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Judy Butterfly

Judy Butterfly
signed, titled and dated 'Judy Butterfly Kenny Scharf 81' (on the reverse)
acrylic and spray paint on unstretched canvas mounted on linen, in artist-appointed frame
overall: 73 1/8 x 56 5/8 in. (185.7 x 143.8 cm.)
Executed in 1981.
Tony Shafrazi Gallery, New York
Galleria Lia Rumma, Milan
Private collection, Italy
Acquired from the above by the present owner
New York, FUN Gallery, Kenny Scharf, 1982.

Brought to you by

Isabella Lauria
Isabella Lauria Vice President, Senior Specialist, Head of 21st Century Evening Sale

Lot Essay

An important early work by Kenny Scharf, Judy Butterfly depicts the cartoon character Judy Jetson from the classic 1960s American cartoon series The Jetsons. Painted in acid-hued tones of blue, green, pink and yellow, this psychedelic portrait flips the usual conventions of Pop Art; following in the footsteps of Warhol, Basquiat, and Haring, Scharf adapts and subverts their visual language as, when viewed under ultra-violet light, the painting’s surface takes on a whole other chromatic dimension. Judy became a central motif for the artist, and in the present work he transforms her from the archetypal sitcom teenage daughter, known for talking on the phone and going shopping, into a psychedelic butterfly, her signature platinum blond hair now a lime green. Scharf’s signature unique style enlivens Judy’s wings and lends a hazy, atmospheric quality to the scene. This texture is amplified by his choice of an unstretched canvas resulting in a unique surface topography. Scharf contains all of these unique media within his own chosen frame. Judy Butterfly is an inventive, funny, and slyly beautiful painting that represents the impetus of Scharf’s forty-year career.

Judy Butterfly is a fantastical landscape that embodies the magic of television. Judy’s multicolored wings are detailed with bold colors evoking a Wassily Kandinsky abstraction. Around her are volcanic rocks, but instead of lava or desolation, we have a delicate green plant springing up from the landscape. The spirals that frame the canvas are evocative symbols for Scharf. In a 1981 manifesto, he writes, “The spiral is easily understood as a means to other levels (worlds). For example: the tornado, the bathtub drain spiral…Galaxies are spirals. Suction—black holes? Spirals are universal in space, in nature” (K. Scharf, “Jetsonism is Nirvana,” New York, 1981, In the same manifesto, Scharf proclaims that “Jetsonism is Nirvana,” turning Judy Butterfly into a spiritual icon. Judy is an unexpected angel who beckons us to a more peaceful future.

Judy was important to Scharf’s early work, as was the evolution of technology represented in cultural phenomena like The Jetsons. In the same year as the creation of the present work, he even painted a DIY mural in New York entitled Judy in which the eponymous character floats like a genie. In this period, Scharf also wrote a wonderfully inventive essay about a new line of home goods that evokes the comical futurism of The Jetsons, “Everyday experiences don’t have to be ordinary. Why not covert your routine vacuuming, TV viewing, radio listening, hair drying, air conditioning, telephoning, record playing, blending—every electrical task!—into something magical, spaced out, or just plain fun? Any appliance can be transformed” (K. Scharf, “Chrome on the range,” Soho News, 1981, Judy symbolizes this utopian phantasmagoria; she is a teenager who still has all the concerns of high school, despite riding to school in a hovercar, or being turned into a butterfly. Scharf’s manifestos mirror the Situationist International movement, which used public artworks to express solidarity with the demands of the May ’68 protests in France. They were known to use graffiti, with slogans like “I take my desires for reality because I believe in the reality of my desires.”

Transformation, indeed transubstantiation, has always been central to Scharf’s paintings, as with the fantastical metamorphosis of Judy Butterfly. He is the heir to a Surrealist tradition. As Glenn O’Brien writes, “Scharf’s paintings show the powerful connection between Yves Tanguy and Hanna-Barbera, between Joan Miró and the Smurf, between Breton and Cabbage Patch. They show the psychosocial developments that have taken place” (G. O’Brien, “Kenny Scharf: Tony Shafrazi Gallery,” Artforum, March 1985, Scharf revels in this web of influences, and, like the Pop artists, never adheres to the conventions of “high” and “low” art. Instead, he moves among disparate subject matters through a version of Surrealist automatism, “I come to an idea, and I just start, and I don’t know what I want it to look like. It’s super fun and fast. It’s like this real release. And then I start painting in the characters. And then I start cursing myself because it gets more and more complicated. It’s almost like I’ve made this puzzle for myself. And I have to find a way out of it. To the end” (K. Scharf, quoted in J. Rosenfeld, “Kenny Scharf with Jason Rosenfeld,” The Brooklyn Rail, June 2022, We could compare Judy Butterfly to André Masson’s Automatic Drawing (1924), in which the artist created a swirling landscape by allowing his mind to wander and his hand to follow.

As one of the leading figures of the 1980s New York art scene, Judy Butterfly sets the stage for Scharf’s boundary-pushing career that continues to surprise and engage. The painting takes seriously the tropes of pop culture, which Scharf gleefully remixes with his signature DayGlo colors. By foregrounding the conventions of street art and the downtown art scene in 1980s New York, Scharf argues for the inseparability of art and life. Judy Butterfly upends hierarchies and celebrates fandom as a legitimate source of artistic inspiration.

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