Gabé: What’s your strongest memory of your childhood?

Kenny Scharf: I do have a childhood memory of enjoying painting. Nursery school. Finger painting. Three years old. I still remember it like it was yesterday. The colors. The way it looked. Everything. […] I already knew then that that’s what I wanted to do. And I have been doing it ever since.

Gabé: What’s your favorite color?

Kenny Scharf: It all depends on my mood, really. If it’s really cold out, I might want red to warm me up. If it’s really hot out, I might be looking for greens and blues. […] Actually, I’m more into not so much colors, but color combos. I really like opposites. So I like orange and blue, purple and yellow, red and green–those are the opposites and I get excited when the opposites are next to each other.

Gabé: What superpower would you have and why?

Kenny Scharf: It would be fun to fly. And why? Because I think it would be fun, and I mean, there’s so many things you could do if you could fly. [chuckles]. Fly to anything. It would be fun to make murals, like anywhere you want. […] You could just go to the top of a giant building and paint on it.

Gabé: What is one item that you cannot live without? 

Kenny Scharf: Nature. Trees. I need trees.

Gabé: What food, drink, and music inspire you?

Kenny Scharf: Spicy food inspires me. I always like hot, spicy things. Ah Drink? Depends, I mean, tequila can be inspiring! I listen to music all the time, when I’m working and even when I’m not and I just like lots of different kinds of music. It really depends on my mood. […] I like the Blues. I like Jazz, Brazilian music, Samba, Punk Rock. I like everything really … just so many different kinds of music.

Gabé: What person, dead or alive, would you invite for dinner? 

Kenny Scharf: Do I want education? Do I want entertainment? It’s hard to say. […] Let’s just say Hieronymus Bosch. He might be really scary. Can you imagine what he was like as a person? Did he even eat? Seems like he was just on a spiritual plain or something.

Gabé: What role does the artist have in society?

Kenny Scharf: Well, there is not one role. There are many roles. It all depends on which role you want to take. I mean, some artists are just satisfied selling stuff and having it hang on a wall, and they make a living and there’s nothing wrong with that. And some artists want more. They want to change the world through art.

Gabé: Do you feel like your art is changing the world?

Kenny Scharf: I’m not sure it’s changing the world, but I definitely want to inspire and reach out to get people thinking, and I do want to make an impact on the world more than just being in the art world. I feel like the world itself is the place. Not like I don’t like the art world or don’t want to be a part of, but I always felt and still do feel that I want to get out of the confines of this world and just be in the world generally.

Gabé: What do you dislike about the art world?

Kenny Scharf: I don’t like the obsession or fixation on the price of things. I remember when I first started that when people talked about art they focused on what the art was and what it meant and how it kind of made an impact in our history and that seemed to be the focus. And now it seems to be how much something sold for, which I find to be kind of sad. I don’t condemn, obviously, art for money because that’s how I make my living, but I do find it to be sad when people talk only about the price of something. […] They’ll say “such and such or so and so sold something on auction for this, and they’re like, ‘Oh, wow!’  and no one says, ‘What was the piece? What was the piece about?’ You know? There’s no discussion anymore. And I find that the business side of art has pretty much taken over the real critical thinking and talking about art.

Gabé: What’s the best piece of advice you’ve been given?

Kenny Scharf: I often tell this to younger artists that are wanting success and getting their name or their foot in the door or a gallery. […] The main thing is just not to worry about it and focus on the work. Just focus on making really great things that are so compelling that a gallery will want to have your art. It doesn’t go the other way around. You can’t get a gallery unless you’ve got the work. Thinking about a gallery or thinking about your career or whatever is not going to help you make great work. So, that’s what I think.