Keith Haring, the Boy Who Cried Art

Keith Haring, the Boy Who Cried Art

Was he a brilliant painter or a brilliant brand?

A photo of Keith Haring holding a can of spray paint by Patrick McMullan.
In a new biography, Haring churns out simple, world-conquering images, but yearns to be taken more seriously.Photograph © Patrick McMullan

Mayor John Lindsay declared war on New York’s graffiti in 1972. It was a curious move, even in an era known for unwinnable conflicts. Many residents hated graffiti, of course, but it didn’t lack for fans in high places. The previous year, the Times had published an admiring profile of Taki, a teen-ager who scribbled his tag, TAKI 183, on walls and subway cars across the five boroughs. In 1974, Norman Mailer wrote a long essay for Esquire in which he compared Taki et al. to van Gogh. But the Mayor had spoken, and for the rest of the seventies the M.T.A. spent millions of dollars keeping the trains gray, which mainly seemed to encourage people to gussy them up again. By 1982, the year of Keith Haring’s career-making solo show at the Tony Shafrazi Gallery, there was nothing groundbreaking about the idea that graffiti could be real art.

What was still novel was the idea that graffiti could sell for real money. At the end of the summer, the stock market began its famed five-year sprint, yanking the art market behind it. A newly loaded clientele went south of Fourteenth Street, where the principal crops included cocaine, rancid apartments, and most of the worthwhile culture within the city limits. In a single year, more than twenty galleries sprouted in the East Village alone. There were already spaces where graffiti artists could display their work—Fashion Moda, in the South Bronx, was the best known—but not for these prices. Between 1980 and 1982, Haring filled subway stations with hundreds of chalk drawings of babies, U.F.O.s, dogs, and televisions; for his solo show, he covered Shafrazi’s walls in the same sorts of images. Within a few days of the opening, he had sold around a quarter of a million dollars’ worth of work. If you bought something, you were buying graffiti, but a special kind that you could hang in your home, regardless of whether you cared to see it on your block.

A handball court in Harlem; a candy store on Avenue D; the Fiorucci boutique by the Piazza del Duomo, in Milan; the Dupleix Métro station, in Paris; the Berlin Wall; Grace Jones—for much of the eighties, it seemed that Haring’s mission was to coat every square inch of the planet in his pictures, and that he might someday succeed. There were arrests and court summonses along the way, but they got rarer as he got more famous. (In 1984, another New York mayor, Ed Koch, thanked him for his public service.) A “CBS Evening News” segment on Haring, which aired shortly after the Shafrazi opening and was seen by some fourteen million people, presents his subway art as the creations of a precocious kid. He looks the part—twiggy frame, wire-rimmed glasses—and sounds it, too, explaining his pictures with the shy earnestness of someone a few years away from discovering self-doubt. “They come out fast, but, I mean, it’s a fast world,” he says. His voice is so flat that he could be doing a bit.

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The only bit, the segment reveals, is that there is none. Haring does work fast, sometimes finishing dozens of drawings in a day, always of things everybody knows. He attracts onlookers but barely acknowledges them—as long as he’s working, he barely hesitates at all. Muscle memory is his muse. In the years leading up to his death, from complications due to AIDS, at the age of thirty-one, the crowds kept getting bigger, but his process stayed the same: steady hand, monastic concentration. To go on YouTube and watch Haring perform is weirdly gripping, so much so that the residue of performance he left behind, otherwise known as images, can’t help but let you down.

Nabokov has a short, vivid scene about a bouquet of flowers. The bouquet sits in a shop that makes copies of old curios. A boy strolls in and touches the petals, expecting them to be lifeless, only to find that they’re the real deal, camouflaged by a roomful of fakery. Brad Gooch’s new biography, “Radiant: The Life and Line of Keith Haring” (Harper), often gives you the sense that Haring was, in essence, that bouquet: an utterly genuine person in a profession full of artifice. Even as a child, in small-town Pennsylvania, he had a gift for embracing mass culture with total, solemn fervor, whether it was supposed to be solemn or not. In the fourth grade, he fell hard for the Monkees and filled a notebook with cutout pictures of Davy Jones; in junior high, inspired by Billy Graham and maybe “Godspell,” Haring found Jesus and rated all hundred and fifty of the Psalms on a scale from “good” to “ugh!”

