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The public has a right to art’: the radical joy of Keith Haring

The public has a right to art’: the radical joy of Keith Haring

Miranda Sawyer for "The Observer" 

Though he died in 1990, in many ways Keith Haring is still alive. His art is everywhere. There are Haring T-shirts, Haring shoes, Haring chairs. You can buy Haring baseball hats and badges and baby-carriers and playing cards and stickers and keyrings.

Keith Haring’s work pops up all over the place – his radiant baby, the barking dog, the dancer, the three-eyed smiling face. Simple, cheerful, upbeat, instantly recognizable. They make you smile and they work like graffiti tags, small signifiers that say “Keith woz here”. But Haring did much more than provide cute cartoons. He was publicly minded. His art faced outwards. He wanted to inform, to start a conversation, to question authority and convention, to represent the oppressed. Those cute figures are political.

“Although his imagery is ubiquitous, he’s actually an artist that has been overlooked,” says Darren Pih, co-curator of this month’s major Keith Haring exhibition at Tate Liverpool. “People forget that back in the 1980s, he was talking about socially important issues: apartheid, Aids, environmentalism, how capitalism increases inequality – and he was using very accessible language.”

Sometimes that language was direct, as in his Crack Is Wack mural (on 128th Street in New York), or the hundreds of specially designed posters he gave out at anti-nuclear and anti-apartheid rallies. Sometimes it was subtler: some of his later works, when he knew he was dying, featured broken birds, daggers, nails, nooses, blood. Always, it was attractive, with an exuberance and joy that spoke to people of all ages, all backgrounds. That universal quality draws us to Haring’s work – but can lead some to think that his art is superficial and easy to achieve. It isn’t.

Haring’s Crack Is Wack mural, painted in 1986 in Harlem River Park, New York, during restoration.
Haring’s Crack Is Wack mural, painted in 1986 in Harlem River Park, New York, during restoration. Photograph: Richard Levine/Alamy Stock Photo/Alamy Stock Photo

“His line was astonishing,” says artist Kenny Scharf, Haring’s contemporary and friend, of the way Haring drew. “Keith was totally confident, that’s one of the reasons why his art is so strong: the confidence in his line, the conviction, everything about it.”

Haring lived and worked in New York from 1978 until his death, aged 31, from an Aids-related illness. In his final few years, he was invited all over the world to make work, and if you want to see some real-life Keith Haring art, you still can. There is a mural in Pisa, on the side of the church of Sant’Antonio, which he made in the last year of his life. There is one at the Carmine public swimming pool on Clarkson Street in Greenwich Village, New York, painted by Haring in one day in 1987. There is public work by Haring in Philadelphia, San Francisco, Antwerp, Berlin, Paris, Melbourne; on hospitals, at schools (often made with children), in an LGBT community services center.

Up until 2005, there was his Pop Shop on Lafayette Street in downtown New York. I went there in the 1990s, and it was an all-encompassing experience. The shop was tiny, with white walls and floor covered in Haring’s art. There was music playing and T-shirts hung up. It was playful and fun, with a club vibe. I bought two badges.

A poster from 1987.
A poster from 1987. Photograph: Collection Noirmontartproduction, Paris.

But art institutions, especially museums, didn’t know how to react to these upstarts and their work. Neither did critics: some were supportive, many were snide (Time’s Robert Hughes caricatured Haring as “Keith Boring”). There was a sense among the stuffy that these young artists were not to be taken seriously, and Haring’s likable painting style meant that his art, though loved by the public, was not “high” enough for the elite. Plus, he collaborated with others too often; he was too commercial; he would keep banging on about politics and safe sex.

Today, though, Haring paintings sell for millions. In 2016, Sotheby’s sold four Haring canvases, including the wonderful The Last Rainforest, which he painted in 1989 when he knew he was dying. The sale price was over £4m.

And there’s a renewed interest in the artistic era in which Haring operated – that collaborative time in New York where pop and rap and art met and mixed, a time that started in the mid-to-late 70s and ended, in essence, with a trio of deaths: first Warhol in 1987, then Basquiat in 1988 and finally, Haring, in February 1990. Last year, the Beastie Boys, native New Yorkers, used their vastly entertaining memoir to paint a seductive picture of growing up during that era. In 2017, there was a huge and highly successful Basquiat exhibition, in London; around the same time, MoMA in New York put on a show based around Club 57, a small nightclub where artists and musicians and performers would hang out in the late 70s and early 80s. The time in which these artists lived and worked seems so near, and yet so far away. New York was still New York, but grubby, dangerous, abandoned, cheap. Fertile, angry, full of possibilities.

