It should be noted that the Rubells, along with Deitch, were among the earliest collectors of Haring’s work. Mark Coetzee, author of Against All Odds, was director of the Rubell Family Collection from 2000 to 2008. Deitch’s gallery represents the Haring estate, which “cooperated” in producing the Keith Haring tome. Biographer John Gruen is the father of Julia Gruen, who has had a long tenure at the Haring Foundation. Obviously these individuals and institutions share a financial interest in the market for Haring’s work. This is not to suggest any ethical impropriety or lack of transparency on their part, but I believe that an artist is better served when responsibility for his fate is shared by a larger number of interested parties, and that the public is better informed when an artist’s work is debated by observers of all critical stripes. Perhaps it is time for the Haring Foundation to commission a genuinely probing biography of the artist, rather than leaving the long-deceased wunderkind to speak for himself. And mightn’t the Rubell Family Collection do better by raising questions about this artist’s changing relationship to the art world and to society at large, rather than focusing only on the formal character of his work?
Even a cursory glance at a list of exhibitions and collections of which Haring is now a part makes it clear that he’s held in far higher esteem abroad than in the U.S. Is this because critics here tended to stop writing about him after 1984? Is it due to the ambivalent response of American collectors and institutions to a body of work whose techniques deliberately evoke the lightweight? Or does the relative neglect stem from the unusually broad and public nature of Haring’s output, which seems to indicate little concern for art-world manners and mores?
Last year would have marked the artist’s 50th birthday. Large anniversary exhibitions were staged at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Lyon and in the new home of the Nakamura Keith Haring Collection, in Kobuchizawa, Japan, but at no museums in New York or elsewhere in the U.S. The Japanese museum also published an extensive series of user-friendly materials intended to combat the spread of HIV, endorsing the twin goals of the Keith Haring Foundation in a socially conscious fashion inimical, once again, to the style of Western art institutions.
Had Haring lived beyond his 31 years, his career would surely have encompassed several additional phases. He might have accepted invitations from potential collaborators like the Walt Disney Company, perhaps realizing his dreams for an “art for the public” in the manner of Julie Taymor’s The Lion King. And ultimately—think of any prolific, long-lived artist—these phases would have created a more illuminating context for understanding the art that Haring produced, in such a torrent, during the unrestrained 1980s.