Steve Kaufman
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Pop Trash or Treasure

Caroline Smith meets Warhol-disciple and pop art icon Steve Kaufman

"Robert De Niro, Frank Sinatra, Al Pacino – they're just regular guys," says Steve Kaufman. The LA based artist thinks that celebrities are just regular people – John Travolta, and Princess Di, whose generosity he believes knew no bounds: no one can ever live up to her, we're all in her shadow." He should know. Over the years, he's met his fair share of stars including Madonna, when she was gyrating to Lucky Star at New York's Roxy night club, Muhammad Ali and Whoopi Goldberg, to name a few. But his biggest claim to fame is assisting Andy Warhol.

Kaufman worked in the Factory as at the turn of the 80s, designing themed parties at Studio 54 and showing his own work with Keith Haring at Club 57. His sculptures and silk-screen prints of stars such as Janet Jackson, Jack Nicholson and Madonna take off where Warhol's work ended. It's Pop Art resurrected for the naughtiness crowd.

He's ambivalent about his own fame. "I don't feel famous," he says, " thought I met a guy at a party and he called me Sir out if respect. He was about 60 and I was 40. I was like just call me Steve. To me, it's about being real, but we put these people on pedestals. We aspire to be like them to the extent that they actually become ourselves."

With celebrity power comes responsibility and Kaufman thinks that the La La Land inmates aren't doing nearly enough. His mission has always been campaigning for causes such as racial harmony or helping kids off the streets. When he opened his New York studio in '89, he invited the homeless to work with him. When he moved to LA, he employed 976 ex-gang kids to be assistants and set up the charity 'Give Kids A Break'. Then there are the hefty donations, most recently $19,000 worth of art for an auction at a British elementary school.

"Why not?" he says. "I make enough money. I hope other celebrities follow. I look at Madonna and just scratch my head, specially when you consider Princess Di and Muhammad Ali, who did so much work for human rights."

He says that his work has changed people's lives – not just the kids but the consumers. One man bought a Andy Warhol Marylin Monroe for $10k; he sold it for $4m, has retired from the profits and promptly bought 195 paintings from Steve Kaufman for his grandchildren's future.

He hopes that one of the kids will continue his work when he dies and become bigger than him. "Before Ali there was Joe Lewis," he says. " before me, there was Andy Warhol." It's a bold statement. Continue Warhol's work, sure, many of the maestro's old associates have done that, but overshadowing the icon that is Warhol? And there's the rub. Kaufman has cashed in on Warhol and in these times of Super Celebrities to the Zee-list Reality TV hopefuls, it's wonderfully ironic that his art helps to keep the celebrity myth in tact – despite his insistence that they're ordinary people who dress down in jumpers. His silk-screens frequently replicate PR-driven album covers and film posters. They simulate the very images that make us – as he says – want to be them.

Indirectly, of course, the celebrities are donating. Not hard cash, but their images. Kaufman is not only an underground artist; he is very good broker. He sells star's faces and dishes out the profits. He wants to set up branches of 'Give Kids A Break' in London and Germany, then eventually take it global.