Keith Haring was born in May 1958. He grew up in a conventional family, led by a respectable man, in Kutztown, Pennsylvania. His dad, Allen, was a church-going, Nixon-supporting Republican, who drew cartoons in his spare time and encouraged his son to do the same. The Harings were loving, but Keith had a strong sense that he was different. In his teenage years, he turned first to the church, becoming what he would later call a “Jesus freak”, and then, an acid-dropping (Grateful) Deadhead and occasional runaway (he went to Jersey Shore for a summer when he was 17, against his parents’ wishes).

After graduating from high school, he enrolled in a Pittsburgh college for illustrators but found it too limiting. He dropped out and hitchhiked across America with his girlfriend, funding the trip by selling his drawings. Soon after their return, his girlfriend said she was pregnant. Haring had just started sleeping with men. He knew he had to leave. “New York was the only place to go,” he said later. He applied and got into the School of Visual Arts, on East 23rd Street. Other students included Samantha McEwen and Kenny Scharf.

Keith Haring and Jean-Michel Basquiat at the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, 1987.
Keith Haring and Jean-Michel Basquiat at the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, 1987. Photograph: George Hirose/NGV

Unlike most 20-year-olds, Haring was clearheaded and motivated; he knew what he wanted to do and he used his time well. “He would move into whatever space that was available,” says McEwen.

Scharf recalls that Haring “always took the initiative, he located any avenues that were available in a smart way. He really had it together.”

When he spotted an unused room in SVA, Haring found some three-meter wide paper, put it on the floor of the room, where it fitted exactly, and started painting in there. He brought in his tape player and painted to Devo, timing the brush-strokes to the music, stopping when the track stopped. Scharf met him for the first time here, as Haring was literally painting himself into a corner.

“A lot of other artists were jealous, like: ‘Oh, you get to do this room just for yourself, how come you get to do that?’” remembers Scharf. “And it was like: ‘Well, you didn’t ask!’” The outgoing, charismatic Scharf was already known for dragging in debris off the streets into SVA to glue together and paint. He and Haring became instant friends.

Keith Haring at work in his New York studio in October 1982. Photograph: Allan Tannenbaum/Polaris/eyevine

Though Haring was confident in his drawing, he was also interested in words and experimented a lot with poems, as well as new technology like Xerox and video cameras. Some of his first New York works were cut-ups of tabloid covers (“Ronald Reagan Accused of TV Star Death”), and when, at a Canal Street sign shop, he found a bag of 13 letters, he used them to make a sort of restricted poetry: “art boys sin as if no art lick fat boys”. He used them as the basis of videos, created Xeroxed, Warhol-esque posters and would read the “art boys” poems at Club 57. For a while, in 1979, he wore a black beret and called himself a terrorist poet.

The then-new Club 57 was in a Polish church at 57 St Mark’s Place. Haring, Scharf and another SVA student called John Sex stumbled across it by mistake; they liked the jukebox and put a track on. Ann Magnuson, who ran the club, came out from behind the bar and started go-go dancing with them. Magnuson got her new friends to do one-night art shows at the club, “and it kept tumbling like that”, says Scharf. “Every night, performances, art shows, happenings.” Unlike the well-established punk venue CBGB, or the Mudd Club, both of which were cool (“heroin-y”), or the high-end celeb-station that was Studio 54, Club 57 was small, silly – “uncool,” says McEwen – and very sexually free. Everyone was sleeping with everyone else. The chosen drugs were booze and hallucinogens. Haring loved Club 57’s attitude, which was less nightclub and more playroom: he staged spontaneous art shows, read his poems, joined in with big Twister parties. He did performances with a TV on his head, speaking through the screen.

Haring was interested in art that talked to people. After just one month at SVA, he wrote a manifesto-cum-self-definition that included the words: “The public has a right to art/The public is being ignored by most contemporary artists/Art is for everybody.” As far as Haring was concerned, it was the viewer that created the meaning and reality of the artwork. So he wanted to gain as many viewers as possible. (“As graffiti artists say,” says Rodriguez, “he wanted eyeballs.”)

She also recalls Haring’s show at an abandoned school turned DIY art venue, PS122, in 1980. He had turned from poetry back to art, and at the show, he debuted the style that became his signature. He drew pictures of flying saucers shooting out light-rays, of penises being worshipped by crowds of people, of a baby that shone like a star. “It was so arresting,” she said. “Immediate.”

Street art was flourishing in New York. Tagging and graffiti art was part of the emerging hip-hop scene, which was mostly based uptown, in Harlem and the Bronx, but moved to the Lower East Side once rappers and taggers like Fab Five Freddy started mingling with downtown artists. Jean-Michel Basquiat, whose own SAMO tag began as a sort of on-wall manifesto poetry, wasn’t a student at SVA but would visit the college, invited by Scharf.

Though Haring, Basquiat, and Scharf were very different artists, all three were interested in making work outside galleries. Haring started tagging – he drew his tag, the radiant baby, next to existing graffiti, never over the top – and Basquiat was already doing so. All three were also interested in the risk and magic of making work without preparatory drawings, and Haring was the king of this. Lenore and Herb Schorr, collectors of both Basquiat and Haring, recall his ability to fill whatever space he needed to.

“He was a phenomenon,” says Lenore. “He would just get up in front of a wall and right from his head, no drawing, he would start working. It was unreal, his understanding. He saw the space and he filled it and it was beautiful and it was balanced, it had a rhythm.”

“It was more than that,” says Tony Shafrazi, who became Haring’s dealer. Being out and about drawing on walls led Haring to look at the streets differently. He noticed the small advertising spaces at subway stations. Whenever an old advert was removed, but before the new one was put up, space was covered in black paper. Haring decided to draw on these blank canvases in chalk.

Ignorance = Fear, 1989. Keith Haring
Ignorance = Fear, 1989. Photograph: Collection Noirmontartproduction, Paris.

An SVA friend, the photographer Tseng Kwong Chi, would come by a few hours later and take pictures of the chalk drawings before they were covered over or stolen. Haring was arrested a few times for this, but it just added to the street glamour (CBS’s Sunday Morning did a piece on him, complete with convenient cop handcuffing him). People would stop and chat with him while he drew, and he made badges and handed them out. Robin Williams had one. So did Diane Keaton.

At that time, Scharf and Haring shared an apartment, a huge two-story loft near Bryant Park, filled with both of their work. But it quickly became tricky for Scharf, because Keith’s work was becoming popular. Collectors came up to their apartment to buy a Haring and walked straight past Scharf’s work. “It caused Kenny a lot of angst,” remembers McEwen.

“We all had ambitions of moving up, getting a bigger audience and money,” says Scharf, “but when it happens, things change. It isn’t so fun and simple as it was when we were each other’s audience. There’s other people’s take on you, you’re taken more seriously, then they’re more critical, then there’s jealousy. Before, you had a focal point of getting out there and creating, and then all of a sudden you have to deal with this machine that you wanted to be involved in, but that you didn’t know anything about.” Soon after, Haring decided he needed a dealer, and chose Shafrazi.

In 1981, Haring moved in with McEwen, into her Broome Street railroad apartment, where there was no corridor, and each room led into another. At the start, McEwen’s rooms were the kitchen and a bedroom, but that changed when Keith became romantically involved with a DJ called Juan Dubose, “and it became clear that Juan needed access to the kitchen,” says McEwen.

Crack Down! 1986. Photograph: Collection Noirmontartproduction, Paris.

Juan’s contribution is underestimated,” she says. “He did all the cooking for Keith, he sort of kept house so that Keith could work.” With Dubose moving in, McEwen swapped rooms, but then she had to walk through Haring and Dubose’s bedroom to get to the kitchen. So Haring bought a tent. “Just a perfect-sized tent that was his and Juan’s bed,” says McEwen. “I came back one day and there it was. With the TV right up against the door to the tent so they could watch it.”

Though neither was completely monogamous, Haring and Dubose were together for several years. They loved to dance, and became regulars at the Paradise Garage, where Larry Levan DJed. Haring adored the exhilaration and community at the club: when he became successful and had to travel around the world for his work, he would organize his schedule so that he would leave straight after a Saturday night at the Garage or return just before, “so that I didn’t miss any of my Garage time”. Dancing was immensely important to him, as were the “cute boys” of the Garage, who were mostly black and Latino. Haring was attracted to non-white men. “I’m sure inside I’m not white,” he once wrote.

In 1982, Shafrazi put on a solo Haring show. It was a huge success. Important art collectors mingled with Haring’s downtown friends, plus graffiti artists and hip-hop DJs. From there, things really took off. Haring met Warhol and they became close. He went for dinner at Yoko Ono’s, he hung out with David Bowie, Iggy Pop, William Burroughs, Robert Mapplethorpe. He already knew Madonna, from clubbing at Danceteria. He went to her wedding and took Warhol as his guest.

By 1984, Haring couldn’t do the subway paintings anymore, because people were stealing them as soon as they were up and putting them up for sale. Fake Harings started springing up; his style was much imitated, especially in Japan. In 1986, he set up his Pop Shop on Lafayette Street. He wanted the public to be able to access his real work, not just those with enough money to be able to buy one of his paintings. Popular culture accepted his art long before the establishment did. For Haring, the Pop Shop “was the ultimate in cutting them [the art establishment] out of the picture”.

