The Marriage of Heaven and Hell

As curator of the Keith Haring retrospective mounted by New York’s Whitney Museum of American Art in 1997, Elisabeth Sussman composed a thoughtful catalogue text in which she tidily divided the artist’s career into three “chapters.” In the first of these, Sussmann suggested, Haring synthesized a street and club style into a bold form of overall decoration that often employed elements of kitsch. In the middle phase, lasting from approximately 1984 to 1988, when he developed the first symptoms of AIDS, Haring produced paintings that were essentially Pop versions of Neo-Expressionism. In these years he also used his cartoon-like graphic line to execute murals, many of them for (and even together with) children. “Finally,” Sussman observed, “in the last years of his life, major works not only summed up his painting ambitions but were socially active and angry responses to his imminent death.”1

There can be no doubt that the artist’s battle with AIDS had a profound effect on his artistic vision. “To live with a fatal disease,” he confided to his biographer John Gruen shortly before his death, “gives you a whole new perspective on life.”2 The resulting pain and anguish are eloquently expressed in Haring’s two collaborations with William Burroughs: Apocalypse (1988) and The Valley (1989). Sussmann’s categories are nonetheless too neat and too emphatic, concealing both the humor that frequently enlivens the late works and the dark side that shadows even the earliest, cartoon-like compositions. And the artist was a social activist from the beginning of his career. At a demonstration in Central Park in 1982, he distributed 20,000 antinuclear posters. His “Anti-Litterpig” campaign was launched in 1984, the famous Crack is Wack mural painted in 1986. The true “horror of AIDS had come to light”3 for Haring in 1985, and he had for some time regarded himself as a prime AIDS “candidate” – even before discovering the first Karposi sarcoma on his leg during a trip to Japan in 1988. Not only numerous intimate acquaintances, including his ex-lover Juan Dubose, had already succumbed to the disease. Rumors of Haring’s own infection were rife long before he himself learned that he was HIV-positive. More than a year before the diagnosis, Newsweek had tracked the artist down in Europe to ask if his protracted stay there was a cover-up for his affliction with AIDS.

Yet for all the traumatic implications of the onset of the disease itself, it is a mistake to overemphasize the event as a kind of watershed, as a moment in which the oeuvre itself underwent some seismic change. Such an oversimplification is tempting but ultimately misleading. And it is not unlike that simplistic approach to the work of Andy Warhol which suggests a fundamental shift in theme and point of view following the assassination attempt by Valerie Solanis. In fact, Warhol’s own fascination with “Death and Disaster” was well established before the deranged feminist entered the Factory in 1969 with revolver blazing. 129 Die in Jet, the first of the works associated with violent death, dates to 1962. And it was soon followed by garishly tinted studies of suicides, car crashes, race riots and electric chairs.

Keith Haring, too, had explored a darker side of experience long before the dread diagnosis. The earliest works produced in his characteristic graphic style include serpents and monsters, nuclear radiation and falling angels, cannibals, omnivorous worms, bloody daggers and skeletons. The devil himself makes occasional appearances, as does the multi-headed beast of the Apocalypse. One can make out a sinister form that may well represent a virus, and an androgynous figure which wheels a sword-like crucifix over the heads of children, while scissors and chains are employed in sadomasochistic practices which often end in castration. In a Saint Sebastian, produced in 1984 and one of the few titled works by Haring, the martyr’s body is pierced not by arrows but by airplanes – one of the numerous examples of the artist’s critical view of technology, but also testimony to his deeply felt pacifism.

The figure of a hanged man, perhaps influenced by William Burroughs’ Naked Lunch, makes it debut in 1981. So, too, do human figures writhing in the clutch of a nest of serpents. In 1982 a serpent pierces (and thereby joins like so many beads on a string) a row of human figures with holes in their abdomens. Indeed, human figures with holes gouged in their middles are a recurrent pictogram – one inspired, according to the artist himself, by the assassination of John Lennon in December of 1980. Yet even before that event, Haring was sounding the themes of violence and death in the cut-up headlines he posted around New York City, inspired both by his friend Jenny Holzer and by William Burroughs. In typical tabloid fashion, the headlines trumpeted such sensationalist assertions as “POPE KILLED FOR FREED HOSTAGE.” “RONALD REAGAN ACCUSED OF TV STAR SEX DEATH; KillED AND ATE lOVER.” and “REAGAN’S DEATH COPS HUNT POPE.”

