An Afternoon with Keith

In 1978, the East Village was a last resort for most New Yorkers looking for a place to live. SoHo and Tribeca had grander spaces, with high-ceilinged lofts and safer streets at night. But in the summer of that year, while camping out in my in-law’s tiny walkup pied-à-terre off First Avenue, I noticed an ad in the Village Voice for an old Rectory for sale. That same day, my wife Karin and I rushed over to view the building and agreed on the spot to buy it. Soon after, we moved into the magnificent neo-gothic Rectory of the German Roman Catholic Church of St. Nicolas where I set up a small studio on the ground floor.

Through Karin’s father, the artist Joop Sanders, I met the legendary abstract expressionists. Through word of mouth, I also started to meet the inhabitants of the emerging art scene of the eighties. One by one, all of these people visited the Rectory and sat in front of my antique 11 x 14 view camera while I fumbled to take their picture and managed to teach myself the art of portraiture.

Back then, the East Village was a culturally and racially mixed neighborhood, a sleepy little enclave with seedy streets and cheap rents, surrounded by bustling New York. This area had traditionally welcomed artists and it soon became the ideal home to a new generation of them. They poured out of art schools with lots of ambition though no chance in hell of showing in the already overly-crowded SoHo gallery scene. But, as we all know, art and real estate are often connected and soon the empty East Village storefronts were filled with neo-expressionist and graffiti-based art, and artists became dealers by necessity. Clubs and after-hours bars followed, and performance artists found venues to do their thing. Word got out that there was something worthwhile happening between Avenue A and Avenue D.

The Fun Gallery was the epicenter of this new scene. Opening nights spilled into the streets, as the graffiti kids tried to figure out how their art could move from the walls of the city to the walls of the gallery. From the beginning, Keith Haring was one to watch. He was respected below ground and up above.

Eventually, I felt the need to document this wildly mushrooming, out-of-control scene that was literally happening outside my door. In the spring of 1985, I suggested to the art critic Robert Pincus-Witten, my friend, that he write a text to accompany my planned series of photographs of the East Village art world. I dubbed it The New Irascibles and appropriated Nina Leen’s legendary Irascibles photograph of fifties artists as a model for the portraits. The East Village scene had by now become enormous, filled with its own set of artists, dealers, critics, and collectors. I sensed it would disappear as quickly as it had arrived and knew enough to document the phenomenon. Pincus-Witten’s brilliant response to my idea was: “Of course I will help with this… it’s the central document in the history of world culture.”

Robert and I started to organize the portraits, deciding who belonged in the first generation of artists, who in the second, and who in the third. I called Keith to invite him to sit with the first generation and he said that he and Kenny (Scharf) and Jean-Michel (Basquiat) were willing to pose together for me, but not with anyone else from the East Village scene. “We are the original East Village artists,” he said.

In May 1985, Keith and Kenny arrived on time at my studio for what I promised would be a quick portrait. Then, we patiently waited for Jean-Michel Basquiat to show up. An hour passed and finally I called Jean-Michel’s studio. He was asleep and wouldn’t get up. We would have to shoot without him. Drugs? Sure. I took a few photos of Keith and Kenny together with an empty chair on the set to represent Jean-Michel; I figured I could shoot him another time and drop him into the shot.

While we sat waiting, I photographed Keith alone, exposing a few sheets of film with my large format 11 x 14 view camera. I also took a half dozen color shots on my Hasselblad. My method has always been to shoot as few shots as possible as a way to force myself and my subject to make each exposure really count. Besides, in those days, everyone was young and I figured that they could come back for another portrait if need be. I do remember thinking that Keith seemed slightly uncomfortable in front of the camera. That surprised me because he was by then quite well-known and I imagine he was photographed a lot. He wore a distracting “Keith Haring” T-shirt, which bothered me at the time, but now seems really great.

A few years later, in the summer of 1988, Keith invited me to his studio on Broadway to take some pictures. I don’t like leaving my own studio, where I can control the lights and where I have everything I need at disposal, but I thought it might be fun to see his space and what he was up to. I dragged a camera, a strobe, and some black cloth over to his loft and took a few film rolls. Then I gathered his team together and took a group portrait. Two years later, on February 16, 1990, of all days, my birthday, Keith was dead from AIDS at age thirty-one.

This essay is published in The Keith Haring Show
(Milan, Italy: Skira), 2005. P. 81 – 85.
Catalog edited by Gianni Mercurio, Demetrio Paparoni
Exhibition curated by Gianni Mercurio, Julia Gruen.

Fondazione Triennale di Milano
September 27, 2005 – January 29, 2006
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