Kenny Scharf

United States 1958

Pop Surrealism

Kenny Scharf
Kenny Scharf
United States
June 8, 2016

The artworks of Kenny Scharf, who is a  muralist, painter, sculptor, and installation artist, have been often described as playful, optimistic, bubbly and full of joy.  Scharf, a native of sunny California, is most famous for his highly imaginative large-scale paintings of anthropomorphic creatures. Even though his imagery is colorful and bright, with a child-like appeal, it refers also to darker issues of the modern world. However, these traits of his works are latent, only lurking beneath the  colorful and idyllic surface of his paintings and collages. Scharf has participated in the 1980s East Village Art movement and his major influences are abstract expressionism and surrealism.

Educational Background in New York

Kenny Scharf was born in Los Angeles in the late 50s and he has earned a B.F.A. from the School of Visual Arts in New York, in 1980. Scharf first came to artistic prominence in the early 1980s in New York, along with eminent street artists and muralists Keith Haring and Jean-Michel Basquiat. He placed his bright imagery, drawn from television and pop culture, on the streets and in nightclubs of the city, helping to nurture a dynamic and freewheeling scene. Compared with the work of Haring and Basquiat, Scharf’s pieces are less chaotic and less emotionally turbulent, but on the other hand more humorous and more heart-warming. It is known that Haring and Scharf were close friends and even roommates for a while, which is the reason they were exposed to similar artistic influenced at NYC scene of the 80s.

Scharf first came to artistic prominence in the early 1980s artspace of New York

 angeles museum gallery times
Kenny Scharf – Untitled 18, 1979 (Left) / Untitled 19 (The Future Was Now), 1979 (Right)

Scharf’s Approach Related to Pop Surrealism

Kenny Scharf considers his art as pop surrealism because he draws his inspiration from the realm of unconscious, which is typical for surrealists. The images come from the unconscious except that my unconscious is filled with pop imagery. My unconscious is pop, so therefore, the art would be the pop surrealist, says Scharf about his body of work. He believes it is weird and interesting at the same time that something recognizable to everyone, such as Fred Flintstone, is a personal thing for him. So something that is very personal for one person can also be personal for others because of the world that we live in today, concludes Scharf.

It is impressive how prolific and creative Scharf is. During his career that spans over a couple of decades, he  has worked in a variety of traditional media, much as painting, printmaking, drawing and sculpture. At the same time, he also did less traditional and more innovative works, such as designing lifeguard stations, Zippo lighters, watches, cell phones, carpets and carnival carousels. His earliest works from the 70s were mainly humorous collages, while his recent pieces from 2015 and 2016 are mostly murals and installations.

My unconscious is pop, so my art would be the pop surrealist, says Scharf

Kenny Scharf - Squirtz, 2013 angeles museum gallery times
Kenny Scharf – Squirtz, 2013

Kenny Scharf and Cartoon Images

It is evident that Scharf enjoys the world of cartoon characters. He often uses images from the animated cartoons which here popular during his childhood, such as The Flintstones and The Jetsons. Later in his career, in 2011, he also made a humorous depiction of popular snack foods, such as many variations and flavors of donuts. The reason Scharf uses cartoon images in his work is to bring the popular culture into the fine arts. He wants to see how far he can push the line between high and low art. This makes sense because he is originally from LA, which is the cradle of lowbrow movement, but at the same time, he is a classically trained creator. In 2001, Scharf has even released a cartoon of his own, called The Groovenians, which is unfortunately an unfinished project.

The reason Scharf wants to select and emphasize cartoon images in his work is to bring the popular culture into the fine arts

Kenny Scharf - Pace Prints, 2014 angeles museum gallery times
Kenny Scharf – Pace Prints, 2014

