American Beauty

“A lot of girls fell in love with Keith, and that’s because he represented a sort of archetypal male. He had those heroic qualities of pushing for what’s good and true and fair. And he was a real boy!”
-Carmel Schmidt1

I suspect that Keith Haring’s friend Carmel Schmidt, in remembering the man so sweetly, has also touched on the powerful communicative forces in his work: first, its eroticism, not necessarily explicit (though it was that at times), but always at least tacitly sensuous though the energy of that fluid line, over which Haring had such dazzling control, and second, his sense of justice. The sensual energy was innate, a function of Haring’s personality, and also of his process: this was an artist who worked with his whole body as well as mind, who wanted, he said as a student, to move “toward a work of art that encompasses music, performance, movement, concept, craft and a reality record of the event in the form on a painting.”2 And that was what he would do. His fairness too must have been a personal reflex, but it was marked, I think, by his upbringing in small-town America, and by his sense, as a gay man and an artist, of being an outsider to what he saw as the country’s mainstream. It was also in part inherited from the popular values of the years when he was a child in the sixties.

Energy must have been a primary value for Haring: the word hums through his writings and speech like the chorus of a song. From his journals, in October 1978, when he was twenty: “Every second from birth is spent experiencing; different sensations, different interjections, different directional vectors of force/energy constantly composing and recomposing themselves around you.”3 On the black popular culture of his years in New York: “There was this incredibly raw energy in the air…and the energy was called Hip-Hop.”4 On one of his best-known motifs: “The crawling babies signify life, energy, happiness, and the positive side of humanity.”5 On another often-used form: “The pyramid is connected with an unknown force…maybe people once thought they could store their own energy in that kind of building.”6 On a party he threw in 1984: “There is so much energy- it’s electric!”7 On his own self: “This energy, sexual energy, may be the single strongest impulse I feel.”8

If Haring’s life embodied energy- he worked ceaselessly- his art pictured it, through the cartoon motion-marks that he spaced strategically around his running men, say, or though the short straight lines around his dogs’ mouths that told us they were barking- aural vibration made visible. There is erotic energy in the polymorphous perversity of his figures, acrobatic, mutating, always in motion. In 1980, when Haring returned to drawing after a period of working in other media, the images that emerged- they were not, he said, “a conscious thing”- included flying saucers “zapping things with an energy ray.” Not solely transmitting to passive targets, this ray would hand its energy on, so that the “zapped things or people or animals would have these rays coming out all around them,” becoming transmitters themselves.9

Pure drive, energy is amoral, making the meaning of Haring’s glowing figures necessarily ambiguous. For Wim Beeren of Amsterdam’s Stedelijk Museum, Haring was a paradoxical sounding phenomenon: “a great young artist of the age of nuclear energy.”10 For New York poet Rene Ricard, who looked at Haring early, the rays around the artist’s crawling baby must have pictured light-hence the title of his prescient 1981 Artforum article, “The Radiant Child”; yet Ricard also wrote that Haring’s “poor little characters wigging out from the radioactive communications they are bombarded with are superslick icons of turmoil and confusion.”11 A later writer, Jeffrey Deitch, would play on Ricard’s title by naming an essay of his own “The Radioactive Child,” and would notice that Haring’s Pennsylvania hometown was just fifty miles from the contaminated nuclear power plant at Three Mile Island.12 The artist himself, contemplating a world of “telephones and radio, computers and airplanes, world news and video tape, satellites and automobiles,” all powered by the invisible energies of electricity and oil, would add, “I am scared to death.”13

Overall, though, energy is vital in every sense, and not to be sneezed at. If Haring saw the glowing wands held by some of his figures as symbols of physical and political power, that doesn’t mean Deitch is wrong to liken these “energized rods” to Haring’s own brushes.14 Besides, Haring had his own sense of morality to layer into his art.

“We’re going to see the Grateful Dead!”
-Keith Haring, journal entry, April 197715

As the eighties recede in time, and the periodizing of the decade proceeds, energy is one current in the mix of nostalgia and resentment that hovers in the art world conversations about those years.16 People are thinking partly of the energy of money, which is remembered as being everywhere back then, the blood or gasoline that powered the growling art-world machine in the era B.C.-Before the Crash. Actually, in the eighties, as ever, it was a small minority of artists who had money worth boasting of; but some did have earning power, and Haring was one of those. In his journals, the subway, site of his early work, is phased out, in frequency of mention, by the Concorde; and his discussions of the practical side of the art business become increasingly hardheaded and knowing.