When Keith Haring undertook his first cross-country trip in 1977 with his girlfriend Susan, he financed the journey by silkscreening T-shirts and selling them along the way. One model showed Richard Nixon sniffing a kilo of marijuana; the other featured the logo of the Grateful Dead: a skull – the penultimate memento mori that also fascinated Warhol – split by a lightning bolt. One of Haring’s early subway drawings includes a skeleton wearing wire-rimmed glasses as an encoded self-portrait. In a diary entry for March 18, 1982, the artist reflected on the significance of “Being born in1958, the first generation of the Space Age, born into a world of television technology and instant gratification, a child of the atomic age. Raised in American during the sixties and learning about war from Life magazines on Viet Nam. Watching riots on television…”4 Like the Beat poets he admired, the young artist was intensely aware of the dangers of nuclear war and the precedent his country had set in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. He was equally aware of the dangers inherent in “peacetime” uses of nuclear energy. The notorious near-meltdown at Three Mile Island in 1979 occurred a short distance from the Haring home in Kutztown, Pennsylvania. Spaceships projecting rays onto earthlings often hover over his works, and his famous “radiant” baby may suggest radioactive contamination as well as spiritual glow.

In short, the first “chapter” in Haring’s career was neither so innocent nor so giddily affirmative as it is sometimes made out to be. His media-savvy generation, exposed at an early age to “sex, drugs and rock-‘n’-roll,” was quickly disabused of childhood’s illusions. At the age of 19, he confided to his diary, “Through all the shit shines the small ray of hope that lives in the common sense of the few. The music, dance, theater, and the visual arts: the forms of expression, the arts of hope. This is where I think I fit in.”5 Even amid the “shit,” there was an element of hope, and the coexistence of these two entities defines the Haring universe. What one witnesses is literally The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, to cite the title of a Roland Petit choreography for the Ballet National de Marseilles, for which Haring created a huge front curtain in 1985. Whether Haring was familiar with William Blake’s ironic poem of the same title is uncertain, though the English poet was a favorite of the psychedelic set to which Haring belonged for a time. Furthermore, there are occasional parallels between Haring’s graphic style and the illustrations Blake prepared for his own works. The implications of a linked pair of Blake titles – Songs of Innocence and Songs of Experience – have clear relevance for Haring’s oeuvre, as well.

The key to Haring’s work is not to be found in “chapters” or in oppositions, but precisely in the mingling, the marriage of innocence and experience, good and evil, heaven and hell. This inherent but essential ambiguity is reinforced by an image he created in June of 1989, less than a year before his death. (He was in Paris at the time, executing a monumental painting intended to decorate a dirigible to be flown over the city in commemoration of the 200th anniversary of the French Revolution.) The starting point was a photograph of the artist sitting on a chair from the Vitra Collection, part of a series of celebrity portraits made for the German furniture company. With a felt pen, Haring fitted himself out with wings, floated a halo over his head, bound his feet with shackles and coiled a rope-like or snakelike form around his torso. (In fact, in other works the rope which binds a victim often turns into a snake in the hands of his tormentor). Haring remarked on his own creation: “Whoever understands this photograph understands what my work is all about.”6 The essential theme sounded here – man bound into a “mortal coil,” anchored to the earth, while his spirit strives to soar into the heavens – is as old as religion itself)

In his journal Haring described the events of June 16th as follows: Friday I had a “press lunch” with the airship people (boring and trivial). Then went to Futura’s exhibit and bought a nice new painting. Met David Galloway there. He came to Paris to interview me for the book Hans Mayer is doing on my sculptures. Went with David to see the airship painting again and do photos. We talked a lot and by the same time we got to the hotel the conversation got deeper and continually off the “subject.”
Did some photos for a German spaghetti book. (Portrait of me with a drawing made out of spaghetti we ordered from room service.) I talked with David till it was time for dinner at Marcel Fleiss’s house with Yoko and Sam. Nice quiet dinner and then returned to hotel with David to talk till 1 :30.7