Participating in East Village Art Scene and Gallery Shows

Scharf is known as a key figure in the East Village art scene of the 1980s. His shows were held at Fun gallery in 1981 and Tony Shafrazi in 1984, before he started showcasing his pieces in museums, such as the Whitney, which selected him for the 1985 Whitney Biennial. After many successful exhibitions, Scarf became busy with additional projects, such as designing album covers and various interior spaces. For example, he did the album covers of The B-52’s in the mid-80s and he designed a room at the legendary Tunnel nightclub in New York. Because of his friendship with the iconic graffiti celebrity Keith Haring, Scharf has appeared in the documentary called The Universe of Keith Haring. With Haring, who was also his roommate, Scharf has created a blacklight disco installation called The Cosmic Closet,  which was situated in their apartment close to Times Square. This unique project got transformed into its incarnation called The Cosmic Cavern, which is an immersive installation which brings together graffiti, cartoon imagery, and futuristic environments. In 2004, Scharf has also appeared in The Nomi Song, a documentary about the other friend of his, an opera singer and new wave star Klaus Nomi. In 2010, Scharf has initiated new collaborations and started working with artists Joe Grillo and Laura Grant, who belong to an artist collective from Virginia Beach, called Dearraindrop. After his initial success at New York art spaces, he started to have solo and group shows internationally, including the Salvador Dali Museum in St. Petersburg and Bienalle de Sao Paolo in Brazil. Some of his most notable solo exhibitions took place at the Museo de Arte Contemporaneo de Monterrey in Mexico, MoMA PS1 in New York, and the Pasadena Museum of Contemporary Art. In 2015, Scharf had an exhibition in Hammer Museum in Los Angeles, where he has presented his early murals with frenetic energy which reflects their fast-paced creative processes.

Scharf is known as a key figure among the artists of the East Village art scene in the 1980s

Kenny Scharf - Bronx Mural Project, 2016
Kenny Scharf – Bronx Mural Project, 2016

Naturafutura Series

Scharf has never abandoned his pastel and neon-tinted worlds of colors – in 2010, he has produced a new series of work, which combines oil and acrylic colors with spray paints. The series is called Naturafutura and it represents an amazing world of swamps, cartoonish oceans, and cosmic jungles with purple palm trees. I don’t look at any picture, there’s no silkscreen imagery, says Scharf about his inspiration behind this series. However, even though he doesn’t have any clear imagery he relies on as a source of inspiration, he depicts things he always used to like, since his early culture. This means nature, the effect of man on nature, the interconnectedness past and future, and outer-space experiences. Also, many of the lush, tropical places that surround his studio in Bahia in Brazil inspired this work. However, the American artist is still faithful to his old ideas even when portraying a tropical paradise. Despite the overall happiness and idyllic atmosphere of his scenes, there are seahorses, sharks and similar razor-teethed creatures which create a slight menacing effect and leave the viewers perplexed. It is true that most of Scharf’s paintings are celebrating nature, but some of the pieces from this series are also talking about the destruction of nature, which is a very important and overwhelming issue in the nowadays world. In addition to Naturafutura series, in 2010, Scharf has also produced a series of 36 two-by-two-foot paintings of donuts. When asked about the reason behind these works dedicated to the most popular American desert, Scharf has wittily replied: I like this theory that the universe is shaped like a donut. They’re just a great image: It’s cosmic, it’s pop, it’s everything I love.

Naturafutura is a series of paintings from 2010 and it represents an amazing world of swamps, cartoonish oceans, and cosmic jungles

Kenny Scharf - Moda de Mangue, 2010
Kenny Scharf – Moda de Mangue, 2010

Scharf’s Objective and Future Plans

Scharf is an active artist who doesn’t like to take breaks – his main ambition is to maintain the course of work that he has established around 30 years ago. He is creating new paintings, sculptures and murals and organizing performances based on his rich past experiences and knowledge.  His original approach is still  unchanged – he wants to produce the best work possible every time and he aims at reaching out beyond the elitism of fine art. Instead, he wants to keep building an extraordinarily beautiful bridge which connects the popular culture with fine arts.

The artist is represented by Gregg Shienbaum Fine Art in Miami.

Kenny Scharf lives and works in Los Angeles.

Featured image: Kenny Scharf’s Portrait – image via
All other images courtesy of the artist.