Another eighties energy was party and club life, and here too Haring was expert. As far as possible, he used to schedule his trips abroad so that he could be in New York on Saturday nights- gay night at the Paradise Garage, “a disco that absolutely blew my mind.”17 The weight Haring gave this place, though, was something other than value of entertainment: “The ‘Garage,’” he wrote, “…changed or affected my life incredibly through various ‘re-imprinting’ experiences and transformations.”18“’Re-imprinting’ experiences,” presumably, would leave you a different person. And dance observed and participated in at places like the Paradise Garage also emerged in Haring’s work, in his figures’ stances (which have been eloquently decoded by Robert Farris Thompson).19 This was typical of Haring; he had a voracious visual appetite. And although both his work and his writings and interviews often demonstrate his attention to “high art” painters both present and past, he was absorbed by- made himself part of- vernacular, public culture, which provides many of the references for his images.

The terms in which Haring described the Paradise Garage also suggest a continuity with his childhood and adolescence in Kutztown, Pennsylvania, and with an earlier decade than the eighties. The club was erotic, certainly, and multiracial (a crucial quality of New York for Haring),20 but also, the artist said, “The whole experience was very communal, very spiritual.”21 In a letter to Timothy Leary- that theorist of pharmacology was a friend of his- he wrote, “I don’t know if you know how important the ‘Paradise Garage’ is, at least for me and the tribe of people who have shared many a collective spiritual experience there.”22“Collective,” “communal,” “spiritual,” “tribe”- the language, like Leary himself, has a definite sixties ring. Talking to his biographer, John Gruen, Haring himself explicitly compared the dance house to another primal American experience rooted in the sixties: “It’s the closest thing,” he said, “to being at a Grateful Dead Concert.”23 The comparison was more than incidental to him, for he had similarly told Leary, “I ‘discovered’ the Garage by divine ‘accident’ of course, like I ‘discovered’ the Grateful Dead in 1975.”24

Haring understood something of his debt to sixties culture- its public and popular culture and thought, that is, as opposed to its art. On the latter front, he was selective: he adored Andy Warhol, but he was skeptical of the “overrationalization”25 he found in Minimal and Conceptual art, and worked partly in reaction against it. Of the events and ideas that flowed through American everyday consciousness in the sixties, on the other hand, he wrote, in that same letter to Leary: “I was born in 1958, so while I was growing up I was only aware of the events in the early Sixties through a strange mixture of sources…television, Life magazine pictorial essays, and some associations with enlightened relatives. I was very absorbed and interested, however, and I think affected at a time when my personality and ideology were in their most ‘affectable’ or impressionable stages.”26 As a teenager he had gone through a “Jesus freak” period and had worn long hair in a pigtail, listened to the Dead and had taken acid in the fields around Kutztown. (He told Leary that a drawing he had done during his first such trip, when he was fifteen, was “the seed for all of the work that followed.”)27 Reading Leary in the mid-eighties, Haring felt “completely at one” with his ideas.28

Haring’s politics, as revealed in his art, might also have been at home in sixties activism. In Haring’s world, a man who enslaves another with a rope may find that rope metamorphosing into a snake, the master’s tools turning on him. If a group of paintings from 1985 become grotesque, with the artist’s usually featureless figures developing cartoon wrinkles and Dalì-like corporeal distortion, or, in Michael Stewart: U.S.A. for Africa (pp.198-99), drowning in blood, it is because these works have “social-consciousness themes” (AIDS, racism) and Haring wants “to show the despair and hopelessness of those situations.”29 The sense of imminent apocalypse that sometimes breathes through his work has many sixties antecedents, the issues for him, however, being nuclear power armaments, and, later, AIDS. In much of his art-the subway drawings, the street murals, the Pop Shop goods- his decisions on scale, site, and the work’s physical vehicles are informed by a populist desire for accessibility; the use of ink on tarpaulin in the early eighties came out of a related impulse, a resistance to the elitism he thought implicit in oil on canvas.30 In an interview from 1984, Haring described a problem he posed himself, the problem of communicating the malign public influence of television, and its relationship with political power, in the months leading up to that year’s presidential election: “I did drawings today with a t.v. with dollar signs, and then a tube coming out of it that was going through someone’s head, and going back out the other side, and then turning into a hand that was pushing a ballot lever that said on it ‘Vote.’”31

