18 Wooster Street
Jeffrey Deitch: Jeff Koons is the artist with whom I’ve had the closest dialogue and the strongest friendship during my four decades in the art world. In December 2004, Justine Koons asked if I might consider hosting Jeff Koons’s fiftieth birthday party. There were a number of people who offered to host a party for Jeff, but Justine thought it would be most appropriate for me to be the host, in recognition of my long friendship with Jeff.
In keeping with the gallery’s tradition that everything is an art project, we decided to create a party that would also be an art performance. Inspired by the art of Jeff Koons, we put together a plan that would transform our gallery space into “Koons World.” We arranged to get the original inflatable models for Jeff’s current sculptures from the studio and hung lots of lobsters and Incredible Hulks from the gallery ceiling. We brought in Jeff’s famous sculpture Bear and Policeman (1988) from my own collection and displayed it at the entrance of the gallery, and we installed an image of Jeff’s famous piece The New Jeff Koons (1980) on the entrance wall. On the largest wall of the gallery, there was a projection of images from Jeff’s history, starting with baby pictures. We invited two hundred of Jeff’s artistic colleagues and the great dealers, collectors, and curators who had worked with him over the years. And it was a surprise party! That was the biggest challenge—Jeff was completely unaware that two hundred of his closest friends, colleagues, and family were at the gallery waiting to celebrate him.
Suzanne Geiss: Justine and I arranged that she and Jeff would book a hotel room at the SoHo Grand for the night. Before going to dinner to kick off their special night together, Justine recommended that they visit Jeffrey at the office. Little did Jeff know, we had spotters with walkie-talkies all along the street trying to ready the guests inside for his arrival. We organized all of his favorite music—mostly Led Zepplin and classic rock—to be played by a jazz band the moment he walked in. He was completely stunned—or at least he pretended to be! I heard that somebody leaked a “See you tomorrow night” the day before—I think it was David Salle. We also had Jeff’s favorite food.
JD: Yes! We went to the Lure Fishbar in SoHo and asked if they could create a menu based on Jeff’s favorite food: tuna burgers. The tuna burgers were so successful at the party that they were later added permanently to the Lure Fishbar menu.
SG: And we had some very special guests, too.
JD: One significant partygoer was the legendary dealer Ileana Sonnabend. It was one of the last times she attended a public event.
SG: And we had one unexpected well-wisher. We couldn’t hear the gallery telephone over all the dinner noises. During the speeches, I walked over to the telephone and I saw that it was ringing incessantly, which is unusual for 10 PM. I picked up the phone, and I instantly recognized the voice yelling at me: “I’ve been ringing this number over and over again, no one is picking up. I need to speak to Jeff Koons!” It was Robert De Niro! So, in the middle of the speeches, I ran over to Jeff and told him that Robert De Niro was on the phone and seemed really anxious to say “Happy Birthday.” We scrambled to get him on speakerphone, but it didn’t work, unfortunately.
JD: I didn’t know that happened. Wow.
SG: It was exciting! But then the surprise got even better.
JD: Two really special elements of the dinner were the Jeff Koons–style cakes.
SG: First, we had a cake by Sylvia Weinstock—she’s the most incredible cake maker in New York, and she made a one-to-one, perfect rendering of Jeff’s Cake painting (1995–97). It was huge! That was element number one. Next, Justine stood up after the speeches and announced that there was one more surprise. The 18 Wooster Street garage door opened and in walked a full marching band from New Jersey led by miniature ponies. The band was playing Jeff’s favorite song, “Kashmir.” And he loves mini ponies! Following this wild procession, an enormous sculpture of a Koons-style birthday cake rolled in through the door. As the band transitioned from “Kashmir” to “Happy Birthday,” a woman in a skimpy outfit jumped out and balloons dropped from the ceiling!
JD: Marc Jacobs, who was at the dinner, appropriated the marching band for his next runway show.
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.
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