If Boomer nostalgia music docs were the rage of 2018, 2019, and 2020, then New York street artist bios are the doc fad of 2021. On the heels of Martha: A Picture Story and Wojnarowicz: Fuck You Faggot Fucker comes Kenny Scharf: When Worlds Collide. It’s a rollicking portrait of the NYC pop artist. The doc is cut from the cloth of poppy profile docs, although any bleary-eyed doc fan trying to keep pace with the truly insane volume of film releases these days could easily mistake it for the other two.
Martha Cooper and her photography actually appear in this doc, while much of the narrative of Kenny Scharf mirrors Wojnarowicz, aside from the especially homosexual tendencies of the latter doc. (Scharf comes out as gender fluid in this film, even if his articulation of the term is a bit muddled.) The Scharf doc is much straighter than Wojnarowicz, both in form and content, but it nevertheless proudly champions outsiders and iconoclasts without being formulaic. Kenny Scharf: When Worlds Collide brings the talent and funk of the art scene into the homes of audiences when galleries remain tragically shuttered.
Directors Max Basch and Malia Scharf (Kenny’s daughter) use a treasure trove of archival materials to recreate the revitalizing energy of Greenwich Village in the 1970s and 1980s. Scharf appears in new interviews and verité-style footage as he recounts his trajectory and muses about the days ahead. When Worlds Collides situates Kenny Scharf within a milieu of artists that included the likes of Jean-Michel Basquiat and Keith Haring, who both died tragically young after leading a new wave of popular street art in NYC. However, where they died, Scharf lived. In doing so, though, the film notes that Basquiat and Haring may have achieved greater immortality through art. This doc unpacks the question of the canon with provocative considerations about the relationship between popularity and artistic merit.
When Worlds Collide observes Scharf’s signature style with verve and delight. His art favours bright colours and good vibes. Big bubbly curves and nods to the aesthetics of Hanna-Barbera lend Scharf’s art a cartoonish street cred. Often using a building’s façade as his canvas, Scharf’s works evoke feelings of joy amid the concrete jungle. The doc asks if art’s value resides in the emotions it sparks in an onlooker, rather than in the monetary appraisals that are arbitrarily inflated in the contemporary scene. However, Basch and Scharf also ask if the air of adolescence to Scharf’s “Barberism” prevents him from being appreciated as widely as his contemporaries are. The doc makes clear that there is no less artistry or skill involved in a work simply because it inspires memories of childhood.
One could say the same about the film itself. When Worlds Collide doesn’t display the same formal dexterity as Wojnarowicz does, but it’s not paint-by-numbers. The filmmakers’ access to Scharf yields ample riches in terms of the range of materials and their access to the artist. As Scharf looks back at the loss of many great talents in his circle of friends amid the AIDS crisis, he soberly reflects on the decisions that may have saved his life, such as his desire to shift his focus to his kids and family. The effort obviously paid off, as noted by the subsequent generation of artists who share his name.
Kenny Scharf: When Worlds Collide opens in digital release April 16 including via Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema.