Keith Haring’s posthumous exposure might be said to have begun at the memorial tribute for him on May 4, 1990, a few months after his death on Feb. 16. Staged at New York’s Cathedral of St. John the Divine, it was as close to a state funeral as any memorial for an artist I have ever attended. New York mayor David Dinkins set the tone by acknowledging Haring’s donations to city-based organizations. (These included, during the preceding two years, designs for a stamp and lithograph celebrating the United Nations International Volunteer Year, posters for the New York Public Library’s literacy campaign, T-shirt and poster designs for gay and AIDS causes, as well as the sculpture Totem, which raised $70,000 at ACT UP’s first fundraising auction, and, perhaps most notably, the “Crack Is Wack” murals Haring painted throughout the city.) But, as I wrote in my journal that day, this “tribute” was “oddly impersonal, showcasing estate-plumping pontification from too many dealers and art historians, performances by soprano Jessye Norman and New York City Ballet dancers Jock Soto and Heather Watts, and [just a handful of] moving moments from Haring-chums: dancer Molissa Fenley, artists Kenny Scharf, Ann Magnuson and Fred Braithwaite, and (primarily) Keith’s sister Kay.”
The contrast between the public and personal was telling, especially given the conjunction of the memorial with what would have been Haring’s 32nd birthday. The artist famously used his birthdays as occasions for raucous gatherings totally unlike the official-seeming memorial in which we sat. This event seemed to foretell the disconnect between various views on Haring’s achievement in the decades since his death. Despite a steady stream of books, well-documented exhibitions, the re-creation of a site-specific work in New York and the inauguration of a commodious museum devoted to him in Japan, the critical estimate of this beloved artist remains unsettled. “There are people that are trying to write me out of history,” he told Jason Rubell just three weeks before his death—a comment published for the first time in the exhibition catalogue Against All Odds: Keith Haring in the Rubell Family Collection. (The show took place at the Palm Springs Art Museum, Nov. 8, 2008-Jan. 18, 2009.) And Haring has remained a lightning rod for critical discord and hyperbole. According to various observers, he is either one of the best or, by implication, one of the worst artists of our time.
The newly released Keith Haring, for instance, contains an encomium of an introduction by Julia Gruen, executive director of the Keith Haring Foundation, who asserts that “in the almost two decades since Keith Haring’s death, his reputation as an artist has risen to remarkable heights, the value of his work has soared and his legacy endures and thrives.” By contrast, curator Mark Coetzee, in his introduction to Against All Odds, suggests precisely the opposite, striking the defensive posture assumed by many recent presenters of Haring’s art. According to Coetzee, the exhibition sought to contradict “the stereotypical view of Keith Haring as simply a Pop artist who created nothing more than fun, vacuous, commercial icons that were cute, colorful and gimmicky.”
So which is it? Is Haring an artist central to our understanding of the recent past or a once-trendy figure whose 15 minutes ended long ago? But perhaps it is less productive to debate the quality of the work than to ponder Haring’s iconic status as a guerrilla art-maker who still prompts reactions that tend to say more about the observer than the observed. Or to consider why the ’80s—of which Haring is surely an emblem—remain so resistant to historical consensus and tidy summing up.
Little is in doubt about the basics of Haring’s short career—his upbringing and education, the artists, associates and social causes that mattered to him. The standard Haring narrative begins with the pot-smoking, small-town boy from Kutztown, Pa., who learned cartooning from his father, left commercial art school in Pittsburgh after a month of classes and exposure to the work of CoBrA artist Pierre Alechinsky, then headed to New York in 1978. He made another brief stab at art school (this time at the School of Visual Arts), partied with artist-friends such as Scharf, Magnuson and Jean-Michel Basquiat, and curated their work at Club 57 and other downtown venues. In 1980, he participated in the legendary New Wave extravaganza “The Times Square Show,” where he met graffiti “writers” and began his eye-popping embellishment of Manhattan subway stations with chalk drawings of crawling babies, dogs, flying saucers and TV sets.
The attention that Haring got for such works was instantaneous and never died down. In 1982 he was included in Documenta 7 in Kassel, Germany. By 1983 his meteoric three-year rise to pop-cultural stardom was ratified by an appearance in the Whitney Biennial and simultaneous solo shows at the Tony Shafrazi and Leo Castelli galleries. He continued to work in the subway until 1985, despite his growing frustration with collector-fans who removed—and profited by—the black paper ad panels on which he drew. His motivation, notes dealer Jeffrey Deitch in the introduction to Keith Haring, is explained in a well-known, manifestolike journal entry Haring wrote in 1978: “The public has a right to art / The public is being ignored by most contemporary artists / Art is for everybody.” If the rest is, as they say, history, it is surprising that, as with Deitch’s essay, the key narrator of Haring’s history has usually been Haring himself.
An opinionated lot, art critics are not usually deferential to primary sources. Nor are Haring’s journals—which were not published until 1996—exactly the stuff of art history. Their virtues include the author’s intellectual curiosity and unsentimental view of himself, but they are also suffused with youthful naivete and ingratiating charm. Whether noting a “blue moment,” as the 20-year-old writer does in the first published entry, or, 11 years later in the last entry, describing the Tower of Pisa as “really major” and remarking that “every time you look . . . it makes you smile,” Haring elicits a bemused response that remains largely unchanged as one goes through the book.