Nature boy

Malia Scharf and Max Basch on Kenny Scharf: When Worlds Collide

by Anne-Katrin Titze

Dennis Hopper on Kenny Scharf, Keith Haring and Jean-Michel Basquiat in Malia Scharf and Max Basch’s documentary, produced with David Koh: “They brought a vitality and an energy to art that just hadn’t been there. The importance of those three artists, they just seemed to bring the eighties alive really.”
Dennis Hopper on Kenny Scharf, Keith Haring and Jean-Michel Basquiat in Malia Scharf and Max Basch’s documentary, produced with David Koh: “They brought a vitality and an energy to art that just hadn’t been there. The importance of those three artists, they just seemed to bring the eighties alive really.” Photo: Tseng Kwong Chi / Courtesy Muna Tseng Dance Projects, Inc.

Two of the 2020 DOC NYC highlights are on artists. The world premiere of Chris McKim’s hard-edged Wojnarowicz brings back to life the committed activist/artist/poet/performer David Wojnarowicz (featuring phone messages and archival interviews with Fran Lebowitz, Peter Hujar, Marion Scemama, Kiki Smith, Richard Kern, Nan Goldin, Carlo McCormick, Gracie Mansion, and the music of 3 Teens Kill 4) who died from AIDS in 1992 at age 37.

Malia Scharf on Kenny Scharf with Keith Haring: "He was and still is such an important part of Kenny and our lives."
Malia Scharf on Kenny Scharf with Keith Haring: "He was and still is such an important part of Kenny and our lives."

And there is Malia Scharf and Max Basch’s intimate portrait, Kenny Scharf: When Worlds Collide (produced with David Koh), which features remembrances from Kenny of Keith Haring, Klaus Nomi, Andy Warhol, and Jean-Michel Basquiat, clips from Jim Jarmusch’s Permanent Vacation, Edo Bertoglio’s Downtown 81, and Charlie Ahearn’s Wild Style, interviews with Jeffrey Deitch, Yoko Ono, Dennis Hopper, Edward Ruscha, Bruno Schmidt, Samantha McEwen, KAWS, Gabor Maté, Tony Shafrazi, Carlo McCormick, Min Sanchez, and the voice of Ann Magnuson.

Scharf says that he knew he had come to the right place, SVA (School of Visual Arts) in 1978 New York, upon hearing Devo blasting from Keith Haring’s studio. “I remember thinking when I saw him this is the person I’ve been looking for.” “I always felt a little isolated” growing up in Los Angeles, he says, “my fuel for moving to New York was learning about Andy.” That is Warhol of course and the scene at The Factory. Kenny recalls telling Andy “we are in the same show”, referring to the 1981 New York / New Wave exhibition at MoMA PS1, organised by Diego Cortez.

The documentary by Max Basch (also the editor and co-writer) and Scharf’s daughter Malia covers decades of artistic endeavors and family joys and travails through a loving lens. Although Yoko Ono calls Kenny Scharf’s work “from another planet” and “not of this Earth”, the relaxed and focused artist we see is very much concerned with what is happening to our environment. The discarded and the unwanted are his materials - Kenny diagnoses himself with a syndrome that makes him see faces in everything; his is a universe where inanimate objects have personality and where the Jetsons and Flintstones can help make sense for us all of the bewildering chaos we face in this time.

On a stormy late October morning in New York, Malia and Max joined me for a live e-mail exchange conversation on their film.

Kenny Scharf’s When Worlds Collide
Kenny Scharf’s When Worlds Collide

Anne-Katrin Titze: Where are the two of you this morning?

Malia Scharf: We are together in Brooklyn.

AKT: How are you coping with Covid-19?

MS: Well, we both got the virus in March, and we've been moving through this time learning a lot ... feeling the collective shift happening, the challenges and also the opportunities for growth and intimacy.

AKT: I miss very much going to cinemas. Kenny Scharf: When Worlds Collide must look great on the big screen.

MS: So do we! Yes we hope to be able to share in theatres some day. It was really fun to see at the Drive-In at Woodstock.

AKT: I love your father’s relationship to and with trash. Kenny says in When Worlds Collide: “I’m obsessed with garbage, plastic mostly.” The neighbourhood where Ed [Bahlman] and I live was part of the New York City composting pilot program, starting in June 2014. In May of this year, Mayor de Blasio suspended composting pickup due to the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on the city’s budget. Does your father do composting at his house in LA?

Composting in NYC suspended May 2020 due to COVID-19: “I miss composting here in NY so much! I'm an avid composter and Kenny is too!”
Composting in NYC suspended May 2020 due to COVID-19: “I miss composting here in NY so much! I'm an avid composter and Kenny is too!” Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

MS: I miss composting here in NY so much! I'm an avid composter and Kenny is too! mostly recycling by using trash in his art but he does compost at his house in LA as well.

AKT: How is the bathroom ceiling sculpture doing? Birds would love it. I thought about the parrots we hear at one point in the film when your father is driving through LA. Apropos, there are a few cats that show up in photos or footage. Do animals play a part in the Scharf universe?

MS: It's always growing and shifting and then being used in his art, constant change. Yes actually, animals have always been a part of the Scharf universe for sure. The cats you see are sadly not with us anymore but Kenny's garden at home is full of wild animals, lots and lots of birds that come to drink from the sculpture fountain you see in the film. Everywhere he goes he looks for nature or plants a garden and the animals usually find themselves at home there as well.

AKT: I noticed one drinking from his sculpture. Was it a hummingbird?

MS: I believe a hummingbird came in and drank from the fountain at one point. They're around!

AKT: It has clearly been a long journey getting your film made. You cover a wide range of your father’s career, friendships and the world he inhabits. How did you approach him with the idea of documenting his life?

