Artist Steve Kaufman visits Vail, answers 7 questions
Vail CO, Colorado
VAIL, Colorado ” Step into Masters Gallery in Vail and the paintings clinging to the wall scream Americana. Large images capture icons like Marilyn Monroe and familiar symbols like the Campbell’s soup can. The work belongs to Steve Kaufman, protege to famous pop artist Andy Warhol. Kaufman has made a name for himself painting such luminaries as Frank Sinatra. Now 47 and living in Los Angeles, Kaufman plans a two-day show in Vail complete with new portraits of Warhol. Here, Kaufman reflects on his unusual path to fame.
1. Vail Daily: How did you come to be Andy Warhol’s assistant at the Factory?
Steve Kaufman: I met him at Studio 54. He was the official artist of Studio 54 at the time. Steve Rubell hired me. Ian Schrager was his partner. It would be Jimi Hendrix’s birthday party, they would ask me to paint an electric guitar for him. Or Mick Jagger’s birthday party was coming up (so) I painted a giant condom wrapper with his face poking a hole through the condom wrapper … I saw [Andy Warhol] at many shows and parties. He came up to me and asked me (if I) would I like to work for him. All I heard being 19 years old was $6 an hour or something like that, off the books, so I was very excited. I had no clue. I thought he was just doing print, silk-screen print, because that’s what I was doing at Studio 54. His fame really caught on years later, but we’re talking in 1979.
2. VD: I read that in the late 1980s, you were arrested with AIDs demonstrators for chain-locking New York city’s mayor in his office. Is that true?
SK: I had some friends that passed on from AIDS. Back then, we’re talking less security than it is today. You literally just walk right up to the mayor’s office. He had doors with two bars across. We just chained them and locked him in there. This way he could be locked in his own office, like people are locked in their bodies because they had AIDS. … Back then, AIDS was such an outbreak and yet the whole city was basically not taking any actions to help anybody.
3. VD: After Andy Warhol’s death, you completed his unfinished portraits. What was that like?
SK: Mixed feelings. Some people asked me to sign Andy Warhol, which I refused. Andy had assistants all the time that were finishing paintings anyway but I was, like, the only living artist at that time period, so it was kind of like mixed feelings because I wanted to put my own creativity into the portraits but that’s not why they were hiring me. They already had Polaroids that they had paid Andy Warhol to do their portraits and basically, because Andy died, they couldn’t have their portraits done, so I went ahead and finished the projects up.
4. VD: Can you tell me a story about one of your interactions with a celebrity while you were painting them?
SK: B.B. King, for example. I was hired by his charity to help him raise $10 million for his museum and Katrina hit and unfortunately, all the paintings were located in a Mississippi casino that washed out to the ocean … basically I then got involved with the Katrina program to help raise some money …
John Gotti, Mr. Gotti: I talked to him while he was in prison and I wanted to do his portrait and his lawyer gets backs to me and says, ‘Well, Mr. Gotti will let you do his portrait but a percentage of it should go to his charity’ and I was waiting to hear like ‘what is Mr. Gotti’s charity?’ and he says he wants me to choose it so I chose Give Kids a Break, I was just starting a non-profit organization hiring inner city kids …
5. VD: You work with ex-gang kids and the homeless at your studio in Los Angeles. Why do you do that?
SK: I’ve been asked that question a lot but the reality is: Why not? When you get, you should give back. I don’t know. That’s the way I was raised. I grew up in the South Bronx myself. It costs nothing to be nice. It costs everything not to be nice.
6. VD: You had a stroke in 2003, during which your heart rate flatlined temporarily. How did that traumatic experience change your life?
SK: I’ve been officially dead now three times, they tell me. When I died that time, it’s kind of like a broken VCR. You would see some of the visions from my past then it would be almost like a scratch .. .and then it was all blackness and I heard a voice saying, ‘You did good kid. Now go back and do better.’ That was it. That’s why I started the charity Give Kids a Break.
7. Tell me about your next project.
SK: Well, we’re going to be working with Sundance and doing a show there. … Robert Redford, I’m looking forward to doing his portrait and trying to get him to autograph all the paintings for charity.
High Life Writer Sarah Mausolf can be reached at 970-748-2938 or email@example.com.