Steve Kaufman
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Steve Kaufman and His Mission:
Keeping the Pop in Pop Art

by John Terlesky
Special to the Morning Call

Pop Art, with its numbing repetition, disregard for conventional standards of technique and use of mundane objects for subject matter, achieved much of its curious power from an inherent irony: Coke bottles and blown-up comic strips were not what you expected from the usually high-minded art world.

The ironic thing about Steve Kaufman - who once assisted the genre's best known purveyor, Andy Warhol, and who is looked upon in some circles as his successor- is the complete absence of irony in his work. His brightly colored silk-screen paintings seem to celebrate familiar icons - subjects include Warhol staples Marilyn Monroe and Elvis Presley, as well as Warner Bros. Cartoon characters and super heroes - without any distancing reservations.

"What people don't realize," suggests Kaufman, 40, during an interview from his studio in Los Angeles, "is that, actually, pop art' is popular culture."

You can judge for yourself when Kaufman makes a personal appearance 6-9 p.m. Thursday at Bethlem's Contemporary Fine Arts gallery to unveil a new series of his works featuring his take on the Frank Sinatra mug shot used for the cover of a recent best-seller.

To Kaufman, the "pop" in Pop Art really does stand for "popular" in the broadest sense of the term. Brought up on the rough streets of the South Bronx, the artist has the kind of common touch in both conversation and his work that indicates an instinctual disdain for high-brow conceptualizing-the bread and butter of most contemporary art.

"I used to be a comic book artist," recounts Kaufman, "and it's kind of funny to take comic books and bring them into the fine art world, where these traditional people who believe they know what art should be say, "Well, that's not art." And then you meet other people who say, "I love this, man. Spiderman or Superman was my childhood thing, and I wouldn't think of anything else to put on my wall."

Not just comic book fans have come to appreciate Kaufman's work. Among those who own paintings are Al Pacino, Elizabeth Taylor and John Travolta, and the artist was recently commissioned to do a portrait of Vincent Van Gogh, a job that was accompanied by some vindication. "For the so-called critics, who stand there and say this is not real art, well, the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam seems to have accepted it," he observes with satisfaction.

Kaufman is clearly derivative of Warhol." We all start somewhere," he admits. "I take it as a compliment and always will." But he insists that he is going the late artist-some of whose works he was commissioned to finish-one step further, by employing more than just the stark images lifted from photographs that made Warhol famous. " The work I do now is on the cutting edge," he contends. "Like the Mona Lisa, that's a standard portrait. Even Warhol's portraits are a standard one-head shot. I do more of a collage and throw things together.

Keeping with the non-elitist spirit of his work, Kaufman enlists the aid of LA gang members, some straight out of prison, in producing his paintings, a practice that both acknowledge his own past and provides future rewards.

"I could have easily hired kids from college. But those kids could have easily found jobs on their own," Kaufman says. "These kids are the ones that get in trouble and have no place to go. When you see a kid go on to good things, you can't put a price on that."
A sort of "surrogate Warhol"-an idea that would have probably amused the man who built his career on a catty sense of interchangeability - Kaufman has come to hobnob with the same cognoscenti that were his former boss's chief patrons. But the painter bristles at the suggestion of his own notoriety being an important part of his work's appeal.
"That's the furthest thing from my brain," Kaufman says dismissive. "I do not even think of myself as a celebrity. Eight hours a day I'm around homeless people and gang kids."