Kenny Scharf On Brand Collabs and What Basquiat Would Have Done

Key Takeaways:

  • Now a globally-renowned artist, Kenny Scharf has just rounded off his first-ever China-based solo show at Shanghai’s Almine Rech gallery.

  • Scharf rejects the popularized notion that artists should not be too commercial and has collaborated with multiple fashion brands, including Heron Preston, Dior, and Jeremy Scott.

  • According to Scharf, his late friends Jean-Michel Basquiat and Keith Haring might have done things differently if they had survived to sign off each of the collaborations released in their names today.

When artwork is as visually rich as Los Angeles-based painter Kenny Scharf’s trippy utopian universe, collaborating with fashion brands is a given. Long before brand-artist collaborations were common, Scharf, who began his career alongside art stars like Jean-Michel Basquiat and Keith Haring, always made a connection between art and fashion, despite the “sell-out” attitude toward commercialization prevalent in the ‘70s and ‘80s. “We were finding vintage things in the garbage or cutting them up, and there was all this creativity going on,” he told Jing Daily. “I would always paint my clothes.”

Fast forward to 2021, and the world is getting accustomed to wearing Scharf’s artwork. The artist has worked with multiple global fashion brands over the past 30 years, from high-street names such as Urban Outfitters, to designers like Todd Oldham, Heron Preston, Jeremy Scott, and most recently Dior, for Fall 2021. The latter, Scharf said, has strengthened his Chinese fanbase and possibly contributed to him landing his first China-based solo show at Almine Rech gallery in Shanghai, which ended October 9.

Kenny Scharf x Dior Fall 2021

Yet such international success comes with more commercial, collaborative work, which certain artworld critics would condemn as purely profit-oriented. “I’ve been dealing with getting critiqued for being commercial,” said Scharf, “but always found that surprising because I thought Andy Warhol changed the idea of commercial art and fine art, blurring those boundaries. So, I thought that when I came along in the 1980s, the doors were open.”

Despite the mainstream beliefs of his early art days, Scharf has always dreamt of working with fashion brands, particularly from the moment he saw Vivienne Westwood’s collaboration with Haring in 1983 — a marriage of talent that Scharf called “a harbinger of the future.”

In fact, he adores when the fashion and art worlds collide. “Applied arts don’t need to be limited,” he stated. “Even though most of my art is done solitary on a canvas, it was definitely made to be out in the world, not just hanging on a wall but meant to be outside… It’s meant to be on cars and clothes. And fashion is a way of applying art to your everyday life.” Scharf’s most recent collaboration with Parley for the Oceans, fighting against plastic pollution, is the perfect illustration of this statement, with his work painted across 12 surfboards.

Kenny Scharf Parley For The Oceans

Sales of the Parley for the Oceans x Kenny Scharf collaboration will benefit Parley’s Global Clean Up Network, with special focus on south of Tulum, Mexico.

When Scharf endearingly recalled seeing a teenage boy in Egypt wearing one of his paintings from his Urban Outfitters line a while back, his purpose behind collaborating became clear: it’s a way of making his art accessible and enjoyed beyond the exclusive art world. The artist attests that as long as you stay true to yourself and what your art is about, then, ultimately, any product launch is possible.

Of course, Scharf is alive to direct his collaborations while some of the most prominent members of his ‘80s art set are not, triggering extensive criticism when their work appears on too many arbitrary products without consent.

Scharf admits it is hard to decipher whether Basquiat would have wanted the number of collaborations that have been released. “I think he might have done some, but he would have said no to quite a few,” Scharf mused. “We used to collaborate, but when Jean-Michel got a little older, there was no way he was going to collaborate with anyone equal, only someone higher, which was Andy Warhol. If he had lived, he would have been pretty cantankerous, but it would have been great. I wish he would have.”

“As far as Keith Haring goes,” Scharf said, “it was part of his oeuvre. Although, sometimes I see things with Keith [on them], and I think there could have been a better way to do it. The same goes for Jean-Michel. As much as I love their work getting reapplied, it makes me long for how they might have used their art in that situation and how different it would have been. But sometimes, I’ll see some stuff that I would wear, and I love it.”

It’s impossible to predict how Basquiat or Haring might have approached collaboration in 2021. But in an era when artists struggle to maintain public attention due to the fast-paced and oversaturated online world, we suspect they might have chosen more commercial routes than critics expect.

“It’s a natural evolution,” added Scharf, while reflecting on how the art world has developed since his career started. “I think art is so much about communication. With communication, you want to reach as many people as you can.”

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Art & Design, Collabs and Drops, Creatives, Global