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Exclusive: Artist Kenny Scharf on Warhol, Donuts, and the Art of Throwing Parties

Artist Kenny Scharf‘s work screams for fun; embracing the color and vivacity of everyday objects, especially confectionery foodstuffs, his pieces incorporate TV and consumer culture iconography to transporting effect. Rizzoli’s gorgeous, hefty new monograph chronicles the artist’s work from the late ’70s, when he was new to the Lower East Side, palling around with compatriots Jean-Michel Basquiat and Keith Haring, through his astronomical climb in the ’80s, to the current resurgence in the popularity of his work.

Flavorpill’s Jane McCarthy recently gave Scharf a call to hear about his love for donuts, science fiction, and face paint and to get his take on the perennial New York/LA debate.

Flavorpill: How did the book come about?

Kenny Scharf: Well honestly, I’ve been trying for twenty years to do a book and nobody was biting. Then I got some bites. I have a lot of material. What’s in the book is only one tiny percentage of my body of work.

FP: A number of paintings in the book feature characters from The Jetsons. It seems like notions of the future have always captured your imagination.

KS: Yeah. I’ve always been obsessed with utopia, the future. I grew up in LA in the ’50s and the ’60s and that whole promise of the future was very much ingrained in my aesthetic. Back then, everything had a futuristic tinge — the cars and the fast food and the supermarkets. That kind of Googie architecture not only shapes things visually, it shapes your mind too because it’s pounding in, “the future’s going to be great!” As a little kid, I believed it. I thought I was going to buy a ticket and go to space. As I got older, as the ’70s set-in, and cars turned boxy, and everything got beige, I was like, “I don’t like this design aesthetic so I’m just going to continue this fantasy which I love.” I didn’t want to give up on it so I’m doing it in my work.

FP: Do you think hopefulness for the future or for a utopia still exists today or do you feel there’s been a pretty drastic sea change away from that?

KS: Well, I’m an optimist so I’m always going to look at the optimistic side of how technology can actually improve our lives. The reality is, a lot of man’s inventions are hurting the world. So it’s a combination of reality and hope.

FP: Another subject that figures prominently in your work is the donut. What is it about donuts you like so much?

KS: Well, they look good, obviously. They are delicious. They’re bad for you — a guilty pleasure. And also, there’s the theory that the universe is shaped like a donut with a black hole in the center. So it’s very cosmic. And also, there’s the hole, that aspect of it. So it’s not only a pop icon that I’m making the donut into, but there’s all this sexual innuendo. You can read a million things into a donut, and I like to read them all!

FP: While you’re from LA originally, do you feel you’re a true New Yorker now?

KS: I do spend time in LA. I still have a studio there. My aesthetic has a lot to do with Southern California although I moved to New York when I was still a teenager, and I made my name and my career here in New York. New York is definitely the city that has embraced me. I have some ideas that I’ve been trying to get across in LA which I haven’t been able to, but what I feel is this: LA will never be New York no matter how hard it tries. LA should take advantage of what New York doesn’t and cannot have.

The projects I’d like to do in LA involve things with the car culture because really, that’s what LA’s about. I think they should do drive-thru museums there. You know those oil fields on the way to LAX? Each one of those oil wells bobbing up and down could be painted to look like animals with eyeballs. You know, they could be dressed up. It would be an incredible outdoor sculpture park and it would cost nothing, just the cost of the paint. There are so many things in LA. that are on this huge outdoor scale. That is what LA is about. It’s not about inside; it’s about outside.

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FP: Let LA be LA.

KS: Right, it’s just like what people should do — take advantage of what you have that other people don’t. Accentuate that. Then you can actually stand out and be something different.

FP: Ann Magnuson’s essay in the book has sort of a nostalgic quality to it regarding New York in the early-80s. Do you feel nostalgic for your first years in the city or for New York at that time?

KS: I’m happy to talk about those times, but I don’t really think about it that much. I try to do everything that’s in front of me right now. But it was a blast, I have to say. It was basically, anyone who wanted to come, could arrive and make something of themselves. You could get an apartment for fifty bucks a month.

FP: Now the barrier to entry is higher.

KS: It’s very, very hard. I got my own place a couple years ago, and I’m in Brooklyn. I can’t go back to the neighborhood where I used to be. It’s a different place. It’s still New York. I still love it. But it’s definitely expensive. I mean, no one wanted to be there when we arrived. It was trashy, you know, dangerous, all the things that make great stuff happen. Now Manhattan is like a nice, slick shopping mall full of rich kids.

FP: In the book, Richard Marshall points to Andy Warhol as being a sort of “spiritual leader” to you and Basquiat and Keith Haring. What was your relationship to Warhol like?

KS: I loved him. He definitely was my hero. I was at the University of California Santa Barbara back in ’78, and I was taking Art History and when we got into the ’60s with Warhol, I was like, “Wow. I know that The Factory’s over” (cause this was the ’70s), but I was still like, “I’ve got to get out of here. I’ve got to go to New York. I want something like that.” Something clicked in me. For a whole bunch of other kids like Keith Haring and Basquiat and for me, Andy was kind of our impetus, our inspiration. All we wanted to do was meet him and have him come to our parties. Andy, after he got shot, kind of pulled away from the crazies, and he veered more toward rich people and Studio 54 and Halston and that whole scene which we were very much against. We were more into Punk Rock and New Wave. We kind of pulled Andy back into the youth culture. I think he definitely liked having the young artists around him. I feel incredibly lucky and honored to have had him as my friend. He was very, very supportive.

FP: In the book, Richard Marshall discusses how your customized appliances are all about bringing the fantastical to the functional. There;s a quote by Henry Miller that’s always struck me: “All roads lead to the everyday life.” I wonder what your take is on ways to make everyday life something more?

KS: When I started customizing appliances, I looked back at the ancient Greeks and Romans. Their everyday little objects were art in and of themselves so my feeling was, OK, in modern times, we have telephones and cars and blenders and all these little gadgets, and they’re so boring and bland looking. If I was to transform these objects into fantastic, imaginary things full of fancy and art, that would be bringing art into the everyday life. And that’s something that I definitely believe in, that your regular life and art should be combined. To make the mundane fantastical, it’s just a way of elevating your normal, everyday ho-hum experience. And not only do I try to change the mundane, I also see fantastic in the ordinary. That’s another way of looking at the world and making it into a more amazing place, because it really is amazing if you just look. It’s everywhere. Great things to see and feel.

FP: You have a reputation for throwing wild parties. What makes a party great?

KS: If everyone that comes can let go of their inhibitions… the first thing I do when people walk in is I paint their faces and immediately. It kind of makes them part of the thing. In order to have a good time, you’ve just got to let go and dance. It’s really about dancing. I like to celebrate life and that’s what parties are.

Attention LA readers: Scharf will be signing copies of his book next Thursday, June 11, at The Celebrity Vault. Art historian/curator Richard Marshall and Ann Magnuson will also be on hand to celebrate the mongraph’s release.