Documentary Review — “Kenny Scharf: When Worlds Collide” celebrates a pop “graffiti art scene” survivor

One of the last moments of the documentary “Kenny Scharf: When Worlds Collide,” has the artist revisiting huge, fanciful and playful painting that gives the film its title. He goes with his daughter, Malia, who co-directed the film, to see it for the first time in years.

“When World’s Collide” is the quintessential Scharf painting, his “Jetsonism/Hanna-Barberism” graffiti/Warholian pop art style on a vast canvas. He takes a look at it, turns to his daughter and says “See ya later!” and leaps, as if to lose himself in the gaudy, goofy and insanely colorful world he envisioned in 1984.

As we’ve seen in the family-made/Kenny-sanctioned movie that precedes that giddy moment, “That’s so Kenny.” Playful at 62, just as playful as he was in the ’80s, when he was one of the three Andy Warhol fans/proteges who lit up the New York art scene with their “graffiti” style.

It’s somewhat safe to say that of the trio — Jean Michel Basquiat, Keith Haring and Kenny — Scharf is the least famous, at least outside of the art world. But as the sad old joke goes, most painters don’t get truly famous until after they’re dead.

Basquiat died of a drug overdose in 1988. Haring succumbed to AIDS in 1990. That goofball Californian, Kenny Scharf? He’s still raiding dumpsters in LA or “cleaning the beach” of his Brazilian home for his “precious plastic,” turning cast-off cup lids, straws, plastic fruit serving baskets and the like into whimsical “bathroom art.” He’s still losing himself in canvases that have homages to pop culture, advertising, junk and Hanna Barbera cartoons like “The Jetsons” and “The Flintstones.”

And yes, as fans, peers, curators, historians and collectors testify in this too-humorless (considering the subject) film, he’s still a pretty big deal.

His work is filled with “the noise of life,” and are just “too much” for mere mortals to take in, testimonials insist.

With him painting isn’t a trade, a craft or even a calling, “it’s an obsession” one fellow artist declares.

Here’s performance artist and actress Anne Magnuson recreating the “peak decay” New York of the Reagan years, where Scharf, Haring and Basquiat saw to it that “the Uptown World started paying attention to the Downtown World.”

“Experimenting” with paint, sculpture, video and performance art, putting on all manner of bizarre and Dadaist “happenings” at Club 57, these rising stars of pop art found their voices and advertised their aesthetic in a city craving “fun” in its visual art.

“They just seemed to bring the ’80s alive,” actor, artist and collector Dennis Hopper declared.

There’s all this old video of Scharf performing, playing around, being interviewed (often with his best-bud, Haring) to go along with new footage of Scharf traveling, working and dissecting his own influences — Warhol and Picasso, Escher and Lichtenstein and Dali, from the evidence we see on canvas.

He decorates–OVERdecorates his house. We see the ancient Cadillacs he’s transformed into rolling, over-the-top art-on-wheels exhibits. We get a glimpse of a TV cartoon he made for The Cartoon Network (“The Grooveians”).

When critics interviewed here talk about the “infantilism” of the ’80s New York creative scene, they’re paying Scharf the ultimate compliment. Not only did he outlive and outlast his peers, but he’s kept his sense of play intact, polishing his technique, maintaining his childish sense of wonder, making his “use everything” art to this very day.

The film is, truth be told, entirely too stodgy to “get at” the essence of the artist or mimic his psyche and aesthetic. Yoko Ono celebrates Scharf as “a goofy wind…in the art world,” and that should have been the filmmakers’ agenda.

Still, it’s great to see him still at it, fun to take in the works and fascinating to get a new take on Manhattan art scene history, with the home movies to show just how uninhibited, creative and offbeat it was.

MPA rating: unrated

Cast: Kenny Scharf, Ann Magnuson, Dennis Hopper, Samantha McEwen, Richard Marshall, Jane Panetta and Yoko Ono.

Credits: Scripted and directed by Max BaschMalia Scharf. A Maliable Films release.

Running time: 1:17

About Roger Moore

Movie Critic, formerly with McClatchy-Tribune News Service, Orlando Sentinel, published in Spin Magazine, The World and now published here, Orlando Magazine, Autoweek Magazine
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