76 Grand Street
I still feel the impact of an amazing exhibition that I saw at O.K. Harris Works of Art in 1974, the year I moved to New York. It was the toughest and most radical art I had ever seen. Lights, TV sets, coils of wire, and other discarded electrical equipment were dumped in piles on the floor. Some of the power cords were spliced together and plugged in. At the entrance to the gallery the press-type sign read “Alan Suicide.” Someone had taken a sharp object to “Suicide” and had furiously sliced into it.
Alan Suicide was an inspiration and already a legend for many of the young artists, writers, and musicians who arrived in New York in the mid-’70s. The two-man band Suicide, featuring Alan and partner Marty Rev, was the radical extension into music of the tough electronic aesthetic of Alan’s sculpture. It was probably the most extreme of all the bands pushing the fusion of art and music into what emerged as punk rock. Suicide was in fact the first band to use the word punk to describe their music.
Given the almost nonexistent art market of the mid-’70s, Alan Suicide chose to pursue music more actively than art. There was a strong show of his assembled crosses for the opening of Barbara Gladstone’s first downtown space in 1983, but by then music was absorbing almost all his energy. In addition to performing with Suicide, he began a solo career under the name Alan Vega in 1981. His song “Jukebox Babe” soared to the top of the European charts in 1981–82, and Alan was no longer just a punk legend but a rock star. Music became his creative focus, and there had been no exhibition of Alan Suicide’s art for nearly twenty years.
I had not seen Alan since the mid-’70s, but I had never stopped thinking about the impact of his radical art and the intensity of his music. In 2001, I noticed that Suicide had been booked to play the New Year’s Eve show at the Knitting Factory. It seemed that there was a big Suicide revival going on. I asked some of the younger people who worked at our gallery if they knew about the band Suicide. “Suicide! Of course. They’re great!” was the response. I was determined to find Alan to see if he was still making art. It seemed that his time had come again.
I tracked Alan down through his agent and visited him at his home near Wall Street. Alan was still making art, and had never stopped, even though he was so absorbed in his music that he hadn’t walked into an art gallery in years. Alan in fact remembered vividly my visiting him at Max’s Kansas City in 1974 as a worshipful fan. He had been wondering why, during all those years, I had never called him about an art project. Alan joked that he always had the problem of being ahead of his time, but he hadn’t imagined that he would actually be thirty years ahead of his time.
Suicide is actually one of the longest-lasting rock bands ever. Only a few bands, like the Rolling Stones, have been around longer and are still performing. Since their first performance in 1971, Suicide has released five studio records and five live albums. Alan Vega has released nine studio albums as a solo artist in addition to numerous collaborative projects. The music of Suicide and Alan Vega has been covered by numerous bands, including R.E.M., Henry Rollins, and Sisters of Mercy. During the height of the punk period, their music seemed the most extreme and least commercial of all the leading bands. Their rhythmic electronic sound was not as head-banging as that of some of the more successful punk bands, but it opened up a whole new direction in music. Suicide was one of the inventors of the synthesized electronic sound. They have been an acknowledged inspiration for the ’80s synth pop of Depeche Mode and Soft Cell, for the ’90s generation of rave and techno scenes and their pop cousins such as Chemical Brothers and Aphex Twin, and again for a new wave of downtown musicians such as A.R.E. Weapons. Rollins, who published Cripple Nation, a book of Alan’s poetry and lyrics, called him “one of the most powerful artists going. He has been for years. His unrelenting passion and intensity have been a source of inspiration.”
Alan Suicide’s Deitch Projects exhibition featured reconstructions of some of the radical work from the 1970s as well as a selection of recent work.
It is rare that an exhibition can be simultaneously historic and forward-looking. In conjunction with the exhibition, Suicide performed at 18 Wooster Street on February 22, 2002.