Those obsessions faded. Others stayed. Haring’s father, an amateur artist, taught him to draw and showed him Dr. Seuss and Walt Disney, both decisive influences on his graffiti. Lines, far more than shape or color, bring this kind of art to life: when an object is supposed to be bright, short black ones stick out of it like feathers on a peacock; when somebody is supposed to be in motion, little trios of waves around the knees and elbows remind you. It’s a visual language we all learn before we can talk, not that artists require anything fancier. Disney, Haring would later say, was one of the twentieth century’s three key artists, along with Warhol and Picasso. A 1982 Haring painting of Mickey Mouse clutching his fire-truck-red cock might look like the desecration of a beloved character, but, given the artist’s feelings, it seems more of a shrine to animation’s utopian, anything-goes potential, with any subversive spark drowned in affection. When Haring described Christopher Street, one of the first places he discovered upon moving to New York City, as a “gay Disneyland,” he was giving it the kindest compliment he knew.

Haring was twenty years old and freshly enrolled at the School of Visual Arts when he met the teen-age Jean-Michel Basquiat, another artist about to make the leap from graffiti to gallery art. The year was 1979. The same semester, Haring and some friends discovered a jukebox in the basement of the Holy Cross Polish National Church, at 57 St. Marks Place. This turned out to belong to Club 57, a new social space run by Stanley Strychacki, with the intention of netting the church some money. (Apparently, polka nights were not the cash magnets the priests had prayed for.) If the essence of the East Village could be found in a single room, here it was; under Strychacki, there were poetry open mikes, dance parties, d.j. sets, and B-movie screenings seasoned with salty commentary. Haring paid two dollars and became member No. 35.

Gooch, a seventies downtowner himself and the author of a sensitive biography of Frank O’Hara, is superb on the textures of these New York years, when a young artist seemingly couldn’t cross the street without getting ideas. Haring is strolling through the Flatiron district one day, for instance, when he finds unwanted rolls of photographic background paper; he ends up dragging them all the way to his studio and covering them in ink. Between projects, he has endless sweaty adventures at a gay bar called International Stud, and, when he and a classmate move into an apartment on First Avenue, he covers the walls in little penis drawings. “[I] spent 90 percent of my time being totally obsessed with sex,” he recalled, “and that became the subject of my work.” His ideal seemed to be art with a minimum of conscious calculation, in the spirit of Dadaist automatic writing or the wriggly abstractions of Pierre Alechinsky. Spontaneity, not insight or virtuosity, was his thing, and Club 57, not S.V.A., was his real alma mater. The group embraced its own transience in performances that existed only in the seconds needed to sing or say or spin them. “We did it for each other,” the club’s manager, Ann Magnuson, said, “and then we were on to the next thing the next day.” It may as well have been the young Haring’s motto.

Art for art’s sake, but sometimes for politics’ sake, too. At MOMA’s Club 57 exhibition, in 2017, the one sour, inescapable presence was Ronald Reagan, the “Bedtime for Bonzo” star who somehow ended up with the launch codes. In a collage from 1981, he wears an S.S. hat and prances around on showgirl legs. (“When martial law is declared,” the image demands, “what will you wear?”) “We were fully convinced [he] was going to start a nuclear war with Russia,” Magnuson wrote in the show’s catalogue, “so we were creating at a frenetic pace.” By the middle of the decade, the rockets remained unlaunched, but the AIDS epidemic had killed thousands of Americans, many of them gay New Yorkers. Reagan didn’t make a major speech on the subject until 1987, six years after the earliest reported cases and several after Haring began showing symptoms. “Radiant” never outright claims that he cranked out art in part because he suspected that he was going to die soon, but it doesn’t have to. Everybody he knew half suspected that they were going to die soon.

Success was a fast-acting drug. In Chapter 8, Haring is still making art in a basement studio with ratty floors and actual rats. By Chapter 9, he’s promoting his work in Tokyo and celebrating with Madonna. He brings old friends to parties at the Paradise Garage and dinner at the Four Seasons, and he makes new friends easily. The aura of Andy Warhol, another party buddy, shines on him, sanctifying all worldly ambition. In 1986, Haring opened an art-merchandise store in SoHo, coated it in floor-to-ceiling graffiti, and called it the Pop Shop. People who could never afford Haring originals could at least buy a T-shirt, which had the happy side effect of turning them into walking billboards that might catch the eye of someone who could. The venture, Gooch writes, was Haring’s response to the gospel of Business Art: “the step,” per Warhol, “that comes after Art.” To Haring, this meant work that any patron could understand and enjoy. “Art for everybody,” he liked to say.

