Colourful, cartoonish faces and figures define the unmistakable visual language of Kenny Scharf. Born in Los Angeles, he found fame as part of New York’s 1980s East Village art scene alongside his friends Keith Haring and Jean-Michel Basquiat. Like Haring and Basquiat, he was mentored by the Pop titan Andy Warhol, and became a pioneer of contemporary street art. His most famous works include his ‘Cosmic Caverns’: immersive, glowing painted environments soundtracked by live DJs. The first, known as the ‘Cosmic Closet’, was installed in the Times Square apartment he shared with Haring in 1981. Showing at iconic venues such as the Fun Gallery throughout the early 1980s, he shot to international acclaim after his appearance at the Whitney Biennial in 1985.
One of Scharf’s key aims is to break down the boundary between fine art and popular culture. A celebrated graffiti artist, some of his most popular works include huge public murals. For his ongoing ‘Karbombz’ series, he has sprayed more than 260 cars with playful cartoonish faces. These smiling, amorphous beings populate almost all his paintings. Characters from the Flintstones and the Jetsons also appear in alien, vibrant settings. ‘That’s where I’m from — the TV generation,’ he says. Scharf uses the term ‘Pop Surrealist’ to describe his practice, which is both uniquely personal and engaged with the wider world.
Scharf’s popularity has risen over recent years. Large-scale works from the 1980s have soared in value, and his more recent paintings are no less sought-after. Like KAWS, Takashi Murakami and Jeff Koons, Scharf has collaborated with major fashion brands, teaming up in 2021 with Dior. His latest paintings explore ecological themes, inspired by his lifelong love of nature. Four decades after he rose to fame in Manhattan, Scharf’s works continue to spread their joy, colour and energy across the world. His guiding principle, he says, is still the advice he was given as a young man: ‘to paint what you love.’