Keith Haring: the light and the dark

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In his new biography of Keith Haring (1958-90), the New York-based writer Brad Gooch provides an exhaustive, often breathless, account of a life propelled by unremitting determination. Based on extensive research in the artist’s archive, and the testimonies of an army of interviewees and correspondents, it traces Haring’s passage from drawing-obsessed childhood in rural Pennsylvania to international art world celebrity.

Following high school graduation, Haring enrolled at a commercial art school in Pittsburgh, but left after six months, judging its vocational training irrelevant to his ambition to become a “real artist”. By the summer of 1978, the 20 year old was in Manhattan, about to commence studies at the School of Visual Arts. Soon after his arrival he made his way to Christopher Street, the West Village’s homosexual epicentre. It was “like landing in a candy store or, better, a gay Disneyland”, as he later recalled. And it was in New York that he began to truly find himself, both as a gay man, and as an artist whose work and sexuality are inextricable. At the School of Visual Arts, Haring proved a maverick student, indulged by teachers sympathetic to his singularity and drive. There he formed a lasting friendship with his fellow student Kenny Scharf; they shared a run-down apartment in the East Village, immersing themselves in the underground art and club scenes, where they befriended others who became central to the era’s mythology, including Jean-Michel Basquiat and Madonna.

Once more dropping out of art school, Haring involved himself in experimental video and performance and, inspired by graffiti artists such as Fab 5 Freddy, took to the subway, delineating his pictographic flying saucers and crawling babies, guerrilla fashion, on blank advertising poster spaces. He made thousands of these subway drawings, an exposure through which he first became widely noticed. It was where he also realised the potential to harness his essentially graphic gifts—of line, shape and a brilliant eye for design—in a public-facing art that was to find its fullest expression in large-scale murals. Stylistically, his work was informed by an intriguing mix of artists; chiefly Walt Disney, Jean Dubuffet, Pierre Alechinsky, and Andy Warhol, who became a friend and supporter.

Within four years of Haring’s arrival in New York, he was championed by influential curators and collectors. As word spread, his reputation soared. The crowded opening of his first show at Tony Shafrazi’s gallery in 1982 drew established artists such as Roy Lichtenstein and Robert Rauschenberg, along with figures from the club and graffiti scenes. It marked the starting point in Haring’s ascent to the higher echelons of the New York art world. For the rest of his short and dizzying life, he was courted and feted in the US, Europe and Japan, his social milieu extending to include international patrons and collectors.

By 1985, Haring’s stature was such that he was given a retrospective in Bordeaux, which then toured to the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam. His unflagging ethos of accessibility led in 1986 to the opening of his Pop Shop in SoHo, selling Haring-designed merchandise; a second store followed in Tokyo, where he was mobbed as though a rock star.

Gooch’s narrative darkens as the decade’s hedonistic glamour unravels, Aids now taking its toll among New York’s gay population. He describes how, in the face of President Ronald Reagan’s silent indifference to the epidemic, anger among the gay community led to the formation of the Aids Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP); and of how, as Haring’s friends and lovers became ill and died, and he too tested HIV positive, he threw his great wealth and influence behind the organisation. He had often used his art as a form of protest, and now, in response to inaction and bigotry, made work that remains powerfully symbolic of the era. His focus faltered only towards the end, during the weeks before his death at the age of 31 in 1990.

The world that Gooch describes, of interconnected gay and cultural networks in the febrile atmosphere of 1980s New York, is one in which he too took part. And first-hand experience has clearly proved integral in shaping his book, for it reads not only as the definitive biography of its subject, but as a memorial to a collective past, from which many did not survive.

Brad Gooch, Radiant: The Life and Line of Keith Haring, Harper Collins, 512pp, $40/£30, published 5 (US) and 28 (UK) March 2024

Ian Massey is an art historian, writer and curator based in the UK. He is currently working on a book about the artist Mark Lancaster

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