The “deeper” talk that quickly veered from the topic of sculpture and continued into the early hours of the morning ultimately found its focus in the fat roll of galley proofs resting on the mantelpiece of Haring’s suite at the Ritz Hotel. This was the interview by David Scheff that would appear in Rolling Stone on August 10th, and in which Haring talked with painful frankness about his own illness. As a politically engaged artist who helped to organize the first” Art Against AIDS” exhibition and produced several AIDS-related posters, including more than one with the motto “Silence = Death,” he felt morally obliged to speak out about his illness. (Later in the year, he would march in protest against New York City’s “racist” policy with respect to the disease, which allegedly only afflicted perverts, junkies and Afro-Americans.) Nonetheless, when the time came to approve Sheff’s uncompromising interview, the activist experienced a moment of hesitation. Quite simply, he feared he might not be permitted to work with children again, and this was one of his most cherished activities. Despite such misgivings, on June 17 he sent his approval of the text to the editors of Rolling Stone, and when it appeared the artist experienced an immense, deeply gratifying wave of sympathy. The sole sour note was a protest against his having been commissioned (by Princess Caroline) to execute a mural for the maternity ward of the Princess Grace Hospital in Monaco – allegedly a potential danger for future generations.

In transforming a photographic portrait into a self-portrait with a few brisk strokes, Haring made an emphatic statement about his artistic intentions. At the same time, he revealed the depth of his own religious sentiment. Though not a practicing Christian in the last years of his life, the artist had a profound sense of right and wrong, of good and evil, and he devoted a considerable part of his energy to social causes. Attending Sunday School and church had been a regular part of the Harings’ family life, and in summer Keith attended the camp run by the United Church of Christ. As a teenager he joined the Jesus Saves movement, read the Bible voraciously and developed “an obsession with the concept of the Second Coming…”8 Above all, Haring was influenced by “Revelation,” which later offered him a veritable storehouse of trenchant visual imagery. Even at the age of 12, according to Haring’s mother, “he began making drawings in which there were Jesus symbols and other types of symbols, like a loop with two dots.”9 Haring’s phase as a “Jesus Freak” was short-lived, and the impact of religion (above all, of organized religion) on his work can be overestimated. Indeed, the artist once complained to his journal that “Most religions are so hopelessly outdated, and suited to fit the particular problems of earlier times, that they have no power to provide liberation and freedom, and no power to give ‘meaning’ beyond an empty metaphor or moral code.”10

When he finally decided, while dancing at New York’s Paradise Garage, to depict the Ten Commandments within the arches of Bordeaux’s Musee d’Art Contemporain for his show there in 1985, Haring was at a loss to remember all the commandments: “So the minute I get to Bordeaux, I ask for a bible!”11 Yet for all the vagueness surrounding Haring’s grasp of biblical fundamentals and his distrust of the church as a moral authority, Christian mythology clearly had a profound impact on his use of angels and devils and madonnas, bleeding hearts and crucifixions and transubstantiations. (Painting an angel along with a mother and child on the coffin of his friend Yves Arman, who died in a car crash, transcended mere decoration to become a ritual act of healing.) Haring’s fundamental religiosity, on the other hand, was also influenced by his interest in so-called “primitive” cultures, their myths and rituals and totemic objects – interests that inform the artist’s pseudo-African masks, for example. And the Michael Rockefeller Collection of Primitive Art at New York’s Metropolitan Museum was one of his favorite haunts.

Haring’s use of traditional Christian imagery is particularly explicit in Apocalypse (1988), his first collaboration with William Burroughs. Each composition is a reprise on a collaged image taken from advertising, art history or Catholic theology. In addition to a Christ with a bleeding heart, the series includes an advertisement from the 1950s (significantly, the period of Haring’s own infancy) in which a mother tenderly – and, by implication, Madonna-like – leans over her baby to offer him a milk-bottle. The explicitly Catholic allusions continue in Haring’s next collaboration with Burroughs – the suite of etchings entitled The Valley. Here the imagery includes the torso of a male figure inserting a knife beneath his ribs to duplicate one of Christ’s stigmata. This belated “embrace” of Catholic symbology aligns Haring even more closely with other prominent creative rebels: with Robert Mapplethorpe, Andy Warhol and Haring’s street-wise friend and sometime-collaborator Madonna. For those three taboo-breaking artists the Catholic religion offered an especially fertile field for rebellion.

