steve kaufman

Reflections of Steve Kaufman

I can only imagine that Steve Kaufman, even as a little child, never saw life in any other way except for brilliant colors and with a tremendous passion for life.

As early as 6 years old, Steve was painting and knew what his true love was—art.  He grew up (I’m sure) making his Mother crazy and keeping her on her toes, because Steve Kaufman had no boundaries.  He saw life as one big canvas, and fun.  In his early teen years, he already was out of control: painting graffiti on walls of buildings and subway cars.  More than once he was picked up by the police.

When the fad “Pet Rocks” hit the scene, Steve was paid by people to paint pictures on their “Pet Rocks.”  His Uncle was a sculptor, and Steve spent many days watching him work.  His Dad worked in a department store in the lamp department, and his Mother was an accountant.  They lived in a small apartment house in the Bronx.  Steve was the middle child, with a younger brother and an older sister.

Steve’s Dad died very young from heart problems.  I feel losing his father at an early age pushed Steve more into art and creativity.  He was very tall for his age, and a bit awkward and shy.  I don’t think that shyness lasted long, because he seemed to have grown into himself and developed confidence.
In high school, Steve applied to the School of Visual Arts and was accepted.  I can only image his happiness.  He majored in advertising and fine arts.  This was a crucial part of his discovery as to what direction to go in the art world.  While at SVA, he met Keith Haring and they became school buddies.   Haring was 2 years older than Steve, and was not yet famous at the time.  But Haring had already started his graffiti art.  I think Haring’s art greatly inspired Steve.

Steve told a funny story that, one day at school, Haring asked to borrow money from him.  To pay him back, Haring gave Steve one of his paintings.  For a class project, Steve needed a canvas, so he painted over Haring’s art.  Until the day Steve died, he still kicked himself about that.  But back then, who would know the value?  Come to think of it, imagine if this canvas was found today, with the work of BOTH artists on this single canvas.  Only time and technology will finish this story.

While at SVA, Steve was hired by Andy Warhol to work at the Factory.  This was circa 1979-1981.  Steve was cutting the film screens and helping to prepare material that Andy Warhol would need for screenprinting.  Warhol was happy with him because he was fast and very good at it.  Steve was dedicated, anxious to learn, and very good at what he was doing for the process of making the silkscreens.  He learned a lot from Warhol and worked hard.  Andy Warhol would call him “SAK," using Steve's initials from his full name, Steve Alan Kaufman.  Steve for most of his life used that name more often than his real name.  He signed his art SAK.  Steve never partied or hung out with Warhol or his crowd.  I don’t know why, but perhaps it was because he felt out of place amongst the eclectic crowd.  Steve was a Bronx boy, and liked hanging with with his friends from the neighborhood.

During that time period, Steve also worked with Studio 54 on a consignment basis.  Steve would set up a table, easel, and his paint near the entrance inside, and would paint portraits of patrons for money.  He also promoted parties there.  He would make brochures and have fliers sent out, and he would get a percentage of the door entrance fees.  He helped to make the long lines to get in even longer.  Here, he also never got too involved with the patrons of the club.  Steve was very young, and I don’t think he was comfortable socializing there.  He wanted to make money.  Steve was great at making money.  He had a brilliant business mind even at a young age, and always had new ideas that were very creative.
Steve was also extremely sensitive to the social issues in New York City at that time.  He would make graffiti murals all over NYC: murals honoring Malcolm X, raising AIDS awareness, profiling NYC homeless, and promoting racial harmony.  Upon graduation, Steve opened his art studio.  He rented a townhouse from a guy that did not follow city codes: the building had no heat or hot water.  It was just an empty building with electricity only.  Steve rented it from him, with the agreement that he would rent it cheaply and would not give the landlord any problems.  Steve liked it that way, and had no problem with the landlord’s rules.
     “Just don’t burn the building down,” the man told him.  It was a 3-story townhouse.  Steve rented the first floor for parties, the second floor to artists, and the top floor was his studio.  The party floor was a brilliant way that Steve made a lot of money.  He would plan a party, buy some food and liquor and have music.  He would make fliers and place them all over the city.  He would charge an admission, and had huge crowds attend.  Aside from his own parties and Studio 54, Steve also promoted parties for other popular clubs in the city during those years.  Those were crazy party years with big crowds and drugs.  Steve had not yet defined his art at that point.  He made brochures for companies and worked with graphic art.  He did some graphic art for shows like Saturday Night Live and other venues.

