Kenny Scharf

Wild Contrast at the Hammer

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By G. James Daichendt

Black Mountain College was a small progressive liberal arts college in North Carolina that operated for a short time between the years 1933-1957. The school positioned the arts as the central aspect in the curriculum and some of the most influential artists of the midcentury era taught or studied at the experimental institution. “Leap Before You Look: Black Mountain College” is a revealing exhibit that tells the story of the college through several of its practitioners including John Cage, Buckminster Fuller, Josef and Anni Albers. Operating on a scarce budget, the school was founded on many of the ideas propagated by philosopher John Dewey, who understood art as an experience. From drawing and color assignments to still photos of performances, the exhibit is broken into five sections that piece together a loose but well-rounded history of the school.

In wild contrast to the austere modernism within the Hammer Museum, Kenny Scharf has taken over the museum lobby with his vocabulary of creatures that spin, morph, and zoom around the expansive space. The somber aesthetics of the museum disappear under Kenny’s hand as they are transformed into a bastion of fun. Created with only spray paint, Kenny’s lexicon of spirals, use of symmetry, and allusions to space reference his interest in spirituality and escapism. Drawing upon a history of customizing objects like vacuum cleaners and radios, he is well known for creating black light installations called Cosmic Caverns. This recent installation is distinct from these creations. It is more like a 360-degree mural that welcomes the visitor into Kenny’s world. The foundational modernism of Black Mountain is rightfully honored at the Hammer but it’s Kenny’s explosive installation that makes you want to enter.

Dr. G. James Daichendt is an art critic, historian, and professor. Some call him Professor Street Art or simply Jim. Check out his projects and activities on

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