He had found his groove by then, covering big rectangles of brick or metal or canvas with Day-Glo, enamel, or acrylic paint. He rarely touched oils, possibly because they looked too organic—he was after something hard and artificial, as well as something that dried quickly. The paintings had a small vocabulary of simple shapes (dollar bills, hearts, globes, crawling babies), applied to the picture plane with no great attention to exact placement or color, like a baker applying sprinkles to a birthday cake. Somehow, bright, rough cartoons had become “his,” so that anybody who dared paint the same was ripping off the Haring brand. There is a sharp, slightly nauseating sort of glee in watching him get away with this, reminiscent of the scene from “Mad Men” in which Don Draper decides that a tobacco company’s new slogan will be “It’s toasted.” Everyone’s tobacco is toasted, but no one else has bothered to plant a flag.

“Unfortunately, the balloons are from an earlier thing.”
Cartoon by Sophie Lucido Johnson and Sammi Skolmoski

Something in Haring’s art had changed. In footage of his early graffiti stunts, the images themselves don’t really seem to be the point, any more than the color and curvature of rubber balls are the point of juggling. His chalk drawings are almost always very crude, so as not to interfere with the whooshing immediacy of the performance or the nervous allure of the performer. In “Painting Myself Into a Corner,” a video Haring created while still at S.V.A., he crawls across a big canvas on the floor, leaving a dark trail of paint behind him. He doesn’t look up much, as though encouraging us to look down with him, a call that’s hard to heed—the painting is a dense, Alechinsky-esque cartoon, but its artist is a decidedly more interesting cartoon who refuses to stop moving. As the final minutes arrive, the painting’s life has only just begun, but the art is over. “Painting Myself Into a Corner” may, in fact, be the best art Haring ever created, a charismatic shrug that earns your enthrallment by never once seeming to demand it. The title turned out to be prophetic, though.

The most frustrating thing about Haring, and maybe the most intriguing, is that he was a seventies, performance-type artist who fell into an eighties, gallery-type career; decided that he was a regular painter after all; and then expected everyone to find profundity in his bright, melty stick men, just as he had once found profundity in the Monkees. It is true, though trivially, that he made it big because he got lucky: lucky with his location, luckier with his timing, and luckiest with his skin color. (If this sounds harsh, watch that CBS segment again and behold Dan Rather trying and failing to hide his fascination that there exists a graffiti artist who is also a white kid from Pennsylvania.) Still, some lucky painters have the decency to make excellent paintings. The defining feature of Haring’s images may be their obviousness: beside Club 57’s spikier efforts, his anti-Reagan collage “Reagan: Ready to Kill,” in which the words are gathered from newspaper fragments and paired with a photograph of a Klansman (it could mean anything!), leaves barely a mark. In “Tree of Life” (1985), the tree is green because green is the color of life; in “A Pile of Crowns for Jean-Michel Basquiat” (1988), completed shortly after his friend’s overdose, the crowns are black because black is the color of death. The money-guzzling capitalist pig in a 1984 painting is a pig.

Art for everybody isn’t for everybody, I suppose, but when Haring tries something less obvious, his shortcomings become more so. An untitled canvas from 1985, teeming with cocks and flames and grinning beasts, is wonderfully self-assured in its intimations of shameless desire—we seem to be looking at a version of Hell, but, if so, then who needs Heaven? Much of the piece’s square footage is pure mush, though, and a comparison with the work of the cartoonist Robert Crumb, an honest-to-God genius who sometimes worked in a similar register but whom nobody ever mistook for a Business Artist, does Haring no favors: this painting cries out for odor, texture, fleshiness, the kind that Crumb brought to every line. Anything to make it stick in your craw after your eyes move on.

It is hard to name another famous artist in whom the lovable was joined by so much that still grates. A performer of undeniable charm; a gentle fellow, good with kids and loyal to friends; a martyr who bravely spoke out about his disease. On the other hand: a dilettante of immense self-esteem who rode the train, saw the tags of Black and Latino teen-agers, appears to have thought, Yeah, I could do that, was promptly and richly rewarded, and still felt that his reward wasn’t big enough. Haring may have sensed that his images were faint echoes of the live performances where his real appeal lay, but he was desperate for these images to be taken more seriously all the same. Complaining of the lack of “real critical inquiry into my work”—reviews were rarely better than mixed, and rivals like Eric Fischl got all the attention from MOMA—he penned an article in 1984 on his creative influences, to no obvious effect. Say what you will about Warhol, but he never whined like that. On the contrary, he agreed when people said his art was thin and smirked at the tastemakers who ransacked it for meaning—which, naturally, made them ransack it more.