The schematic nature of the explanation does not do justice to the visual inventiveness of the image. Like many of his eighties contemporaries, Haring consumed earlier visual forms, but he was less an appropriator than a terrific synthesist. It was not that he looked at the Paradise Garage instead of looking at Léger, Matisse, Arabic decoration, Pierre Alechinsky, Frank Stella, Stuart Davis, or Walt Disney (to name just a few of the connections one can make when looking through catalogues of his work), but that he looked at them all, then rephrased them through the syntax of that flowing and recombinant line. Enormously influenced by Warhol, he often returned in his journals to questions of high and low, artist and audience, art and commerce, and he clearly felt he was addressing the task of making the artist adequate to the contemporary world. (“I am continually amazed,” he once wrote, “at the number of artists who continue working as if the camera were never invented, as if Andy Warhol never existed, as if airplanes and computers and videotape were never heard of.”)32 Haring’s social views were not an extraneous addition to his art, not merely the subject matter to which a graphic talent addressed itself; they were thoroughly integrated not just into his work’s imagery but into its form and substance.

Those views place Haring in an American democratic and populist tradition going back virtually to the Pilgrims. But it was the sixties, as he told Leary, that taught that tradition to him. By the late seventies, however, he knew that the “hippie culture” of which he had once considered himself a member had “fizzled out.”33 In 1979, he wrote in his journals of “sitting on TRAIN across from hippies. I feel sick. What did I find out since then?” Growing up after it was really viable to use long hair to create community, he knew that even when he had been emulating that generation, “it was too late.”34 The challenge that he faced, and faced down, was to turn that too-late-ness to use- to fill that vacuum with energy.

“So we said to each other, ‘Do it yourself and make it.’”
-Keith Haring, 198635

“The only time I am happy is when I am working.”
-Keith Haring, journal entry, June 198736

The point in suggesting roots of Haring’s ethics in the values of the culture of his childhood is not to reclaim him somehow for the boomer generation; he knew quite well that he had left that generation behind. Though he may have found the same experience- “collective,” “communal,” “spiritual,” “tribal”- in both the Grateful Dead in the seventies and the Paradise Garage in the eighties, and though the value that he put on that experience surely shows the influence of Woodstock rhetoric, he also knew the difference- knew that the Garage “wasn’t this hippie thing, but taking place in a totally urban, contemporary setting.”37 Haring’s strength for opportunity, and to work out a new way to bring a community together- through the international audience for his art.

The end of the sixties, which Haring had lived through during his adolescence, had been multiform and protracted, running well beyond the decade’s numerical finis. Among its signals were, in politics, Watergate and the end of the Vietnam War; in popular culture there was the eruption of punk rock in the mid- and late seventies. New York’s downtown music and young-artist scenes were closely aligned. Alongside punk, a wave of new art began to gather. When galleries and museums showed themselves unready for this work, it made other outlets for itself.

When we think of the eighties as the era of decadent expenditure, we are forgetting the decade’s “do it yourself” side, at least in its first part: the way art sprang up like a weed- resourceful, robust, impossible to get rid of, sometimes handsome and sometimes not- in New York subways and streets and in the East Village. Haring played an essential part here. If, since the eighties ended in economic bust and gallery-system crisis, art has staggered through a period of Slacker imitations and “abjection,” Keith Haring is surely one model of how to respond to such interregnums: with innovative energy and ceaseless work.
–David Frankel