Scharf remembers this. “Keith was crucified for it,” he says. “The art world likes to think: ‘Oh, if you’re doing things in a mass commercial way, you’re dumbing it down for the masses.’ Well, no. We’re not dumbing things down, we’re bringing people up. But the art world doesn’t want to see people coming up.”

Andy Warhol and Keith Haring with their poster design for the 1986 Montreux jazz festival.
Andy Warhol and Keith Haring with their poster design for the 1986 Montreux jazz festival. Photograph: Keystone Press/Alamy Stock Photo

And he continued to work with graffiti artists, though he only went out tagging with them once; he felt stupid as the older white guy, like a chaperone. He didn’t call himself a graffiti artist – in an Interview piece, he described what he did as drawing, rather than graffiti – but the media didn’t listen. He talked to Rodriguez about it. “Keith and I often discussed this,” he says. “I would say to him, You’re not a graffiti artist. And he would say: ‘Oh, it’s the media, it’s how they write it.’ But we both knew that he was playing along with it because it helped give rise to his success. The thing that people don’t know is that his success also elevated us as well. There was this mutual understanding and agreement that he was really making headway for a lot of people. He was making street art acceptable.”

Dancer Bill T Jones believes that Keith tried to raise consciousness in general. “Everyone knew his sexuality, he was very out, which was important,” he says. “And he would try and represent the young, underserved black and brown people of the streets, like the Central Park Five. The art world claimed to not know about such things – and its passivity, its silence was political – but because of the people he associated with, Keith was pulled into these issues.”

Jones worked with Haring on a number of occasions, including in the UK in 1983. For a show at the Robert Fraser gallery, Haring decided he would paint Jones’s naked body and have Tseng take photographs. The painting took four-and-a-half hours, and when he was done, the press was invited in to do interviews. Jones remembers the whole event with affection, calling it both “innocent” and “brazen”. “That body-painting gave me power,” he says. “It made one feel transformed, into a heightened consciousness, a special status, I was a moving sculpture.” After this, Haring painted Grace Jones.

Haring’s horizons were expanding. He painted on the Berlin Wall, he worked with MTV. He was immensely popular: in 1986, he was the subject of more than 100 newspaper articles. But in the mid-1980s, as he was flying high with his career, back in New York, the carefree environment began to change.

Aids swept through New York like a fire, “like world war two,” recalls Jones, whose dance and life partner Arnie Zane died of Aids-related lymphoma in 1988. “An entire generation was killed, it decimated a whole class of persons, the homosexual, creative people.”

Painting a 100-metre section of the Berlin Wall in 1986.
Painting a 100-metre section of the Berlin Wall in 1986. Photograph: Klostermeie/AP

“People got sick and they’d die in two weeks,” says Scharf. “Recently, I went to a friend’s photography show and looked at a photo of us all, and everyone is no longer here and they’ve been gone 30 years.”

“You had a kid, and you’d look around for who could be godfather,” says McEwen, “and there was nobody left.”

Haring knew he was at risk – Dubose had been diagnosed HIV-positive. His friends were dying, including Bobby Breslau, a mentor who worked at Pop Shop. Haring was badly affected by Bobby’s suffering but was accepting of his own fate. He wrote about the possibility in his journals in March 1987.

“I am quite aware that I have or will have Aids,” he wrote. “The symptoms already exist… my days are numbered. Important to do as much as possible as quickly as possible. WORK IS ALL I HAVE AND ART IS MORE IMPORTANT THAN LIFE. I always knew since I was young, that I would die young, But I thought it would be FAST (an accident), not a disease… time will tell but I am not scared. I live every day as if it were the last. I LOVE LIFE. I love babies and children and some people, most people, well maybe not most. But a lot of people…”

Teens help Haring paint a mural in Chicago, 1989.
Teens help Haring paint a mural in Chicago, 1989. Photograph: Cathyrose Melloan/Alamy Stock Photo

In 1989, the year before his death, Haring did four shows. He set up the Keith Haring Foundation, which still exists today, working to support underprivileged children and HIV charities. And he did an interview  with Rolling Stone.

Haring worked right up until two months before he died. Scharf was at his side when he was very ill. Haring was agitated, twitchy, with his eyes shut, and Scharf held him. “I said: ‘You can relax. Everything you’ve done is going to keep going. You’re going to continue.’ And I felt him relax. I meant it. He started something really big, and I will always honor his legacy.”

Haring died on 16 February 1990. During his lifetime, he had almost 50 one-man shows. He painted 45 murals. Since his death, his foundation has supported hundreds of youth, community, art, LBGT, safe sex and planned-parenthood projects. His work is held by MoMA, the Whitney, the LA County Museum of Art, the Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh. And many, many people own a Keith Haring badge.

    The Keith Haring exhibition is at Tate Liverpool, 14 June-10 November