76 Grand Street
Curated by two close friends of the artist, Diego Cortez and Glenn O’Brien, “1981: The Studio of the Street” focused on the most important transitional year in Jean-Michel Basquiat’s career. In the year 1981, Basquiat made the transition from working on the street to working in the studio. After attracting considerable attention in the “Times Square Show” in June 1980, Basquiat backed up his nascent notoriety with a wall of phenomenal works in Diego Cortez’s “New York/New Wave” exhibition at PS1, which opened in February 1981. It was in the middle of that year that dealer Annina Nosei offered Basquiat his first studio space of his own to prepare work for her group show “Public Address,” opening in September.
Basquiat first became celebrated for his work on the streets, signed with the tag SAMO. In the late ’70s and early ’80s, much of downtown New York was like a twenty-four-hour-a-day open art gallery, with artists like Basquiat and Keith Haring communicating with each other through concrete poetry and artworks on public walls. Because so many of the artists, musicians, and writers lived in close proximity to one another on the borders of SoHo, the Lower East Side, and the East Village, art was part of a daily interaction on the street corner.
But between the world of spray-painted poetry and the world of what Peter Schjeldahl called “New York big-painting aesthetics” lies the fantastic point of charged contact that was Basquiat in 1981. Marrying an exuberant spontaneity and art brut sensibility with a firm command of not only art materials but art history, Basquiat would go on to define the ’80s neo-expressionist idiom and today remains its most compelling example.
This exhibition examined that charged point of contact by including works that show Basquiat’s progression from text alone to both text and image; from materials found on the street to traditional large painted canvases; and from pure drawing to his uniquely evocative hybrid of drawing and painting. Many motifs in the exhibition pointed to Basquiat’s early focus on the urban streetscape. Tenement buildings, doors, windows, fire escapes, and fender benders make up most of the content of these early works. Not only did the view from Basquiat’s Brooklyn backyard window shape the characters in these pieces, but many of the artworks were physically made of things he found on the street as well: scraps of paper, shopping bags, doors, and salvaged wood.
Basquiat’s exploration related closely to what was going on in New York’s music scene at the time, when New Wave musicians like Arto Lindsay and James White and the Blacks broke sound down to its basics to reinvent musical expression. Basquiat was doing similar things with painting and drawing: deconstructing work into disjointed symbols, paring down meaning to text and image, and uncovering the skeleton of painting by insistently bringing forward the drawing beneath.
Diego Cortez was the first person to bring the work of Jean-Michel Basquiat to the attention of the public. He not only included the artist in “New York/New Wave” but acted as his first agent and promoter. Glenn O’Brien met Basquiat when he made an appearance on O’Brien’s legendary public-access television show, TV Party, in 1979. O’Brien also wrote the screenplay for Downtown 81, starring Basquiat, one of the most important documents of the art and music community at that time.
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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