At some point in Kenny Scharf: When Worlds Collide, one of the film’s talking heads opines that perhaps the artist isn’t taken more seriously because he’s associated with the “F” word: Fun. Scharf, who came up with Basquiat and Haring in the ’80s East Village scene, was a fixture at Club 57, a church basement turned DIY cabaret where he served as a sort of “showman” and “master of ceremonies,” doing Lawrence Welk impersonations one night and cavorting in day-glo paint another.
But why discredit art just because it’s turnt? A few years ago, Club 57 was the subject of a MoMA show for which Scharf created one of his blacklit “cosmic caverns,” and now even Studio 54 is getting the velvet rope treatment at the Brooklyn Museum. New York City’s art and nightlife scenes have fed off of each other since at least Warhol’s time, and the new Scharf documentary, which is screening online as part of this year’s DOC NYC festival, isn’t the only film to take note of it. Also showing at the festival is Moments Like This Never Last, a new doc by Cheryl Dunn (Everybody Street) about notorious artist and bon vivant Dash Snow.
The documentaries are worth watching together, since Snow and Scharf have at least this much in common: Handsome, charismatic free spirits, they were at the center of art cliques that represented both the decadence and creativity of their respective eras. As a result, there’s been plenty of art-world debate over just how seriously they should be taken. In the ’80s, Scharf bounced around downtown with Haring and Basquiat; in the aughts, Snow did the same with Dan Colen and Ryan McGinley, taking Polaroids of them as they fought, fucked, and frolicked at places like Lit Lounge. Both cliques were following a Warholian tradition of, as Scharf puts it, “living the example”— they not only created art, they were the art.
Snow’s crew was famously dubbed “Warhol’s Children” on the cover of New York magazine, though it might be more accurate to call them Warhol’s grandkids (after all, Scharf’s troika came first). Either way, each of these factories churned out a dizzying amount of what would now be called “content” in a variety of mediums, using their friends as both the inspiration and the core audience. They were post-Warhol and pre-Instagram.
Both cliques experienced tension as their members became media and art-world darlings to varying degrees. But there’s one clear difference between Scharf and Snow. Scharf, who turns 62 next week, broke away from his Club 57 fam and, in the end, emerged from the media spotlight relatively unscathed. Among pop artists, he’s the “Last Man Standing,” per one magazine cover. Having given up his Bushwick studio several years ago, he now lives in Los Angeles. He continues to be enormously productive and recently released a series of face masks.
Snow, on the other hand, followed in Basquiat’s exact footsteps and died of a heroin overdose in Noho at the age of 27. At the time, in 2009, a New York Times article remembered Snow as “a jokester, a jailbird, a thief, a freak, a successful art-brut savage, a doting father, a connoisseur of various cocaine bathrooms, a retired writer of graffiti and the latest incarnation of that timeless New York species, the downtown Baudelaire.” To some degree, that description fits Scharf, an unapologetic jokester who as recently as 2013 was arrested in Bushwick for tagging a wall with one of his cartoon creatures. But compare Scharf’s bright, gleeful spermatozoa to Snow’s ejaculate-splattered tabloid image of a dead Saddam Hussein and it’s clear that Snow was much more of a “dark person,” as he himself put it.
“A lot of artists come from dysfunction,” says Marilyn Minter at the start of the Scharf documentary before noting, “There’s always an exception.” Maybe it’s because it was co-directed by Scharf’s daughter Malia, but When Worlds Collide never does uncover much dysfunction in its subject. He grew up in the San Fernando Valley— where, like his artwork, everything was “pretty plastic and pop and bright”— and came to New York because Los Angeles was “totally dull” and he had seen how Warhol “made art fun,” he says. Though there are references to the AIDS crisis and the Cold War in Scharf’s art, it’s essentially fun, trippy, goofy– “from another planet,” as Yoko Ono puts it. (Not surprisingly, Scharf also has a penchant for dad jokes, we discover when he suggests taking a “shellfie” in front of a mirror elaborately decorated with seashells.)
Snow also wanted to “put smiles on people’s faces,” he says in Dunn’s doc, but he associates that with “the full-on act of violation.” Scharf took Warhol and added Hanna-Barbera; Snow, on the other hand, added GG Allin. A photo of his bloodied face— the result of a fight with a friend— graced the walls of Rivington Arms gallery during his first solo show in 2005.
Snow’s work came from a place of punk-rock rebellion, and it’s fitting that Moments Like This, which begins with cops escorting the artist out of Max Fish after an apparent bar fight, is being released during this very Fuck The Police moment. “I don’t believe in laws or the system by any means whatsoever,” Snow says. “I try not to obey them at any time.” An artist with a penchant for shoplifting designer fashion, he’s the missing link between the Soho of Donald Judd and the Soho that got looted this summer.