It wasn’t until Steve moved to California in 1992, that he realized which direction to take.  Steve was 32.  His first project in Los Angeles was at Spago’s, the restaurant on Sunset Boulevard.  He painted a mural on their wall, outside the restaurant.
Steve’s passion at the time was superhero art.  All of his art was of superheroes.  All were hand painted with oils on canvas.  On the weekend, he would go to a park where all the local artists set up tables to display and sell their art.  Steve received a lot of attention.  A major gallery approached Steve about painting a series of art just for their gallery.  This is when Steve Kaufman started using all the knowledge he learned from his years of working with Andy Warhol and silkscreening.  This is the point when Steve went totally POP.  He did a limited edition of Marilyn Monroe that was absolutely stunning.  Steve was never a person to get stuck with an idea and stay.  His creative passion guided him to not only paint 20th Century icons, but also the great masters of the past.  He painted Mona Lisa, Shakespeare, Napoleon, Mozart, and Beethoven in fabulous colors and details that popped right off the canvas.  This combination of old mixed with this new, exciting media really separated him from the good to the best.  His editions sold out fast.
Steve made silkscreens using the same technique that his master teacher, Andy Warhol, had taught him.  But then Steve would go back to the silkscreen and hand paint over it.
Moving on his own into a new building he bought in L.A., Steve Kaufman set up his own Art Studio.  There were no boundaries.  He had made a name for himself in the art world, and painted for himself what he wanted to paint.  His Neo Pop Art style was an evolution from the pop art world.  Steve made silkscreens using the same technique that his master teacher, Andy Warhol, had taught him.  But then Steve would go back to the silkscreen and hand paint over it.  He coined the phrase “hand-embellished oil on canvas silkscreens.”  He would paint limited editions using the silkscreens, but by hand-embellishing them, he made each one an original because no two were the same.  He would use different color combinations and different detailing.  So even in an edition of 100, they would all be different from each other.  Art collectors embraced his art.

Steve would study trends, icons, fads, people, news, movies, products, television, and life, and painted what he felt would capture that moment.  In the following years, Steve was commissioned to paint animation art for Warner Brother retail stores, Campbell’s 100 Anniversary, and many wonderful projects.  He held exhibitions globally, and gained recognition from celebrities and politicians.
Steve initiated and ran a charity for kids with social and economic problems, and also contributed to many other charities.  His heart was as big as his 6’ 6” body.  He told me many times he had trouble sleeping because he couldn’t turn off his brain.  He painted from early morning until late at night.  Painting was his world and life.  It was all he wanted to do.  We never spoke without laughing.  He was a genius with a tremendous personality and amazingly funny, a great story teller, and loved by many.
From 1999 until the day he died Steve and I spoke every day.  Holidays, weekends, whatever, every day or night we spoke with each other.  Many times he had so many ideas in his head, that he couldn’t talk fast enough.  He bounced many ideas with me.  Even after years of working with him, I was never unimpressed by his creativity and love for life.  I don’t think there is a surface that Steve Kaufman wouldn’t paint on.  Glass, canvas, walls, motorcycles, cars—Steve even did body art.

Steve had another passion in his life—drama.  He loved drama.  He never really caused drama.  He was just drawn to people that created it.  Especially women.  He loved beautiful women who were crazy.  The crazier, the better.  From his teenage years, throughout his adulthood—Steve loved disorganization, drama, and confusion.  His desk in his office was completely covered with piles of notes, letters, books, magazines, photos, sketches, and food.  All were piled so high that he never saw the desk.  When I asked him how could he work like that, he looked at me a bit confused.  He thought everyone’s desk looked like his.  He was a free spirit, and someone who never judged people.  I never heard him say anything bad about anyone, unless they really did something bad.  Steve trusted people because he was honest and sincere, and in his world everyone was the same.

In his mind, Steve Kaufman saw so many things at once.  It was like he knew he would die young, so he wanted to cram everything into the short time he had.  He was brilliant, and one of the most exciting people you could possibly meet!  But as the song goes, Steve was “A Candle in the Wind."

- Diana Vachier, 2016
Even after years of working with him, I was never unimpressed by his creativity and love for life... It was like he knew he would die young, so he wanted to cram everything into the short time he had.