  1. Carmel Schmidt, in John Gruen, Keith Haring: The Authorized Biography (New York: Prentice Hall Press, 1991), p.52.
  2. Keith Haring, Keith Haring Journals (New York: Viking, 1996), p.15.
  3. Ibid., p.7
  4. Haring, quoted in Gruen, Keith Haring, p.90.
  5. Haring, quoted in Paul Donker Duyvis, “Every Station Is My Gallery: Interview with Keith Haring,” Keith Haring 1986: Paintings, Drawings and a Velum [sic], exh. Cat. (Amsterdam:
  6. Reproductie Afdeling, Stedelijk Museum, 1986), p.46.
  7. Ibid.
  8. Haring, quoted in Gruen, Keith Haring, p.120.
  9. Haring, Keith Haring Journals, p.70.
  10. Haring, quoted in Gruen, Keith Haring, p.57.
  11. Wim Beeren, “Preface,” in Keith Haring 1986, p.3.
  12. Rene Ricard, “The Radiant Child,” Artforum, 20 (December 1981), p.42.
  13. Jeffrey Deitch, “The Radioactive Child,” in Keith Haring 1986, p.15.
  14. Haring, Keith Haring Journals, p.76.
  15. See Haring, quoted in Duyvis, “Every Station is My Gallery,” p.46, and Jeffrey Deitch, “The Radioactive Child,” p.11.
  16. Haring, Keith Haring Journals, p.2.
  17. The brief discussions in this essay of the general characteristics of particular eras should be taken with a pinch of salt. As Fredric Jameson warns of the habit and concept of “periodizing”: “One of the concerns frequently aroused by periodizing hypotheses is that these tend to obliterate difference and to project an idea of the historical period of massive homogeneity.” One should allow instead for “the presence and coexistence of a range of very different…features”; Jameson, Postmodernism, or, the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism (Durham, North Carolina: Duke University Press, 1991), pp.3-4.
  18. Haring, quoted in Gruen, Keith Haring, p.88.
  19. Haring, Keith Haring Journals, p.105.
  20. See Robert Farris Thompson, “Introduction” to Haring, Keith Haring Journals, pp. xxx-xxxii, and “Requiem for the Degas of the B-Boys: Keith Haring,” Artforum, 28 (May 1990), pp.135-41.
  21. “ This multitude of different people living and working together in harmony has always been my prime attraction to New York”; Haring, undated statement in the Keith Haring Foundation archives. Haring also spoke clearly of feeling alienated by the white culture in which he had grown up. See, e.g., his remarks in Gruen, Keith Haring, p.88: “From the very beginning, I felt a much greater affinity to the culture of people of color than to the culture of white people”
  22. Haring, quoted in Gruen, Keith Haring, p.89.
  23. Haring, Keith Haring Journals, p. 105.
  24. Haring, quoted in Gruen, Keith Haring, p.89.
  25. Haring, Keith Haring Journals, p. 105.
  26. Haring, quoted in Duyvis, “Every Station is My Gallery”, p.46.
  27. Haring, Keith Haring Journals, p. 103-104.
  28. Haring, Keith Haring Journals, p. 105.
  29. Haring, quoted in Gruen, Keith Haring, p.144.
  30. Haring, quoted in Gruen, Keith Haring, p.132. Michael Stewart was a young black man who died in police custody, under arrets for writing graffiti in the New York Subway.
  31. Haring made many statements to this effect. “I regard the subway as the best form of exhibiting. Everyone can see it”; quoted in Duyvis “Every Station is My Gallery,” p.46. And, “I always felt I would be impeded by canvas, because canvas seemed to have a certain value before you even touched it. I felt I wouldn’t be free, the way I was working on paper – because paper was unpretentious and totally available and wasn’t all the expensive. Also, for me, canvas represented this whole historic thing – and it just psychologically blocked me”; quoted in Gruen, “Keith Haring”, p. 85.
  32. Haring, quoted in Cliff Fyman, “Interview with Keith Haring” September 26, 1984, p.82, manuscript in the Keith Haring Foundation archives.
  33. Haring, “Keith Haring by Keith Haring” January 12, 1984, manuscript in the Haring Foundation archives.
  34. Haring, quoted in Gruen “Keith Haring” p.44.
  35. Haring, Keith Haring Journals, p. 53.
  36. Haring, quoted in Duyvis, “Every Station is My Gallery”, p.45.
  37. Haring, Keith Haring Journals, p. 159.
  38. Haring, quoted in Gruen “Keith Haring” p.89.

© David Frankel. With permission for publication on web site.