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.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.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.