There is a kind of poetic logic in the fact that Haring’s collaborations with Burroughs mark the end of his career, since it began with the mock New York Post headlines inspired by the cut-up technique Burroughs employed in Naked Lunch. The artist, furthermore, seems to have felt an intuitive sympathy for a surrealistic juxtaposition of images – partly inspired by his own use of hallucinogenic drugs, but also by his acquaintance with the works of Burroughs and the Beat-generation poets. A sentence from Burroughs’ Soft Machine, published in 1962, might almost describe a composition by Haring: “Carl walked a long row of living penis urns whose penis has absorbed the body with vestigial arms and legs breathing through purple fungoid gills…”12 Haring had known Burroughs’ work long before the two first met in 1983. In 1986, the artist told an interviewer that the author was “very into a lot of the world I’ve depicted, especially in the recent things – sex, mutations, weird science fiction situations.”13 Erotic grotesquerie mixed with Christian symbolism characterized the works of both men. Timothy Leary, self-proclaimed guru of the acid age, remarked of the first Haring-Burroughs collaboration, Apocalypse, that it was “like Dante and Titian getting together.”14 Dante and Hieronymous Bosch, whom Haring greatly admired, might seem the more appropriate parallel for works redolent with a sense of doom.

On March 20, 1987, Haring made the following remark in his journal: “I always knew, since I was young, that I would die young. But I thought it would be fast (an accident, not a disease). In fact, a man-made disease like AIDS. Time will tell that I am not scared. I live everyday as if it were the last. I love life.”15 That affirmative note is sounded throughout the artist’s work, the numerous interviews he gave, the social activities he sponsored, the texts he composed. Yet in the same journal entry which included the vigorous assertion of his love for life, Haring composed the following reaction to the news that the policemen accused of killing Michael Stewart had all been acquitted:
I hope in their next life they are tortured like they tortured him. They should be birds captured early in life, put in cages, purchased by a fat, smelly, ugly lady who keeps them in a small dirty cage up near the ceiling while all day she cooks bloody sausages and the blood spatters their cage and the frying fat burns their matted feathers and they can never escape the horrible fumes of her burnt meat. One day the cage will fall to the ground and a big fat ugly cat will kick them about, play with them like a toy, and slowly kill them and leave their remains to be accidentally stepped on by the big fat pink lady who can’t see her own feet because of her huge sagging tits. An eye for an eye… 16

Like a Bosch-Burroughs vision, the passage indicates the rage Haring could experience when confronted with social and political injustice. For an understanding of the artist’s oeuvre as a whole, however, it is important to observe that in the journal entry for a single day, remarks of a tender, Christian-like nature – “I’m sure when I die, I won’t really die, because I live in many people,”17 – are followed by fulminations of Old Testament rage. Yet this dichotomy in no sense represents a contradiction; far more, it is symptomatic of the complexity of the artist’s vision. It is an underlying duality which make the early works more than naive cartoons, the late ones more than angry odes to man’s mortality. Fitted out with the wings necessary to ascend into heaven and the shackles drawing him down into the fire and brimstone of hell, Keith Haring demonstrated an astonishingly precocious grasp of the inherent ambiguities of his generation, of his age. He was the loving, lusting, break-dancing, quintessential American boy, but also an untiring, uncompromising social critic, and he was doomed to die young of a disease that decimated his generation. “Nothing lasts forever,” as he noted in one of his final journal entries. “And nobody can escape death.”18


  1. Elizabeth Sussman “Songs of Innocence at the Nuclear Pyre” in Keith Haring, exhibition catalog New York Whitney Museum of Art in association with Bulfinch Press and Little, Brown and Company, 1997, p.12
  2. Quoted in John Gruen, Keith Haring: The Authorized Biography New York 1991 p.187
  3. ibid., p.131
  4. Keith Haring, Journals New York 1996 p.75-76
  5. ibid., p.5
  6. Haring made the remark during the interview I conducted with him in Paris on June 16, 1989
  7. Keith Haring, Journals New York 1996 p.261
  8. Quoted in Gruen, p.18
  9. Quoted in Gruen, p.7
  10. Keith Haring Journals, p.161
  11. Quoted in Gruen, p.135
  12. See Robert A. Sobieszek, Port of Entry: William S Borroughs and the Arts, exhibition catalog Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 1996 p.160
  13. For further information on the meeting of Haring and Burroughs see Robert A. Sobieszek, p.140 The interview appeared in Alan Jones, “Keith Haring: Art or Industry?” New York Talk (June 1986)
  14. Quoted in Gruen, p.185
  15. Keith Haring Journals, p.123
  16. ibid., p.125
  17. ibid., p.123
  18. ibid., p.272