Nostalgia for the ’80s is a strange thing. For the general public, the names of two artists have become a shorthand for the Downtown New York scene of the era: Jean-Michel Basquiat and Keith Haring. Their work is regularly the subject of major surveys, record-breaking auctions, and partnerships with clothing brands like Uniqlo. In focusing on these two, we forget a lot of art history in the process—other artists who made significant contributions, including Martin Wong, David Wojnarowicz, Greer Lankton, and Tseng Kwong Chi, all of whom died of AIDS-related causes. The ’80s Downtown scene we remember is not entirely the ’80s Downtown scene that was.
A new documentary called Kenny Scharf: When Worlds Collide represents one attempt to prove as much. A close friend to both Basquiat and Haring, its titular subject may have been the third-most famous artist of the era. But Scharf’s reputation lags behind those of the two major art stars. Scharf has never been the subject of a super-sized retrospective, and his auction record, set in 2020, stands at just $525,000—a fraction of the nine-figure sums Basquiat paintings can attract. Directed by Max Basch and Malia Scharf (the artist’s daughter), this film attempts to center Scharf in his cultural period.
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This is an odd goal, especially at a time when ’80s art history is being rewritten to account for the contributions of artists of color and under-recognized queer artists. But you must give When Worlds Collide this: it goes about its mythologizing in a way that befits its subject. It is a lively, spirited documentary, one which mirrors the brash sensibility of Scharf’s art. In his paintings, Scharf envisions phantasmagoric worlds populated with smiley figures rendered in Day-Glo tones. Don’t call it childish, though.
“This is serious art,” Scharf says at one point, pausing and then adding, “to me.” Critic Carlo McCormick puts a finer point on it, noting that the menacing quality of Scharf’s work has to do with the anxieties of his generation. “We were promised a great world, and then all of a sudden … it wasn’t The Jetsons,” McCormick says, referring to the animated TV show of a model nuclear family living in a high-tech future.
The Jetsons had something in common with Scharf’s own upbringing in Los Angeles. Dissatisfied with middle-class living in the city, he chose to leave it all behind in 1979, when he relocated to New York, spurred on by “Andy [Warhol] and how he made art fun,” Scharf says in the film. He attended to the School of Visual Arts, “which took anyone,” Scharf claims. There, he linked up with Haring, who later became his roommate.
Pretty soon, he was honing his anything-goes aesthetic, painting TVs in bright hues, producing jokey video art, and turning his apartment into something like an artwork unto itself. “I don’t like to make any distinction between my art and my life or surroundings,” he says in an interview from the ’80s, as he sits next to Haring on a vinyl-covered couch.
There was an aura surrounding Scharf and his cohort, and it was palpable to anyone who came into contact with them. “I knew Kenny was gonna be famous the minute that I met him,” Basquiat says in one archival audio segment. What made Scharf so exciting to Basquiat was likely his disregard for the art world and everything it stood for. At the time, haughty conceptualism and French theory were in. Scharf’s work had nothing to do with either of these things.
And he didn’t need the art world to operate—much of his work was done outside, in urban spaces that looked nothing at all like white cubes. It was, as Whitney Museum curator Jane Panetta puts it, “the idea of making art less precious and more accessible.”
By the late ’80s, the excitement surrounding Scharf had begun to flag. The Downtown scene was growing increasingly commercial, with figures like Basquiat and Haring starting to hit it big in circles that extended far beyond the insular art world. When Haring got famous, “it was hard on the ego,” Scharf admits.
It’s here that the film stumbles in its attempt to puff up Scharf, who is awkwardly placed at the center of the scene as tragedies take place around him. In a segment about the AIDS crisis, Haring is refracted through Scharf, who in one memorable sequence tearfully recounts visiting the HIV-positive artist while he was on his deathbed. This gives way to a bizarre montage featuring images of artists who also died of AIDS-related complications, including Tseng Kwong Chi and John Sex, neither of whom is given more than just a name and a face in this documentary. The strangeness of all this is compounded by what follows: a recounting of how Scharf found love in Brazil, where he married a woman named Tereza whom he met on a plane.
Then there is the issue of Scharf’s art itself: Why hasn’t it become more famous in the decades following the ’80s? (Never mind that Scharf is represented by Almine Rech, an esteemed gallery with seven locations worldwide, from New York to Paris to Shanghai.) It’s probably too much to ask a film co-directed by Scharf’s daughter to contend with the true art-historical value of his work. In 1988, critic Roberta Smith put it mildly when she wrote that Scharf’s early works—the ones that made him famous before he turned 30—tended toward “visual overkill and a frenetic optimism.” She praised his new works, tinged with darkness as a reflection of the mood of the time, as a possible step toward maturity. Maybe that wasn’t the case. Three decades later, Art in America’s Rachel Wetzler addressed Scharf’s newest paintings, one of them juxtaposing the word “Trump” with a small swastika. “As political statements,” she wrote, “these canvases are idiotic, but aesthetically, they’re a riot.”
Not that When Worlds Collide cares much about any of this. The film seems less interested in examining the formal qualities of Scharf’s art and the concepts behind them than it does in asserting that the art world just doesn’t like a good time. “He’s guilty of engaging in the F-word: fun,” artist Ed Ruscha says. “Another thing,” artist KAWS adds, “is exclusivity…. He’s reaching a whole different group of people” than the ones who typically populate the art world.
Art like Scharf’s is now accepted in the art world, to some degree—it gets shown in museums all the time now (KAWS currently has a Brooklyn Museum retrospective), and it performs well on the market, too. Like it or not, Scharf’s work seems bound for a revival, though it also seems doubtful that the artist will mind either way—he’s just too busy searching for entertainment to care. As he puts it at one point, “I just feel like life is so much about the moment, so I want every moment to be fun and beautiful.”