Year Exhibition TitleMuseum/GallerySolo/Group
2016Kenny ScharfNassau County Museum of Art, Roslyn Harbor, NYSolo
2016The Neon Wilderness: Voices from Los AngelesThe Conversation, BerlinGroup
2015Born Again Honor Fraser Gallery, Los Angeles , CASolo
2014Appropriate Disruption Jacob Lewis Gallery NYCGroup
2014Art in the 1980’s The Modern Art Museum of Ft.Worth TXGroup
2014Fun and Games Montalvo Art Center Saratoga, CAGroup
2014Kenny ScharfColette, ParisSolo
2014 LOISADANY’s Lower East Side in the 80’s Addison Gallery Andover, MassachusettsGroup
2014Pace Face By Pace Prints, NYCSolo
2014Saying Yes to EverythingHonor Fraser Gallery Curated by Corrina Peipon Los Angeles CAGroup
2013AmerikultureEric Firestone GalleryGroup
2013Artist Engage The AutomobileArt BaselGroup
2013CalligraffitiLeila Heller GalleryGroup
2013Contemporary Magic:  A Tarot Deck Art ProjectThe Dali MuseumGroup
2013Futures ProjectCenter for the Living ArtsGroup
2013Kenny ScharfVirginia BeachGroup
2013KolorsPaul Kasmin GallerySolo
2013Pop RenaissanceHonor Fraser GalleryGroup
2012All For YouEric Firestone GalleryGroup
2012Cedars Sinai Chunk PackCedars Sinai Childrens wingGroup
2012HodgepodgeThe Honor Fraser GalleryGroup
2012Jello BacchanaliaArt RioGroup
2012Kenny ScharfWynwood WallsGroup
2012Portrait of a GenerationThe Hole GalleryGroup
2012Thank You Andy WarholBenrimon ContemporaryGroup
2012Times Square Show RevisitedLeubsdorf Gallery Hunter CollegeGroup
2011Art In The StreetsMOCAGroup
2011East Village WestRoyal T LoungeGroup
2011East Village WestEast Village WestGroup
2011FacemakerCurated by Kathy Grayson Royal-TGroup
2011From Here to EternityScion Installation SpaceGroup
2011Kenny ScharfMural Arts Big Picture ProjectGroup
2011Kenny ScharfBrooklyn Children’s Hospital MuralGroup
2011NaturafuturaPaul Kasmin GalleryGroup
2011New York MinuteGarage Center for Contemporary CultureGroup
2011Nose JobEric Firestone GalleryGroup
2011The Artist MuseumMOCAGroup
2011Unfinished PaintingsLos Angeles Contemporary ExhibitionsGroup
2010Art ShackLaguna Art MuseumGroup
2010Kenny ScharfBowery Wall MuralGroup
2010Mutant PopLoyal GalleryGroup
2010PauseCosmopolitan HotelGroup
2009BarberadiseHonor Fraser GalleryGroup
2009Just What Are They SayingJonathan Ferrara GalleryGroup
2009Loveable Like Orphan Kitties and Bastard ChildrenGreen GalleryGroup
2009Nude ShowPaul Kasmin GalleryGroup
2009Stages Touring ExhibitGalerie Emmanuel PerrotinGroup
2009Wynwood WallsArt BaselGroup
200880′s BackSeomi & TuusGroup
2008American StandardDesign DistrictGroup
2008Four FriendsTony Shafrazi GalleryGroup
2008Juxtapose SchoolLaguna Art MuseumGroup
2008SuperdeluxaWaddington GalleryGroup
2008Totally RadPaul Kasmin GalleryGroup
2008Zero CaratJewelry Friedman Benda GalleryGroup
2007Art ParadeKing of Parade Jeffrey DeitchGroup
2007Big Secret CacheAngstrom GalleryGroup
2007Four FriendsTony Shafrazi GalleryGroup
2007NEW!Paul Kasmin GalleryGroup
2006Astro Cumulo Nibus Uber ExpressRaleigh Hotel, Art BaselGroup
2006Juxtapose AnniversaryCopro NasonGroup
2006Surrealism Then and NowPaul Kasmin GalleryGroup
2005Outer LimitsPatrick Painter GalleryGroup
2005SuperpopPaul Kasmin GalleryGroup
2004100 Artists See SatanGrand Central Art CenterGroup
2004Beginning Here: 101 WaysVisual Arts GalleryGroup
2004California GrownPasadena Museum of California ArtGroup
2004Face ValueKevin Bruk GalleryGroup
2004Groovenian DrawingsKantor GalleryGroup
2004Kenny ScharfNew Museum of Contemporary Art, East Village, NYCGroup
