Scharf Among the Surrealists

Kenny Scharf was eight years old when he first saw the work of Salvador Dali. While playing at a neighbor's house in Hollywood, California, Scharf, best known for his use of cartoon imagery in his paintings, must have been watching TV when he spotted a heavy book on the coffee table. Poring over the glossy reproductions of the Catalan artist's hallucinogenic landscapes and mannered religious tableaux, the boy was mesmerized. "I think that has had a lot to do with my sensibility ever since," he asserts.

Kenny Scharf: Pop Surrealist, a retrospective of the Miami-based artist's work, opened May 3 at the Salvador Dali Museum in St. Petersburg. "I was so thrilled you can't imagine," he says gleefully. "It's kind of a childhood fantasy come true."

A selection of oil paintings by Dali, including outstanding examples of his surrealist works and some of his more melodramatic late canvases, is on permanent display in the museum, home to an extensive Dali collection amassed over four decades by Ohio industrialist A. Reynolds Morse and his wife Eleanor. Though museum curator Joan Kropf regularly mounts collective shows of prints and paintings by Dali contemporaries and photo exhibitions documenting the surrealist period, Scharf's show (organized by guest curator William Jeffett) is the first dedicated to a single artist other than the museum's namesake.

"Kenny had been influenced by Dali's work, and it seemed like an appropriate combination," Kropf says. "From a contemporary viewpoint, Kenny uses some of the same things that Dali used in his work."

The show includes 35 of Scharf's paintings and sculptures, with the majority displayed in one of the airy museum's galleries. Sixty paintings by Dali are on view in a separate gallery. Some of Scharf's paintings are also hung on the mezzanine, across from several huge canvases by the surrealist. Here, for example, Scharf's Hot Dickety Devil, a fiery portrait of a salivating hermaphrodite devil, faces Dali's Hallucinogenic Toreador, a double-image painting in which repeated pictures of the Venus de Milo reveal a vibrant bullfight scene.

In this context it is easy to see similarities between the two artists' paintings, most obviously in their shimmering landscapes and incongruous juxtapositions of images. Both have been engaged with the idea of dreams and memory: Dali was inspired by psychological case studies of neurosis and his own paranoid delusions, Scharf by the collective unconscious of postwar media images and advertisements.

The show provides an opportunity to chart other parallels between the pair. As young men, both became notorious in the art world and beyond; and both were identified as part of a group of cutting-edge artists -- Dali with Andre Breton and other Paris surrealists in the late Twenties, Scharf with Keith Haring and Jean-Michel Basquiat in New York in the early Eighties. Dali was ejected from the surrealist movement in 1934 over aesthetic and political disagreements with Breton. From 1945 to 1955 he and his wife Gala lived in the United States, where he sold many of his finest works to American collectors such as the aforementioned Morse. Scharf had no such rift with his cohorts -- his was a sadder story. Haring, Basquiat, and Scharf's other good friend and colleague, Andy Warhol, died, leaving him to forge ahead into the next decade on his own. He moved with his family to Miami in 1992.

Scharf shares Dali's joy in everyday objects, and both have been criticized by more conventional artists (and critics) for embracing popular culture, or for simply having fun. Dali decorated store windows; Scharf rode around New York in a wildly painted old Cadillac he customized himself. The gift shop at the Dali museum now carries Zippo lighters and Swatch watches designed by Scharf, along with Dali T-shirts, coffee mugs, and watches that look "melted" like the clock in his famous painting Disintegration of the Persistence of Memory.

Kropf reports that the show has so far attracted a great deal of interest, and that the opening reception, packed with tout St. Petersburg, was a smash.

Scharf has one thing to say about the opening: "It was surreal."

The desolate strip of abandoned storefronts and mom-and-pop tchotchke shops where the South Florida Art Center opened to provide low-rent studios for artists is a distant memory. These days the SFAC's buildings on the western end of Lincoln Road are among the few constants in the roulette game of ever-changing upscale stores and restaurants the mall has become.

