A week after moving to New York from his native California in 1978, Kenny Scharf met fellow artists Keith Haring and Jean-Michel Basquiat. ‘We all had this instant connection,’ he said recently. ‘The three of us were a bit of a posse.’ Or an unholy trinity, as certain observers saw it.
Scharf, Haring and Basquiat took to the streets of East Village and spearheaded the graffiti art scene of the late 1970s and early 1980s. The Californian’s work consisted of vivid, spray-painted fantasias in a style he dubbed ‘Pop surrealism’.
Fred and Wilma Flintstone were regular subjects, likewise Elroy Jetson — often in mutant form, with the body of a snake. Scharf was following the advice he’d received as a very young man ‘to paint what you love’, and what he loved were the cartoons of Hanna-Barbera.
The same characters have continued to appear in his art in the decades since, although his practice has moved indoors. The painting Black Rubble, from 2012, is being offered at Christie’s First Open online sale from 4 to 18 August.
It features the Flintstone family’s neighbours, the Rubbles, in their foot-powered prehistoric car. They’re set against a background that resembles a psychedelic starscape, Scharf having spattered and scattered his paint in an array of Day-Glo colours.
‘It’s a masterly combination of the figurative and the abstract,’ says Noah Davis, Post-War and Contemporary Art specialist at Christie’s. ‘Where Scharf’s early work has a raw energy you’d expect from an artist associated with graffiti, his paintings from the 21st century tend to be more aesthetic.
‘Black Rubble shows an artist at his most technically accomplished. It’s a beautifully realised picture.’
Why, though, are Betty, Barney, Bamm-Bamm and their vehicle painted black? Was it a case of creating a contrast between the monochrome and the mix of bright colours behind them?
Not entirely. It’s also a nod to Andy Warhol, who became a friend and something of a mentor to Scharf when the latter moved to New York aged 19.
Shortly after that, Warhol began his so-called ‘Reversals’ series, which would occupy him in the final years of his career. This saw a return to the early-1960s silkscreen imagery of Marilyn Monroe, but with a twist. Warhol now expressed the star’s face in negative: ghostly and dark.
In 2012, Scharf achieved a similar effect and twist on the Rubble family in Black Rubble — returning to the subject matter with which he’d launched his own career.
Kenny Scharf and Hanna-Barbera
Born in 1958 in the San Fernando Valley north of Los Angeles, Scharf still remembers the thrill of when his parents first bought a colour television. He was around seven and admits to being fixated not just by programmes such as The Flintstones and The Jetsons, but also the dot formations on the screen.
‘I’d go really close, my eyes right on them,’ he says, ‘and just totally hallucinate on the colour dots — [to the point where I] didn’t see what the image was anymore.’
Scharf had his first gallery show in New York in 1983 and was included in the Whitney Biennial of 1985. The Manhattan art scene of which he’d been a key part would totally dissolve by the end of the decade, however. Basquiat died of a drug overdose in 1988, Haring of AIDS in 1990.
‘Street art has become such a hugely popular genre, and Scharf’s influence on key figures such as Invader and KAWS is clear’
Scharf’s love affair with cartoons reached its apogee in 2002, when the pilot of his own animation show, The Groovenians, debuted on the Cartoon Network. Sadly for him, it wasn’t picked up for a full series.
Around this point, it’s fair to say his profile wasn’t at its highest. ‘Things have definitely changed in recent years, though,’ Davis says. ‘Street art has become such a hugely popular genre, and his influence on key figures such as Invader and KAWS is clear. The demand and prices for Scharf’s work have risen markedly as a result.’
In March this year a Flintstones painting called LOVE (1982) fetched $525,000 at Christie’s in New York, the highest price ever paid for a Scharf work at auction. The previous record had been set just a few months earlier, in November 2019, when yet another Flintstones painting, Zoom (2009), fetched $200,000 at the same venue.
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‘Scharf has become kind of synonymous with the Flintstones, and it is works inspired by that show — from any period of his career — that collectors seem especially interested in right now,’ says Davis.