2004Kenny ScharfAmericans for the Arts Awards InstallationGroup
2004SchablobzKenny Schachter/RoveGroup
2003Beauty Stripped Bare / LA Black & WhiteBGH Gallery, LAGroup
2003Faces and FiguresThe Art Museum at Florida International UniversityGroup
2003NightlightPatrick Painter GalleryGroup
2003Paintings 1990-1997Cotthem GalleryGroup
2003PortraitsHeidi Lee Fine ArtGroup
2003QuestVincent Van Gogh MuseumGroup
2003Splat, Boom, PowContemporary Arts MuseumGroup
2002Juxtapose Anniversary ShowTrack 16 GalleryGroup
2002Made in the USA 1970-2000Ludwig GalerieGroup
2002MutedChac Mool GalleryGroup
2002The GrooveniansAnimated Special aired on Cartoon NetworkGroup
2001AnimationsP.S.1 Contemporary Art CenterGroup
2001Car NationUC Fullerton at Grand Central Art CenterGroup
2001Hollywood StarsLos Angeles Contemporary ExhibitionsGroup
2001PortraitsTony Schafrazi GalleryGroup
2001SeeingInteractive Exhibition LACMA LABGroup
2001TikitotemonikiPearl Arts DistrictGroup
2000Closet #18Young at Art Children’s MuseumGroup
2000Kenny ScharfGagosian GallerySolo
2000Small Paintings & BronzesTony Shafrazi GalleryGroup
1999Heads and Small PaintingsGalerie Hans MayerGroup
1999Heads, Small Paintings and Closet #16Galerie Hans MayerGroup
1999New SculpturePICA-Portland Institute for Contemporary ArtGroup
1998Kenny ScharfGalerie Ramis BarquetSolo
1998Kenny ScharfMcIntosh GallerySolo
1998Kenny ScharfKantor GallerySolo
1998Kenny ScharfTony Shafrazi GallerySolo
1997Art and Provocation: Images from RebelsBoulder Museum of Contemporary ArtGroup
1997In Your Face HaringBasquiat & Scharf Leo Malca Fine ArtGroup
1997Kenny ScharfTony Shafrazi GallerySolo
1997Pop SurrealistSalvador Dali MuseumGroup
1997UltraelektrikPaintings, Sculpture & Customized Appliances, Sony BuildingGroup
1997When Worlds Collidecurated by Barry Blinderman, Univercity GalleriesGroup
1996Kenny ScharfTony Shafrazi GallerySolo
1996Kenny ScharfEl Mundo de Kenny Scharf Museo de art Contemporaneo deSolo
1996Kenny ScharfHeads Center for the Fine ArtsSolo
1996Kenny ScharfGalerie 56 BudapestSolo
1996New FigurationTucson Museum of ArtGroup
1995A New York Time: Selected DrawingsEighties Bruce MuseumGroup
1995Altered and Irrational: Selections from the Permanent CollectionWhitney MuseumGroup
1995Art + ArchitectureMIAMI, Center for Contemporary ArtGroup
1995Kenny ScharfEarly Paintings 1975-78 Yoshi GallerySolo
1995Kenny ScharfGalerie Cotthem-Hedwig Van ImpeSolo
1995Kenny ScharfTony Shafrazi GallerySolo
1995Kenny ScharfScharf-O-Rama 1978-1995 Museum of ArtSolo
1995Kenny ScharfDesign and Barbie Liberty Street GalleryGroup
1995Recent AcquisitionsBass Museum of ArtGroup
1994Kenny ScharfWildlife Tony Shafrazi GallerySolo
19931982-83: Ten Years After Tony Shafrazi GallerSolo
1993Art and EnvironmentNational Arts ClubGroup
1993Extravagant: The Economy of Elegance Tony Shafrazi GalleryGroup
1993Extravagant: The Economy of Elegance Russisches KulturzentrumGroup
1993Kenny ScharfWorks on PaperSolo
1993Kenny ScharfCloset #11, Café ClickSolo
1993Kenny ScharfCloset # 10 World GallerySolo
1993About NatureCleveland Center for Contemporary ArtrGroup
1992Balade de l’Amour Halle de l’Uniondes arts DecoratifsPalais de LouvrGroup
1992Kenny ScharfEdward Totah GallerySolo
1992Kenny ScharfGaleria Rocca 6Solo
1992Kenny ScharfGaleria SenoSolo
1992Kenny ScharfMuseo de Arte Contemporaneo de MonterreyGroup
1992Objets Trouves Galerie de JourGroup
1992Variations Gitanes Grande Halle de la VilletteGroup
1991American Art of the ’80′sPalazzo delle AlbereGroup