In truth, Snow was rebelling not just against authority in general but also against his wealthy mother, Taya Thurman (sister of Uma), who sent him, at the age of 13, to a sort of “scared straight” boarding school for problem children. The way he tells it, he escaped the horrific-sounding Hidden Lake Academy, in Georgia, at age 15, briefly lived in a Bronx housing project with a crew of older graffiti artists/mentors, and eventually moved in with his grandmother, wealthy socialite and designer Christophe de Menil. “They say blood is thicker than water, but sometimes it’s not,” he says of his upbringing. “So I had to find my own family, which eventually happened.”
In the New York profile, Ariel Levy wrote that Snow and his friends were “extremely secretive” about his relationship with the De Menils, who constituted “art-world royalty, the closest things to the Medicis in the United States.” Though the film features interviews with Snow’s sister Caroline, it doesn’t dwell on the degree to which Dash benefited from privilege. Nor does it seem overly interested in unpacking the irony so often cited by those who were skeptical about the hype around Snow— that “rebelling against your famous art family by becoming a famous artist is a pretty interesting way to rebel,” as Levy put it.
Snow hated the New York profile to such a degree that he pulled a quote from it— “How much talent does it really take to come on the New York Post, anyway?”— and filmed male hustlers jerking off onto it. (Apparently this takes some talent; fellow downtown icon Leo Fitzpatrick recalls Snow getting frustrated during the shoot when the male hustlers were too drugged-up to get hard.)
According to one of the film’s sources, the post-“Warhol’s Children” rise to fame led to Snow’s heroin addiction and demise. Suddenly, Snow had to contend with “being put on stage and playing a part,” says Fitzpatrick, and was “losing control over who he was.”
Rather than dwelling on the circumstances of Snow’s death, Moments Like This ends with home video of him frolicking with his young daughter, Secret. Could the artist have found redemption if he had left New York and his circle of hangers-on and enablers? Dunn seems interested in the question. As LCD Soundsystem’s bittersweet “New York, I Love You” plays at the beginning of the film, Snow admits that although he loves the city, it’s “the worst place to be if you’re not happy there. It’s a thin line between love and hate.” Later, Fitzpatrick asks him if he ever thinks about leaving, and Snow imagines buying an island for himself and his friends— though he admits that plan, too, would just become part of the “never-ending spiral of weirdness.”
Scharf, on the other hand, did find his island. At some point in the ’80s, “the uptown world started paying attention to the downtown world,” per Club 57 doyenne Ann Magnuson, and “some of that wonderful, naive idealism was lost” in the subsequent hype. When the ’80s became “very dark” and the drugs got “very heavy,” artists found that “to deal with success is not an easy thing; people trade you, so you become a commodity,” says another Club 57 fixture, artist Bruno Testore Schmidt.
That theme was explored in two other recent documentaries about casualties of the ’80s East Village scene: Shadowman, about Richard Hambleton, and Boom For Real, about Basquiat. Though Scharf said in the Basquiat documentary that everyone at Club 57 was “on psychedelics, bouncing around the walls, screaming,” When Worlds Collide doesn’t address the degree to which Scharf did or didn’t use drugs— which is surprising, since his art is synonymous with “psychedelic.”
In any case, Scharf never did become a casualty. In the mid-’80s, when he was about the same age Basquiat and Snow were when they died, Scharf fell in love with a Brazilian woman during a trip to carnival. They bought a place in a remote corner of Bahia— where he still collects trash for his installations— and, in 1992, left New York for Miami. Scharf found that raising children helped him survive the horror of the AIDS epidemic, which took the life of his friend Haring, and the lull in his art career that occurred when the East Village scene became passé.
The film ends with Scharf enjoying a sort of Kennaissance (When Worlds Collide, the piece from which the documentary takes its title, was featured in the Whitney’s Fast Forward: Painting from the 80s show in 2017) and happily tending to his garden in Los Angeles. And yet his daughter Zena can’t help but wonder if he should have stayed in New York City to “face some of the things that were coming up inside of him instead of running away.” New York: Can’t make art with it, can’t make art without it.
At a time when the Covid pandemic is causing many of us to wonder whether it’s worth staying in New York City, and whether its creative energy will ever fully return, it’s worth watching these two documentaries, both streaming via DOC NYC through Nov. 19, to see how these artists managed to make the city feel vibrant and exciting even as the specters of the Cold War, AIDS, and 9/11 loomed over them. And it’s also worth remembering that, even as they forged their fame downtown, both artists seemed to grapple with that sentiment from the song: “New York, I love you, but you’re bringing me down.”