Unfortunately, a similarly benign reaction is often accorded to Haring’s artistic oeuvre, no matter how harrowing the subject matter of particular works. Keith Haring: The Authorized Biography (1991), by arts journalist John Gruen, doesn’t help elevate the critical tone. The book is a running, multipart conversation à la Edie: An American Girl, Jean Stein and George Plimpton’s memorable “oral biography” of Warhol “superstar” Edie Sedgwick, told in the words of those who knew her best. The stories and anecdotes about Haring from boldface names like Timothy Leary and Princess Grace seem intended to establish his social status and the reach of his art, while those of fellow artists, boyfriends and celebs like Madonna (who knew him well) provide welcome information. Haring’s comments, culled from interviews conducted by Gruen in 1989, are also part of the conversation. Reflections from Gruen—more interviewer and editor than biographer—are nonexistent, however.
The same 1989 interviews constitute the vast majority of the text of Keith Haring, a lavishly produced, 544-page volume. (Although John Gruen is not credited as one of its authors, his contributions seem to dwarf those of the participants acknowledged on the title page.) The table of contents—arranged by chronology and subdivided by theme or event—resembles an outlineof a biography that never materializes. Instead of narrative or critical texts, the vast majority of the book is devoted to more than 600 pictures of Haring’s milieu, the lower East Side, seen as a tasty bouillabaisse of dance, dope, sex, graffiti, and club- and bar-life. A vast number of photos show Haring pressing the flesh with celebs ranging from Dolly Parton to Pee-Wee Herman. The chaotic democracy of New York in the ’80s, when the old modernist order in art and life was crumbling, seems the ideal subject for a CD-ROM in which music, dance and video from the era might be animated by then-new digital technology. (An affinity with, or disdain for, a new order is one likely indicator of sympathy or antipathy for Haring’s boundary-blurring art.) But for every 20 pictures of graffitists and break dancers, celebs and uptown society types uncharacteristically crossing 14th Street, there is only a single image or two in the book of an artist other than Haring or an artwork Haring didn’t produce. It’s a universe largely lacking artists or art, although Haring’s work is showcased in stunning, sometimes gatefold reproductions.
By contrast, Against All Odds travels a far more conventional art-historical route. Including a small selection of works by Basquiat, Condo and Francesco Clemente, among others, it demonstrates how snugly Haring’s art fit within the gallery-oriented mainstream of the late ’80s. Coetzee’s primary intention, however, is something else: not only to debunk the “view of Haring as simply a producer of commercial icons” but also to solidify recognition of the artist’s abilities as draftsman.
The quality of Haring’s sometimes exquisitely limned drawings hardly seems at issue, to this viewer at least, just as the centrality of drawing to his practice was apparent to Haring: “Art for me is a record of a state of being or a moment of living,” he told Jason Rubell in 1990. “Everything around you is coming together in that one action of making, of creating, and usually in my case of drawing. Even when I’m painting . . . I’m drawing.” (The catalogue also contains Robert Hobbs’s essay “Keith Haring and Fernand Léger: Democratic Art, Popular Culture and Semiotics,” which, although lucid, historicizes Haring’s art so fully it seems frozen in time, at the moment in 1978 when Haring studied semiotics at SVA with Bill Beckley.)
The sureness and speed of Haring’s line help give his art its identity. Several commentators in these books describe with sadness Haring’s loss of hand-eye coordination, his increasing inability to connect lines on paper, as death neared.
A stiff substitution for Haring’s uniquely drawn line explains why the Day-Glo orange, green and pink mural re-created in 2007 on Houston Street near Bowery is unconvincing. The breakneck speed at which Haring and his boyfriend, Juan Dubose, painted the original 50-foot-long mural in 1982—it took just two days to complete—is related to the sense of spontaneity and sheer pleasure embodied in the relatively simple composition of fluidly drawn figures surrounded by atoms and three-eyed creatures.
Mounted by Deitch Studios in Long Island City [Nov. 8, 2008-Feb. 15, 2009], Haring’s 1985 mural The Ten Commandments—a multipanel work created for the artist’s first museum show, at the Contemporary Art Museum in Bordeaux—is another matter. I happened to see Haring’s museum debut quite by accident in France, and was astonished by the mural’s ambitious size and thematic complexity. The suite comprises 10 huge canvases that were inserted within stone arches flanking a vast, navelike space. While the color-between-the-lines-style images are less linear and spontaneous-looking than most of Haring’s creations—no wonder, given the work’s 25-foot height—The Ten Commandments is a caustic and witty technical tour de force heroically completed by the artist (on amphetamines) in just a few days’ time.
But might site specificity also encompass temporal specificity? Although an artwork remains the same, our relationship to it changes over time. The installation in Queens reminded me how early the Bordeaux show was in Haring’s truncated career, how much more sophisticated his compositions and how much more fluid his touch would become over the next two or three years, before AIDS incapacitated him.