1991Closet #9 Queens Museum of ArtSolo
1991Kenny ScharfTony Shafrazi GallerySolo
1991Kenny ScharfStudio TrisorioSolo
1991Kenny ScharfAC&T CorporationSolo
1991Kenny ScharfGalerie Hans MayerSolo
1991Kenny ScharfAkira Ikeda GallerySolo
1991The 1980′s: A Selected View from the Permanent CollectionWhitney MuseumGroup
1990Kenny ScharfGalerie BeaubourgSolo
1990The Last Decade: American Artists of the ’80′sTony Shafrazi GalleryGroup
1989Don’t Bungle the JungleTony Shafrazi GallerySolo
1989Kenny ScharfMichael Kohn GallerySolo
1989The Studio American Collection Witkacy Theater Group
1988Figure a Subject: Revival of Figuration Since 1975 Whitney MuseumGroup
1988Kenny ScharfAkira Ikeda GallerySolo
1988The Weisman Collection (Traveling Show)California State UniversityGroup
1987Comic Iconoclasm Institute of Contemporary ArtGroup
1987Kenny ScharfTony Shafrazi GallerySolo
1986Homage to Nicolas A. Moufarrage Gabrielle Bryers GalleryGroup
1986Kenny ScharfAkira Ikeda GallerySolo
1986Picture From the Inner MindThe PalladiumSolo
1986Picture From the Inner MindSolway GallerySolo
1986Picture From the Inner MindCohn GallerySolo
1985Art in Action Sogetsu MuseumSolo
1985Biennial 1984 Whitney Museum of Contemporary ArtGroup
1985Drawings LeoCastelli GraphicsGroup
1985East Village Artists Holly Solomon GalleryGroup
1985Eight Artists/Eight Years/SVASchool of Visual ArtsGroup
1985Investigations Institute of Contemporary Art, PhiladelphiaSolo
1985Investigations University of PennsylvaniaSolo
1985Kenny ScharfTony Shafrazi GallerySolo
1985Kenny ScharfGalerie Bruno BischofbergerSolo
1985Out of the Ooo Cloud ,Bard College Annandale on Hudson NY.Edith C Blum Art InstituteGroup
1985Sights For Small EyesHeckscher MuseumSolo
1985Vernacular AbstractionWacoal Art CenterSolo
1984Aperto 84 Venice Bienale VeniceGroup
1984Arte di FrontieraGalerie d’Arte Moderna BolognaGroup
1984Contemporary Perspectives 1984 Bucknell UniversityGroup
1984Kenny ScharfTony Shafrazi GallerySolo
1984Kenny ScharfGagosian GallerySolo
1984New Attitudes: Paris/New York Pittsburg Center for the ArtsGroup
1984New Hand-Painted Dreams: Contemporary Surrealism Barbara Gladstone GalleryGroup
1984New Idioms Robert Fraser GalleryGroup
1984The Human Condition Museum of Modern ArtSolo
1984The Innovative Landscape Holly Solomon GalleryGroup
1984Via New York MontrealMuseum of Contemporary ArtGroup
1983Back to the U.S.AKuntsmuseum LuzernGroup
1983BienalleBienalle de Sao PauloGroup
1983Champions Tony Shafrazi GalleryGroup
1983Champions Fay Gold GalleryGroup
1983Clocktower Open Studio Show P.S.1 Contemporary Art CenterGroup
1983Kenny ScharfTony Shafrazi GallerySolo
1983Kenny ScharfAmerican Graffiti GallerySolo
1983Morton G. Neuman Family Collection Kalamazoo Institute of ArtGroup
1983References Palais de Beaux-ArtsGroup
1983Surrealist Show Robert Miller GalleryGroup
1983Tendencias en Nueva York Palacio de CristalGroup
1983The Comic Art Show Whitney Museum of American ArtGroup
1982Installation Project Room P.S.1 Contemporary Art CenterGroup
1982Kenny ScharfFun GallerySolo
1981Beyond Words Mudd Club , NYGroup
1981Drawing Show Mudd Club, NYGroup
1981Kenny ScharfNational Studio Artists P.S.1 Contemporary Art CenterSolo
1981Kenny ScharfCustomized Appliances Club 57Solo
1981Kenny ScharfThe Jetsons Fun GallerySolo
1981New York, New Wave P.S.1 Contemporary Art CenterGroup
1981Open Studio Show P.S.1 Contemporary Art CenterGroup
1981The Times Square Show Times Square, NYGroup
1979Kenny ScharfCelebration of the Space Age Club 57Solo