Kenny Scharf in his "Cosmic Cavern" installation at the Nassau...

Kenny Scharf in his "Cosmic Cavern" installation at the Nassau County Museum of Art in Roslyn, which is hosting an exhibit of his work. Credit: Newsday / Alejandra Villa

“Art is my religion,” says Kenny Scharf, whose eponymous pop surrealism exhibition opened March 19 at the Nassau County Museum of Art.

Scharf, 57, has been spreading the word of his “religion” since he was a kid watching cartoons in his native Hollywood, California. “It’s a universalist language,” he says while putting finishing touches on his “Cosmic Cavern” installation, a garish mini-nightclub environment occupying an entire gallery of the museum. “ ‘The Flintstones’ and ‘The Jetsons’ were my favorites,” he says of the Hanna-Barbera TV shows. “They stand for future and past. Where the future and past collide is a time splat. A lot of my work comes from that.”

Playful imagery became his signature when he emerged within the eye-popping, sometimes exasperating New York City graffiti and street art movement in the 1980s. Remember when subway cars served as locomotive canvases for spray-paint artists? Or were they just vandals?

“There were outlaw aspects to graffiti art,” says Karl Willers, director of the Nassau museum, who brought the show here with, he says, the full support of his exhibitions committee and museum board. “This is certainly something new and exciting, I think, for our patrons and visitors to see.”


Being selected for the 1985 Whitney Biennial enhanced Scharf’s mainstream acceptance. Major commissions followed, including his 2001 project covering the ceiling of the Palazzo Comunale in Pordenonne, Italy. These wildly imaginative “time-splat” paintings in the Nassau show hint at formal religion with hidden Renaissance iconography such as Madonnas — “not that Madonna,” he adds, referring jokingly to the pop star who befriended his graffiti cohorts.

Among them were Keith Haring, who shared an apartment and studio space with Scharf near Times Square in the early ’80s, and Jean-Michel Basquiat, a crossover artist who merged graffiti painting with hip-hop performance. The works of those contemporaries and others from the street art movement are displayed in “Glamorous Graffiti,” a companion exhibit in the upstairs galleries of the Nassau museum.

As we pass through the hallway to a gallery displaying early and recent works on a similar theme — an iconic doughnut painting not exhibited since 1983 and “Tanglepop” (2015), embedding doughnuts within a surreal swirl — Scharf points out canvasses that he used for cleaning his brushes, creating a Jackson Pollock drip effect.


Back in the “Cosmic Cavern,” bathed in black light, Scharf finishes painting a plastic toy to take a seat for a chat. Yes, you can sit and even dance inside the “Cavern” as recorded tracks of new wave punk play. (Scharf is partial to The B-52s.)

“I coined the phrase ‘pop surrealism’ myself in 1981,” says Scharf, a graduate of Manhattan’s School of Visual Arts. “But ‘pop abstract realism’ probably better describes this room,” he adds. Yet, really, it’s mostly garbage. We don’t mean that in a pejorative sense. “This is all garbage — with a sheen of paint,” Scharf says of found objects that decorate the walls and ceiling of his installation as well as the functional furniture where you may pause before sitting. “No, that paint’s not wet,” he assures us before patting the seat to reassure himself.

“I found most of this stuff on the streets of Brooklyn,” he says as we notice a PC keyboard, old-fashioned tube TVs (no flat screens in sight), a fake Christmas tree and plastic superhero toys painted in cheerfully bright colors. His first such room, “The Cosmic Closet,” occupied a real closet in the Manhattan apartment he shared with Haring.

“The idea is to bring out the child in the hardened adult,” Scharf says. “I like to give viewers different opportunities. If they just go, ‘Wow, look at the bright colors. Let’s dance,’ that’s OK. Or they can go deeper, if they choose, and think about the environmental impact of all this throwaway consumerism. I don’t like to hit them over the head with it — but when it starts to affect the actual planet . . . ”

Still, there’s no shortage of images that make you smile in “Kenny Scharf,” the exhibit.

‘Kenny Scharf’

WHEN | WHERE Through July 10, Nassau County Museum of Art, 1 Museum Dr., Roslyn Harbor. Hours: 11 a.m.-4:45 p.m. Tuesdays-Sundays

INFO 516-484-9337,

ADMISSION $10 ($4 students, free younger than 4)

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