October 21 - December 22, 2017
18 Wooster Street
The faces are melting in Kenny Scharf’s new paintings. “Things are disintegrating,” he says, “I am reacting to our increasingly out-of-control situation.” Scharf’s work continues to be infused by his inexhaustible optimism and his sense of fun but there has always been an engagement with profound issues beneath the façade. Ecology, the environment, and capitalist excess have long been central themes. More recently, his paintings have shown his alarm over the effects of petroleum and the mountains of nondegradable plastic that are produced from it.
Scharf’s work has always combined and contrasted the pop culture he absorbed growing up in Los Angeles with the important innovations in modern and contemporary art. His earlier work fused Dali and Disney. More recently, he has been in dialogue with Pollock and Abstract Expressionism. In the new work, he merges his distinct style with color field and stain painting. “I like to connect with every movement in 20th-century art,” Scharf explains. “I make new hybrids, taking it all in and putting it in a blender.”
A distinctive style is something that Scharf admires in other artists and from the beginning has tried to achieve in his own work. He believes in art as an expression of individual identity. From his first mature work as a student at the School of Visual Arts, a painting by Kenny Scharf was instantly recognizable. Still adhering to his signature style, he continuously invents new forms.
Scharf is very enthusiastic about his new “sloppy style” that characterizes the major paintings in the exhibition. Rows of faces disintegrate into colorful drips reminiscent of both New York School painting and the serial imagery of minimal art. In these new works, Scharf is striving to create clear and simple forms that resonate with meaning. He feels liberated and excited, adding that “it is so much fun.”
The expression of emotion in art is essential to Scharf. Art that is cold leaves him cold. He explains that cartoon faces can express emotion with abstract power. Like his artistic colleagues from his early years in New York, Jean-Michel Basquiat and Keith Haring, Scharf studied cartoons as a way to intensify figurative expression.
It is his early downtown history that brings Scharf back to New York this October. The Museum of Modern Art is opening an exhibition on the seminal performance space Club 57 in which Scharf played a central role. Watching him paint, one can see how his experience as a backup dancer for Klaus Nomi and his other performative roles have shaped his approach to his work. One side of his painting practice is detailed and meticulous to the extreme. The other side is tremendously physical and requires him to use his body like a dancer.
Visitors to Scharf’s Los Angeles studio are greeted by a hundred or more discarded plastic toys in his yard and on his roof. During the early part of his career, Scharf found his art materials in the garbage. To this day, he still stops his car when he finds plastic toys and TV sets thrown away on the street. These discarded plastic objects have inspired the two other bodies of work featured in the show: his Assemblage Vivant Tableaux Plastiques, and his TV Bax. The assemblage works, which are inspired by the Nouveau Realistes, are constructed from his stock of recycled plastic toys. The TV Bax are painted on the plastic backs of discarded television sets. Like the toys, the TV backs have a disconcerting anthropomorphic quality. Scharf wonders if their anonymous designers created these plastic covers, which are different for every model, to resemble a face.
Scharf finds these thrown-away toys and TV backs to be poignant objects, resonant with emotion. “Each of these objects carries a story,” Scharf explains. He thinks about how people might have struggled and sacrificed to buy these toys and TVs, and about the intense relationship that children and families have with them. Scharf resurrects the lives of these inanimate objects in his work. He also notes that garbage keeps changing with technology. The backs of TV sets used to have large protruding “noses.” Now they are flatter and more similar to a canvas.
Since his childhood, Scharf has been fascinated by outer space. Space travel and the portrayal of infinite space have long been central themes. In his life and in his work, he tries to eliminate boundaries and borders. As he pursues his dialogue with the great painters of the New York School, he is increasingly preoccupied with the inner space of painting. His exploration of inner space creates a dynamic tension with his passion for outer space. With his characteristic exuberance and his moral voice, Scharf reformulates his unique combination of Pollock and Pop to create a vibrant new body of work.
Photo Credit: The1point8 and Adam Reich
Read about the Club 57 exhibition at MoMA in the New York Times here.
76 Grand Street
New York, NY 10013
18 Wooster Street
New York, NY 10013
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