Pop and science, cartoons and monsters, Hollywood-by-way-of-the-East-Village-by-way-of-the-22nd-century: The Standard is proud to announce the installation of Mr. Kenny Scharf's eight-foot sculpture, Squirtz, at The Standard, High Line's outdoor Plaza. This is our third large-scale sculptural installation (KAWS and Erwin Wurm were the first two.) We talked to Kenny about his new show, Kolors, at Paul Kasmin Gallery, his new book (the latest title from Standard Press), and his thoughts on American pop culture.
Standard Culture: Tell us about your sculpture, Squirtz.
Kenny Scharf: I've been making these characters for 30 years now. He's just one of my classic guys. It was a difficult choice figuring out what was best for this opportunity. I just thought, "this one is a classic."
Have you featured him, this large, as a sculpture before?
I did a large sculpture back in April at the Honor Fraser gallery that was made by the same fabricator and with the same materials, but it was a different figure. I also did some other ones in the past, back in the 80s. But not on this scale of slickness, let’s say.
How are you feeling about the new show? Did you go into it with any particular inspiration?
In a way. I knew I would be showing sculpture, so I decided I didn’t want the paintings to detract from the sculpture. I had been doing these color-filled paintings before I knew about the show. It just seemed like a logical way to combine paintings with sculpture. At first glance, the viewer might just see lots of color variation, but if you actually go up to the paintings you can see detail. I've just been focused lately on how to combine sculpture with painting without them detracting from each other.
Excerpt from the forthcoming Kolors. Photo: Chris Mosier
How do you approach working on such radically different scales, from the teeny-tiny details to the large mural forms? Is that just something that happens naturally, or a talent you’ve acquired over the years?
Detail is very, very important. These giant paintings and sculptures are full of tiny details. I include the details in the big picture. If you are doing something really giant, then obviously you want it to work from across the room or however you are looking at it, but then you also want to give the viewer the ability to go all the way up to the surface and see other stuff that they could only see when they are looking up close. It gives them lots of different ways of experiencing something from a distance and from close up. It shows you all of the details that we miss out when you don’t look closer.
Does that have anything to do with how you once described your art as, “the infinity beyond the outward into the infinitesimal depth of inner space”?
That's basically one of my fascinations. Macro and micro, and how similar they are. If you look at going outward in the universe you see planets revolving around stars in this elliptical orbit. Then, you go into inner space and you see the same thing of neutrons and protons and electrons — they are all revolving around the center. It's very cosmic, the inner space; it's just as cosmic as outer space. It makes me think that we are just in the middle of this expansion of going both ways.
X to the 1-millionth power looks awfully similar to X to the negative one-millionth power. Amirite?
Infinity goes two ways.
Right. So the forthcoming book with Standard Press...this is book number two, correct? How does it differ from your first?
It’s more of a catalogue as opposed to a monograph. The first book I did, it wasn’t a retrospective, but it was a little bit of an overview of lots of things. This one is basically the past year of my life.
Kind of the macro-micro theme again?
Yes. The murals, the paintings, the sculptures. Things I am doing right now.
How are you feeling about the art world these days? Does it feel bigger than when you started?
[Laughs] It’s a lot bigger. It’s huge! I think it’s great because it's so big, which also means there are a lot more people excited and interested in art than when I was first starting. But at the same time, it’s lost a lot of its, kind of like, I don’t know, family homey-ness, if you can say that. Not everyone was loving each other, but the world was so small that you could kind of grasp it. Now, it’s too big to grasp. There are just too many to keep track of.
Of all the public murals that you've done, which would you say is the one you're most proud of?
The one on Houston and Bowery was definitely a big moment. It got a lot of attention. It's such a highly visible wall. I was really happy with being able to do that. But the last one that I just did, the one in Miami, I think, is a really strong mural. I like the fact that it's very different from the other murals, which most people are accustomed to, like the puzzle pieces, or the interlocking faces. That’s kind of like this message that I just do; it’s kind of like a cancerous growth. The new one is more, like, pictures, and imagery, and scenes. It’s a different way of mural making, so I kind of like that one as well.
Scharf's mural on Houston & Bowery St. in 2010
What's important to you about public art?
Public art is very important to me. Most artists — not all, but most — definitely want their work to be seen, to be experienced. You want that audience, and there is nothing like public art to get it. You reach every kind of person, not only the one that is interested in art, or that is already going to see art. It is somebody who might not know anything, or think that they don't have any ideas about art and then they are confronted with something and it might alter their view, or brighten their day. It’s a way of relating and getting out into the real world.
We're sure you get asked a lot about the scene in the 80s. It's sort of become a mythical time. Was everyone nostalgic back then for the 60s or 50s, or was everyone just having a good time?
It's funny you say that because I always tell people that. Everyone is always reminiscing about another era that they missed out on. Sure, in the 80s we were like, "Oh my god, it was so cool in the 60s when everybody was free love, or at the Factory and everything was so new. Now, everything is so rehashed." We thought that everything was rehashed in the 80s! We thought that we were on the backside and that all the optimism of the 60s had died in the 70s. That was a lot of the stuff that we were reacting to in the 80s. I think that every generation looks back on another one as more fun and exciting.
We were reading about your love of Hanna-Barbera cartoons...
I met them both!
What were they like?
I did a cartoon for Cartoon Network years ago and they were still there. It was just meet and greet, but I got a kick out of it. They didn’t really understand why I got a kick out of it so much, and how much The Flintstones and Jetsons are such a huge part of my life ... then and to this day.
Elroy from the Jetsons, Scharf's favorite character
Were they old-school Hollywood?
They were just old, happy guys.
Is there anything that you would ask them if you had their undivided attention?
I don’t think that I would ask them anything in particular. I would just want to glom on to them and suck out all their energy and juice.
Do you think there's any significance to the year 1959? It's the birth year of your car, your house, and you.
I was actually born in '58, but the '59 models actually sold in the fall of '58, so they were being produced the year I was born. Anyways, it's an important year. The Sputnik went out. The space age was born. The kind of ultimate capitalist, consumerist ... everything reaches its height in 1959. The Cadillac tail fin is a prime example, the biggest fins ever made. The vulgar, obnoxious, consumerist excess. At the same time, it was just a fantastic display of imagination and fantasy that I love so much. I think that time is the height of American civilization ... in my opinion. That car, the Cadillac, represents the height of the height. It’s very powerful.
Let’s talk product collaborations. You've done a few, most famously with Keihl's. Is there any brand — or fashion designer, or product — you'd be interested in working with?
Automotive designer legend of the 50s, Bill Mitchell.
Excerpt from the forthcoming Kolors. Photo: Chris Mosier
Kolors is available for pre-order here.
Squirtz will be on view at The Standard until April 1st, (be sure to tag all of your pics with #StandardSquirtz so they can make it into our gallery) and at Paul Kasmin Gallery through May 4th.