Now the South Florida Art Center is no more. The buildings have not been sold to make way for Banana Republic and Starbucks. The SFAC has a new name, ArtCenter-South Florida, to be known simply as ArtCenter. The center's exhibition gallery Groundlevel has been christened Art1035; what was once ClaySpace is now Art1037. The small gallery on Meridian, Art800, retains its name.

"We wanted to have a shortened name," says director Jane Gilbert, "and SFAC was confusing and hard to say -- it didn't describe who we are. The goal of our new identity is to bring all programs under one unified mission."

Besides clearing up the confusion -- Gilbert says passersby often didn't realize that the studios and Groundlevel and the other galleries were all part of one entity -- the new name is symbolic of changes the art center has undergone with the rebirth of Lincoln Road.

"The art center was originally an artists' cooperative, helping to revitalize a blighted neighborhood," the director explains. As urban-renewal grants from the city were increasingly cut back, Gilbert had to search for other funding options. "We've grown up with Lincoln Road, and now we are becoming a professional nonprofit geared toward advancing the careers of visual artists throughout South Florida and educating the younger population about viable careers in the arts," she says. "We're not just a studio program; we're here to develop exhibition, education, and teaching opportunities for artists." According to Gilbert, enrollment in the center's art classes has more than doubled since last year, membership is up, and a grant from the Dade Community Foundation is funding a new development and membership campaign.

Gilbert hopes to sign up some new members tonight (Thursday) at ArtCenter's twelfth anniversary celebration, which takes place on the 1000 block of Lincoln Road. Forty-five dollars buys a year's membership to the center and admission to the 8:00 p.m. party, with open bar; food from Joe's Stone Crab, Lario's, and other South Beach restaurants; and live music. Before that, at 7:00, ArtCenter will lead free tours of artists' studios. "Transition/ Transformation," a group show at Art1035 that explores how artists' work is affected by living in Miami, is yet another option. For more information, see our "Calendar," page 20, or call 674-8278.

In approving the state university system's budget for fiscal year 1998, the legislature has cleared the way for Florida International University to take over the Wolfsonian on July 1.

"Pending the governor's approval, two million dollars will be made available to FIU for the Wolfsonian," confirms Cathy Leff, the museum's interim director. "We will work on an agreement for gifting the entire collection and the building to FIU."

Although not all the details of the merger have been worked out, Leff is optimistic that being part of FIU will broaden the scope of the propaganda arts museum. "There will be so much more opportunity to make the collection available to an academic audience," Leff says. "This is a collection that really requires a scholarly interpretation. It is not art for art's sake. It's art in the service of ideas, and that really requires interpretation from many disciplines."

Leff, who is working on details of the new budget, says it's too early to say whether she'll remain as director. As for other potential staff changes, she says, "I don't anticipate anyone's going to leave. We still really need to take a look at this and see how it will evolve."

Back onboard is curator Wendy Kaplan, who was laid off last summer, along with other museum employees, owing to budget cuts. For the past six months she has been employed as FIU's special assistant for the arts.

"I was hired by FIU to explore how the Wolfsonian can really fit in with the academic program to mutual advantage," says Kaplan. Last semester she taught a class at FIU called "Problems of Design Research" that she calls "a case study" to determine ways in which students could make use of the Wolfsonian collection and to anticipate what problems they might encounter. Lack of parking around the museum (located at Washington Avenue and Tenth Street on South Beach) and restricted library hours were two things that immediately came up.

Kaplan, who calls the FIU takeover "a very celebratory event," is already working with associate curator Marianne Lamonaca on a schedule of exhibitions for the next four years. These include "Pioneers of Modern Graphic Design"; a show dedicated to public art that will include a mural by contemporary artist Nicole Eisenman and WPA works from the Wolfsonian collection; an exhibition exploring the theme of the body in modern design; and an exhibition of early German graphic design.

"The inaugural show was a wonderful brush of what the whole collection is about," Kaplan says. "Now it's time to focus on more specialized aspects of the collection."

Kenny Scharf: Pop Surrealist.
Through September 1. Salvador Dali Museum, 1000 3rd St South, St. Petersburg; 813-823-3767.

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