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Review: ‘Kenny Scharf: When Worlds Collide’ reveals the triumph of a committed artist

The Times is committed to reviewing theatrical film releases during the COVID-19 pandemic. Because moviegoing carries risks during this time, we remind readers to follow health and safety guidelines as outlined by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and local health officials.

For most painters, footage of them creating doesn’t clash with how we see the art — in appreciating the work, we often accept what’s painstaking about it. But it’s strangely jarring to see L.A.’s own Pop art king Kenny Scharf in a new documentary about him diligently, calmly attending to the details of one of his colorful explosions of childlike exuberance. To consider the disciplined human behind his psychedelic, TV-culture-inspired fantasy worlds can feel as off-putting as a backstage view of an elaborate magic trick.

And yet what Scharf’s daughter Malia and her co-director, Max Basch, have crafted with “Kenny Scharf: When Worlds Collide” is a lively, heartfelt appraisal of where his eye-candy funscapes, decorated objects, trash-repurposed sculptures, and performance art originated. Not surprisingly, his work emerged from an outsider’s perspective that struggled to reconcile an art-is-life-is-art compulsion with the realities of making a living as an artist.

A Valley kid raised on Hanna-Barbera cartoons and ad aesthetics, Scharf moved to New York and became a fixture on the East Village street-art scene alongside friends Keith Haring and Jean-Michel Basquiat. When their stars ascended while his stayed put — he was readily dismissed as art’s adolescent jester — he moved again, this time to Brazil, starting a family and recommitting himself to art-making as a daily, ceaseless passion, even as staying afloat financially became harder and harder.

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Achieving icon status for his freewheeling sensibility would be a marathon, not a sprint. But his work’s personality effortlessly compels, as exemplified in a sweet moment in the documentary when a passerby admires the artist’s surreal Bronx mural and has his denim jacket personally “customized” via Scharf’s spray can. Made with spirit and affection, the film frames Scharf’s prodigious output and energy — aided by testimonials from Ed Ruscha, Yoko Ono, Jeffrey Deitch and Ann Magnuson, and homey footage from his busy, cluttered L.A. studio — as a triumph of having nourished an artistic soul rather than carefully modulating an artistic career.

'Kenny Scharf: When Worlds Collide'

Not rated

Running time: 1 hour, 20 minutes

Playing: Starts June 25, Laemmle Royal, West L.A.


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