MS: Yes it certainly has. We have a very open relationship, he's supportive of me and my projects so he was open to it. A few people had attempted to make a film about him but these were never finished so I thought it was the perfect opportunity to follow through and make something intimate. He agreed! I think it took a lot longer than we both expected, but here it is!

KAWS, the artist in Kenny Scharf: When Worlds Collide on cartoons: “I think of them as actors that never get old.”
KAWS, the artist in Kenny Scharf: When Worlds Collide on cartoons: “I think of them as actors that never get old.” Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

AKT: The Picasso quote (“All children are artists. The problem is how to remain an artist once you grow up”) at the start nicely connects with the Peter Pan syndrome mentioned later. I like how so many points brought up earlier return. Max, the editing is beautifully done. You have terrific clips from the past. When Kenny’s neighbour Klaus Nomi is remembered, you also include a David Bowie performance on SNL with Klaus and Joey Arias singing side-by-side with Bowie. Please talk about other decisions you made using the extensive archival material we see.

Max Basch: Yes, the quote in the beginning was something we decided on further along in the edit. It felt important to find ways to connect a larger thread throughout the film rather than letting it simply exist as a biopic. That quote also connects to the last lines of the film where Gabor Maté describes the importance of remaining childlike as we age and this overall concept of "play" and "fun". We fell in love with the way he described "play" and how musicians "play" music - ultimately it connects to this idea again of the importance of free expression and how Kenny's himself is a direct reflection of that.

The archive was extensive and overwhelming at times, but ultimately it was the original driving force for me within my involvement with the film. Malia shared some of the archive with me and that is what initially hooked me on the project. There is something magical about this medium that captures time throughout the course of someone's life and having the ability to look back at it through these various records is what makes documentaries in my mind so powerful.

Kenny Scharf: When Worlds Collide screens virtually in DOC NYC
Kenny Scharf: When Worlds Collide screens virtually in DOC NYC

AKT: Where did the audio of Ann Magnuson come from? She says regarding the artists and performers from the late Seventies, early Eighties: “The main way to communicate was to get out there on the street.”

MB: Yeah as Malia mentioned - a couple other folks had accumulated interviews over the years in an attempt to make a film about Kenny so that direct line from Ann actually was extracted from an earlier interview done in the early 2000's I believe.

AKT: Club 57 was a big part of Kenny’s life. We see him doing his Lawrence Welk tribute. Malia, did your father do any impersonations around you at home?

MS: Yes he loves to be playful and make us laugh. I can’t put my finger on specific impersonations but he does love to entertain.

AKT: We agree, Kenny is very entertaining in your film. The Mudd Club was also a hangout for Kenny and many of his fellow creators. Ed remembers Min working there as a bartender. Did your father mention any bands from that time that he went to see there? You have a clip of DNA performing. Were there any other performances that you thought about including? MS: Yes they went to the Mudd Club from time to time. Min is wonderful! I love what a small world it was. I'm not sure if they played at the Mudd Club but he loves to sing songs from Pulsallama, a band Min was in. And lots of people who weren't "singers" performed and this was part of the magic of the time.

Everyone expressed themselves however they felt. We didn't have many other performances we thought to include. There's just so much we wanted to put into the film, it wasn't a top priority. Actually as I write this I think about Devo and a show where Kenny and Keith were dancing in the audience. We would have loved to include that!

David Wojnarowicz in Chris McKim’s Wojnarowicz
David Wojnarowicz in Chris McKim’s Wojnarowicz Photo: Estate of David Wojnarowicz P.P.O.W. Gallery

AKT: Ed got Pulsallama their first gig outside of NYC. He had the 9:30 Club in Washington D.C. book them as the opening band for Liquid Liquid. Please send greetings from Ed Bahlman, founder of 99 Records, to Min. It was good for him seeing her in When Worlds Collide.

MS: I love that! I will!

AKT: KAWS says about cartoons: “I think of them as actors that never get old.” Kenny in your film appears ageless with boundless energy. John Lydon published a memoir titled Anger is an Energy. Your father seems to get his energy from joy and endless curiosity. Was it difficult keeping up with him while you were filming? Dennis Hopper says referring to Kenny, Keith and Jean-Michel; “They brought a vitality and an energy to art that just hadn’t been there. The importance of those three artists, they just seemed to bring the eighties alive really.”

MB: He [Kenny] was at times difficult to wrangle. When he's really focused he can't be bothered. He didn't mind the camera around him but if you asked him to do something he could at times get frustrated and lose interest. That said, if you catch him at the right time he would be down to do just about anything - it was a sliding scale.

AKT: One last question. Your father speaking about the loss of Keith Haring is a very emotional and powerful moment in your film. Kenny says that he knew he had come to the right place upon hearing Devo at SVA in New York which turned out to be coming from Keith Haring’s studio “I remember thinking when I saw him this is the person I’ve been looking for.” What do you remember about Keith Haring? What I mean here is on the lasting impact their friendship had for him.

MS: Yes, so emotional I cry every time I see it still. He was and still is such an important part of Kenny and our lives. Sadly I was quite young when Keith died, only 2 years old so what I remember most about Keith is his loving spirit. Mostly his energy and his generosity and love of children.

The closed IFC Center partners with DOC NYC
The closed IFC Center partners with DOC NYC Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

My sister Zena spent a lot more time with him and got to be with him until she was 6. He was her Godfather. Until this day Keith continues to shower us with love and gifts, from time to time I feel his spirit and feel him with me. Thank you!

Kenny Scharf: When Worlds Collide will screen virtually at DOC NYC starting on Wednesday, November 11 through Thursday, November 19.

Wojnarowicz will screen virtually in the Metropolis competition at DOC NYC starting on Wednesday, November 11 through Thursday, November 19.

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