Gooch makes a valiant effort to present his hero as an artist-intellectual whose creations only seem shallow. He quotes Haring’s friend’s claim that the late-seventies images were “very William Burroughs-esque, in terms of crossing out or rearranging words or cutting up headlines,” as though every comic-book villain who snips and glues a ransom note is an heir of the Beat Generation. Gooch thinks that the title of “Painting Myself Into a Corner” is “witty.” Upon the single semiotics class Haring took at S.V.A., he builds a wobbly theory that the artist’s subway drawings were “cleverly semiotic,” since they occupied space usually devoted to ads and therefore offered some comment on commercialism, though Gooch is less than his usual articulate self concerning what this comment might have been.

His other way of dignifying his subject with depth is to conflate art with the causes it supports. Haring made anti-apartheid paintings and, near the end of the eighties, the “see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil” ACT UP posters that are arguably his most famous creations. In 1989, he paid to print twenty thousand copies. These were noble acts, and Gooch is right to celebrate them. The ACT UP posters may well be Haring’s most aesthetically successful images—not because they do anything more than usual, but because they’re obliged to do less. His art doesn’t need to stick in anyone’s craw, so long as it’s paired with something that does—it gets people in the room, and an activist takes things from there. Various people (Haring, for one) compared the paintings to Paleolithic art carved into the walls of caves; his “line never felt more carved,” Gooch insists, “than when he was drawing with passion to right wrongs or to urge timely political action.” Opinions will vary as to whether this sentence belongs in an otherwise sober biography; what’s less debatable is that the sentence is wrong. Haring’s style feels—is—the same whether enlisted in the cause of ACT UP or his own bank account, of fighting racism or promoting the Pop Shop. What his images advertised was always changing, but they only ever spoke in advertising’s metallic chirp.

Haring died in 1990. As narrated by Gooch, his last days were filled with warmth: fellow-artists and old S.V.A. classmates visited, Madonna rang from California, Tony Shafrazi ordered everybody food from Haring’s favorite Vietnamese restaurant. His parents were holding him when his kidneys finally gave out. Shortly before, he had received a letter from Walt Disney Studios about the possibility of a collaboration, an inquiry which he assumed to be a trick his friends had concocted to cheer him up. It was not.

Naturally, some acquaintances scorned the bohemian turned millionaire. “We were all thrilled for him,” Magnuson claimed, but it’s unclear how many people “we” describes—not the graffiti artists, certainly, who defaced one of his murals with the words “Big Cute Shit.” Accusing Haring of selling out, as they were doing and others still do, slightly misses the point, however. Even in its infancy, there was something in New York graffiti that smacked of Business Art. You can see it in Basquiat, who put a copyright symbol on his creations well before they hung in galleries. Or watch “Stations of the Elevated,” Manfred Kirchheimer’s ecstatic M.T.A. documentary. Pay attention to the way he cuts between spray-painted trains and signs for Burger King and Coppertone. When people watched the film in 1981, they may have sensed aesthetic deadlock: commercial art and street art face to face, without much of anything to say to each other. But you might also interpret these scenes as street art competing with commercial art, trying to match its bigness and brightness—and, the moment you do, Haring seems less the artist who betrayed graffiti and more the artist who made its guilty dreams come true.

More than three decades on, his reputation seems out of focus somehow. Nobody really thinks of him as a performance artist, but few think of him as a great painter, either—his pictures are just there, and everywhere. They are presumed to have broken down barriers between high and low art, though Warhol painted his soup cans a full twenty years before the Shafrazi show, and Duchamp signed “R. Mutt” on a urinal almost half a century before that. His admirers continue to complain that he isn’t taken seriously enough; in a way, they are correct, though this book may change things. His art is overexposed but not overanalyzed, perhaps because Haring himself was unclear on how we should treat it: he made art for everybody, unless he made deep, semiotic Ph.D. fodder, conversant with Lascaux and Dada and “Naked Lunch.”

Not that clarity need be the goal. In Haring’s case, its absence has worked wonders, to the point where it’s worth asking if the bouquet may have had a few fake flowers in it after all. Among artists, Warhol gets all the credit for writing the self-promotion playbook, but I count more Keiths than Andys on the scene in 2024. You don’t keep people interested with enigmatic muteness; you do it by noisily positioning your stuff as both populist and cerebral and then letting the chatter commence. The dust never settles—consensus seems perpetually just around the corner, but, since it would be better if it didn’t arrive, it doesn’t. It hasn’t for Jeff Koons, or for Damien Hirst, and perhaps it never will for Keith Haring, the subject of indignant love from his partisans, weary amusement from his skeptics, collaborations with Disney, a major exhibition at the Broad Museum in Los Angeles last year, and, not least, this highly entertaining biography, all of which makes me wonder if he wasn’t an even shrewder Business Artist than we realize. ♦

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