Between Politics and Mythology

Gianni Mercurio Do you think that Haring’s placement of is drawings in different urban contexts suffices to ascribe socio-political significance to his work?

Peter Halley Well, yes, for me. I moved to New York in the summer of 1980, and I remember his drawings in the subways. In fact, I have a Keith Haring! Late one night, I was walk 19 down Broadway, near Astor Place, and I passed a construction site where a big new apartment building was going up. There were all these small, thick cork tiles stacked on the sidewalk, and he had drawn his baby on one of them in black marker. So I picked it up and took it home.

I was actually pretty intrigued with his work at that time. When you go down into the subway, you encounter a kind of science-fiction environment where the major elements are noise, darkness, danger, and speed. Seeing his black-and-white drawings of spaceships and babies – this whole strange, almost religious iconography – in that environment, drawn with such precision and virtuosity, was very, very interesting.

I have always been interested in the possibilities of art in public spaces, so, when I saw those pieces, I immediately connected Haring with Robert Smithson. I felt that Haring was dealing with a site that had social significance, as was Smithson. I thought it was very interesting that Haring’s work was not overtly political, that it was more mythological. But he had given a new meaning and new emphasis to this particular site – the subway.

Also, it was obvious that he wasn’t making paintings to show in art galleries; he was a site-specific artist, and his site was one that was shared by all classes of people – the subway. I define politics, political work, as addressing a broader social context – for me, politics is connected to an awareness of social context, and changing social contexts. In that sense, I found his work very political.


G.M. Your career started at almost the same time as Haring’s. Did you feel his work to be in opposition to yours and to other artists like Jeff Koons and Haim Steinbach, with whom you exhibited? Do you see it today in the same way as at that moment?

P.H. The very simple diagrammatic paintings I made in the early eighties were also technological landscapes and related to cartoons. I was interested in Haring’s relationship to pop art and his use of pop-commercial materials. He was also using dayglo color – so I felt interested in that. On the other hand, the people he was involved with – the whole graffiti scene – was closer to neo-expressionism. His work was also based on a drawing sensibility, which I have nothing to do with, so there’s a big difference there.

When I first came to New York, I had a small exhibition at P.S. 122 in the East Village in the fall of 1980. Haring had a studio there at the time. He was one of maybe twenty artists who worked in the building. When my show opened, P.S. 122 also had an open studio day. Haring had music going and lots of drawings on the wall. That was my closest contact with him.


G.M. Do you feel that Haring is influential today?

P.H. You know, when I think about Keith Haring nowadays, I think about Japan – especially Murakami – and all the people in Japan who are interested in the idea that an artist can function between fine art and commercial art. Keith Haring made T-shirts, buttons for your coat, and stuff like that. He was interested in mass-produced objects, as well as in public art. I think Tokyo is where you really see his influence.


G.M. For your abstract-geometric paintings you use flat paint and bright colors. That is why some critics have seen a pop influence in your work The same is true of Keith Haring, whose work has been spoken of as descended from Roy Lichtenstein’s comic book images. As artists you were born in the same moment and in the same historical context. What connects you with Haring and what are the differences?

P.H. He was so interested in drawing. I once read that he was very interested in Pierre Alechinsky and the CoBrA movement in Belgium. I’ve never felt that kind of art had any influence on me. I was interested in minimalism, abstraction, and so forth. But people can come to the same place by different means.


G.M. Do you feel that your work and Haring’s has a common sense of nostalgia? I mean nostalgia for the past, for the twentieth century and its languages.

P.H. You know, honestly, I don’t. I would say that he was one of the few artists around 1980 that did not seem to be appropriating or referring to another style. I think that’s the strength of the work. In fact, in many ways, I think he looks ahead, to things like Japanese graphics and the importance of cartoons and comic books as a kind of universal populist language. His drawing was very fresh and never reminded me of someone from the past, like Alechinsky. His use of sources was very subtle. I feel that his work was more about embracing contemporary practices like conceptualism, site-specific works, interventions in public spaces, and new materials.


G.M. Do you see in Haring a ‘primitive’ artist? He painted on people’s bodies and made drawings on vessels. In spite of his humor, many of his subjects remind explicitly of sacred or mortuary rituals. Can there be a sense of primitivism in a post-industrial society like the one we’re in?

P.H. That’s a very interesting question. I don’t see him as a primitive in any way. But I am interested in his use of mythic ancient symbols. For me, again, it is really close to Robert Smithson’s work and Smithson’s interest in things like pre-Columbian, Meso-American art. Smithson talked about being interested in the far reaches of history, as well as the future. He wasn’t interested in recent European history or a classical or modernist heritage. I felt that Haring was doing the same thing, going way back into the past, attempting to imbue the present and the future with a sense of the mythic. It’s an artistic goal that one sees quite often, and it’s a rather powerful thing.

But when I think of him drawing on bodies, I also think that he was a very playful, seductive guy who probably liked drawing on handsome men. The one disappointment I have about Haring is that, after just the first couple of years, his work became so much less radical. He abandoned the subways and the more radical goals of his project and pretty much moved into the realm of the galleries and the mainstream art world.

This essay is published in The Keith Haring Show
(Milan, Italy: Skira), 2005. P. 87 – 90.
Catalog edited by Gianni Mercurio, Demetrio Paparoni
Exhibition curated by Gianni Mercurio, Julia Gruen.

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