A SOUPED-UP COUPE DE VILLE BY KENNY SCHARF AND A DUCATI MOTORCYCLE WITH CUSTOM ARTWORK BY MICKALENE THOMAS SPEED INTO HERITAGE AUCTIONS
By Christina Rees
The contemporary art world is shaped not only by the artists whose names we commit to memory – stars like Warhol or Basquiat or Richter – but also by quiet heroes who navigate that world with a unique and brilliant consistency. Not so long ago the journalist Malcolm Gladwell coined the term “connector” to describe a trendsetting person who has a rich network of friends and acquaintances and a knack for bringing people together. The energetic and wonderfully good-natured artist Kenny Scharf, who got his start in New York City in the late 1970s and hit his first real stride in the ’80s while working alongside Keith Haring (his roommate), Basquiat and all the rest, is a true connector. Directly and indirectly, Scharf has been instrumental in building our understanding of what contemporary art can do and all the wonderful and surprising places it can go. His work, beloved by artists and collectors alike, is often described as “joyful.”
From the beginning, Scharf – as much part of a then-emergent street-art scene as the downtown NYC gallery scene a la the legendary Fun Gallery, Tony Shafrazi’s gallery and the landmark 1980 The Times Square Show – has embraced playful, pleasurable maximalism that has buoyed art lovers even when culture, politics and public health have turned dark. It’s as though Scharf, as a representative of one of the coolest scenes that America has ever cultivated (in the midst of the ’80s AIDS epidemic, no less), accepted an unspoken remit to give people something to brighten their lives and imaginations and to liberate them, at least for a moment, from life’s monotony.
One of the things he’s most known for is his transformation of spaces and objects into environments that explode with his inventive psyche; in his singular way he layers and juxtaposes found pop-culture objects and aesthetic tricks to build dense new landscapes of possibility. His otherworldly series of Cosmic Caverns epitomizes this approach, but he has applied his sensibility to cars, too. Now one of his most beloved and fully customized art cars, a 1960 Cadillac Coupe De Ville titled Astro Cumulo Uber Express (created in 2005, with a public debut during 2006’s Miami Basel), is coming to Heritage Auctions as part of its May 23 Modern & Contemporary Art Signature® Auction.
Like Scharf’s other work, Astro Cumulo Uber Express is a celebration of the individual spirit in the face of mass-consumption conformity. A Cadillac Coupe De Ville from the era was already a work of brilliant futurism; Scharf then rolled decades of pop-culture references and graphic punctuation onto all of its surfaces, thus transforming it from a motorized design landmark into a work of art. Scharf spent about a month haunting thrift stores and revamping the car: Pink plastic Easter Island heads and a tiny green dinosaur become the hood ornaments; the car wears a tiara on its roof; seashells and action figures decorate its interior; a working turntable and disco ball fill the trunk. Party in the front, party in the middle, party in the back.
Commissioned by collectors who knew Scharf’s “car bomb” work (cars emblazoned with Scharfian doodles), Astro Cumulo is a sight to behold. The artist himself touched up the Cadillac ahead of this event, and the car is in mint condition, with only 5,434 miles on its odometer.
“This Cadillac, which has been in storage for the last 15 years, is the first fully customized car to appear for public sale and undoubtedly the most significant Kenny Scharf work to be offered at auction,” says Taylor Curry, Heritage’s Director of Modern & Contemporary Art in New York. “Its bold design, vibrant colors and details are a testament to Scharf’s unparalleled creativity and artistic vision.”
Scharf’s whimsical vehicle isn’t the only moving canvas in the May 23 auction, however. Acclaimed New York City-based artist Mickalene Thomas has partnered with Heritage, Ducati North America and men’s grooming brand ATWATER to benefit RxART, a nonprofit organization that helps children heal through the extraordinary power of visual art. Ducati donated a brand-new 2024 Scrambler Icon to be transformed by Thomas with her custom artwork, and the motorcycle will be auctioned through Heritage.
Proceeds from the partnership will underwrite RxART’s art installation for the new SUNY Upstate: Nappi Wellness Institute in Syracuse, New York. RxART commissions established contemporary artists to transform children’s hospital settings into engaging and uplifting healing environments at no cost to the hospitals.
Thomas is one of the most celebrated artists of her generation. Her paintings and multimedia works take on the complex intersection of race, femininity and beauty through her distinctive vernacular; her recognizable aesthetic makes her an especially compelling artist to join this unique partnership and take on the transformation of a pre-production motorcycle. Thomas’ mastery of material and image carries an undeniable presence and will convert the Scrambler Icon into a one-of-a-kind work of art. This project continues a rich tradition of artist collaborations with legacy brands that honor the artist’s vision and intent. For this project, Thomas will incorporate her unmistakable-yet-evolving flower motif, which she has used extensively throughout her practice.
“I am extremely humbled to be partnering with Ducati, ATWATER and Heritage for such an important cause,” Thomas says. “Changing narratives for future generations has always been a key part of my work as an artist and mentor. This partnership is particularly rewarding to have the opportunity to share the healing power of art with the next generation.”
CHRISTINA REES is a staff writer at Intelligent Collector.