Kenny Scharf Biography

Hollywood, 1958

Born in 1958 in Hollywood, California, Kenny Scharf spent much of his childhood watching television, 'two inches from the screen,' as he tells it. 'I remember staring into it, and just watching the different, intense, brilliant colors change all the time.' Not surprisingly, he credits shows such as The Jetsons, The Flintstones, and The Munsters as being more influential upon his brightly colored, phantasmagoric images than any art historical movement or style. This aside, it was unarguably Andy Warhol who determined Scharf's choice of career. Following a year of college in Santa Barbara (where he was introduced to Warhol's work in an art history class) he took off for New York to be near the Pop Art master. There he enrolled in the School of Visual Arts and befriended the likes of Keith Haring, John Sex, and Jean- Michel Basquiat, all of whom were soon to be hitting the headlines: in the art press and beyond.

During this time he created paintings that combined domestic environments with outlandish creatures and alien plants. Barbara Simpson's New Kitchen from 1978, for example, featured a suburban housewife poised at her kitchen sink with a strange hybrid beast - half dragon, half cat - standing equally poised in front of her. From such works Scharf's quirky sense of humor emerged, as did his characteristically exotic universe - one populated by wild, animated plants, strange blob-like forms with wide grins and clown noses, loopy abstract swirls, atmospheric planets, dinosaurs, and cartoon characters, amongst other assorted motifs. Though his work has transformed itself over the years, it has maintained its wit, brio, and 'anything-can-happen' attitude.

On graduating in 1980, Scharf and Haring moved into a loft in Times Square, where they would be roommates for two years. During this time, Scharf's penchant for customizing his immediate surroundings - decorating TVs, phones, walls, and furniture with crazy, painted patterns, toy dinosaurs and plastic baubles - became more active. Transforming a local coffee shop (the Hippodrome) was his first 'public project' - a temporary one as it turned out. Seeing dusty, fake green plants hanging in the otherwise bright yellow shop, Scharf approached the owner one afternoon with an idea to recolor the plants in blue and pink. To Scharf's surprise, the man agreed, though two weeks later the place was torn down.

Projects like this, as well as Scharf's ties to the East Village scene and its so-called 'graffiti aesthetic' laid the groundwork for his career's explosion into the critical and public realm. Spraying mutated versions of TV icons such as Fred Flintstone all over Manhattan also raised his profile. Says Scharf: 'The street recognition clicked with the paintings and people said, "Hey, I know this guy."' In 1985, Scharf, Basquiat, Haring and Francesco Clemente all created installations for New York's Palladium nightclub: a concerted intermingling of scenes that was characteristic of the decade.

The desire to transform everyday objects into contemporary art and to blur the lines between low and high culture exemplifies Scharf's relationship to Pop Art, and culminated in the opening of 'Scharf Schaks' in Miami Beach and Manhattan's SoHo, where Scharf products - t-shirts, hats, and other items - were sold. The artist nevertheless differentiates his practice from Pop, describing it as 'Pop-Surrealism'. The iconography of popular culture has, he believes, become so deeply embedded within the social psyche that it is absorbed unwittingly and unconsciously, disallowing the kind of cool detachment and ironic reflection that characterized the work of his predecessors. Scharf's work is at heart socially engaged.

In the late 80s, he moved away from biomorphism to make critical paintings that used super-realist 50s advertising imagery on Abstract Expressionist backgrounds. Some of his subsequent works, such as his jungle-inspired paintings, have been pointedly ecological, while a number have dwelt on Aids. Many others, though, conjure possible worlds, as writer Richard D Marshall suggests: 'Disguised as lurid, day-glo colored cartoon heads; Scharf's subjects present a surreal, yet achievable reality of a harmonious cohabitation of man, nature and the cosmos.'

His art is therefore also distinguished by its essential hopefulness. 'We're stuck with all these images, and all this media crap,' notes Scharf. 'Everybody's so wrapped up in it, but what's really important in our own world and life is completely different. So the highest priority is not the Pop imagery, it's something beyond, the cosmic inspiration.' So we see that, in fact, it is the longing for a transformative experience - be it through humor or fantasy - that is the true heart of Scharf's work.


Guggenheim Museum, New York

Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam, The Netherlands

Whitney Museum of American Art, New York

Eli Broad Foundation, Los Angeles

Sogetsu Museum, Tokyo


'Kenny Scharf', Gagosian Gallery, Beverly Hills, California, USA, 2000

'Heads, Small Paintings and Closet #16', Galerie Hans Mayer, Berlin, Germany, 1999

'Vivid Vision', Tony Shafrazi Gallery, New York, 1997

'Scharf-O-Rama Vision: 1978-1995', Museum of Art, Fort Lauderdale, Florida, USA, 1995

'Celebration of the Space Age', Club 57, New York, 1979


'The American Century: Art and Culture, 1950-2000', The Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, 1999

'Comic Iconoclasm', ICA, London, 1987

'Biennial 1984', Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, 1985

'Aperto '84', Venice Biennale, Venice, Italy, 1984

'The Human Conditions', Museum of Modern Art, San Francisco, California, USA, 1984


Brooks, Ian and Casadio, Manuccia, 'Funtasy side-art of Kenny Scharf', L'Uomo Vogue, May/June 1999

Smith, Roberta, 'Kenny Scharf', The New York Times, February 20, 1998

'Self-Portrait by Kenny Scharf', The New Yorker, March 1, 1991

O'Brien, Glenn, 'Review', Artforum, March, 1985

Cameron, Dan, 'Saint Kenny and the Culture Dragon', Arts Magazine, January, 1984

'Sex and Death and Shock and Schlock - A Long Review of the Times Square Show', Artforum, October, 1980