Conversation with Keith Haring

About Inspiration from other Artists

At the arts and crafts center in Pittsburgh, I started to do printmaking… Around this time, 1977, I had a real obsession with paper. As I started to expand and do bigger things, I had this real aversion to canvas. I didn’t want to do things on canvas. I wanted to work on paper, partly because paper was inexpensive, but partly because it was interesting.

Also, I felt this strong need to get to know what other artists had done. I spent a lot of time at the library and came across Dubuffet. I was startled at how similar Dubuffet’s images were to mine, because I was making these little abstract shapes that were interconnected. So I looked into the rest of his work. And I became very interested in Stuart Davis, because one of his teachers was Robert Henri, and also because he was interrelating his abstract shapes. And I began relating to Jackson Pollock – especially the early abstract stuff – and to Paul Klee and Alfonso Ossorio and Mark Tobey – and suddenly seeing the whole Eastern concept of art, which really affected me. Of course, at the time, I didn’t in any way consider myself an equal to those artists. But each of those painters had something I was involved with, so I investigated them, trying to find out who they were, so I could figure out who I was-and where I was coming from.

Then, even more importantly, it was the time of the Carnegie International, which was this huge show given in Pittsburgh, at the Museum of Art at the Carnegie Institute. That year, in 1977, the show was an enormous retrospective by Pierre Alechinsky. I had never heard of him before, and all of a sudden there were something like two hundred paintings and drawings tracing his career. And there were videotapes of him working. And I didn’t know who that was!

I couldn’t believe that work! It was so close to what I was doing! Much closer than Dubuffet. It was the closest thing I had ever seen to what I was doing with these self-generative little shapes. Well, suddenly I had a rush of confidence. Here was this guy, doing what I was doing, but on a huge scale, and done in the kind of calligraphy I was working with, and there were frames that went back to cartooning – to the whole sequence of cartoons, but done in a totally free and expressive way, which was totally about chance, totally about intuition, totally about spontaneity – and letting the drips in and showing the brush – but big! And this huge obsession with ink and a brush! And an obsession with paper! And all those things were totally, but totally in the direction I was heading.

I went to that exhibition I don’t know how many times. I bought the catalogue, I read Alechinsky’s writings. I watched the videos of him painting these enormous canvases on the floor! For him, it was like an Eastern thing, with the importance of gravity having great meaning. And he had rigged up these boards in his studio so he could lie on top of them in order to get to the middle of these big paintings on the floor. Well, Alechinsky totally blew me away. From that point on, it changed everything for me.

Right away my work started getting bigger and bigger. I found a place to get paper where they had cardboard tubes, leftover pieces from Styrofoam cuttings, and rolls of paper from printing plants. I’d haul the paper to the arts and crafts center and, after work or during lunch breaks, I’d be doing these paintings inspired by Alechinsky. I began working on the floor. The drips from the paint would be incorporated into what I was doing. My things were different from Alechinsky. They didn’t have the fluidity of his abstract line. Mine had a boxy edge to the line – a sort of constrained look, but still liberated.

The main thing that I was acquiring was confidence. I felt I was doing something that was worthwhile.

On Christo

During my last year in Pittsburgh there was one other really important thing that occurred, and that was my hearing a lecture given by the artist, Christo. After the lecture, he showed a film made about one of his works called Running Fence. It affected me profoundly. It fulfilled all the philosophical and theoretical ideas I had about public art and about the intervention of an artist with the public and with real events.

I mean, to see these people – these farmers – who resisted Christo’s project getting up early in the morning to see the sunrise reflected in the Running Fence – and standing there and saying it was the most beautiful thing they had ever seen! I mean, totally transforming these people, who were farmers! And seeing them affected and challenged by and inspired by a work of art! No matter how contemporary it was, and no matter how alien it was to everything they knew – somehow, that forced intervention by an artist made them see things in a whole other way.

Well, it impressed me incredibly. I had no idea how I could do anything similar – how I could involve other people – how I could engage the public like that. I had no idea how to do that.

On Video Art

The first tapes I made were all self-referential. The first time you see and hear yourself on video – and look at yourself from outside of yourself – is an incredible psychological lesson. Since then, I’ve maintained that schools should teach video not as a video class, but as a psychology or philosophy class. Video really gives you a whole other concept of self and ego, and an objective way of looking at and being comfortable with yourself in a way that might not have existed before. Especially important is the way the camera is set up, so that it’s live and you react to what you’re seeing yourself do at the same time that you’re doing it. I mean, you can see the back of your head while you’re doing something else – you can see yourself from the side. So I looked at video, and started thinking about the meaning of this concept of self and ego.

Keith on Painting as a Kind of Dance

At SVA, I was producing lots of things in quantity. Like, I found a place where someone had put out on the street these huge rolls of paper, which were about nine feet tall and they turned out to be photographic backdrop paper. I dragged those rolls back to the school, laid them down on the floor in the sculpture studio, and proceeded to do these ink paintings similar to Alechinsky’s, but bigger. This time, though, I became very intrigued with the act of doing this. It was the idea of making the movements I was doing into a kind of choreography – a kind of dance. I was thinking that the very act of painting placed you in an exhilarated state – it was a sacred moment.

On Graffiti Art and First Meeting with Basquiat

Almost immediately upon my arrival in New York in 1978, I had begun to be interested, intrigued, and fascinated by the graffiti I was seeing in the streets and in the subways.

Often I’d take the trains to the museums and galleries, and I was starting to see not only the big graffiti on the outside of the subway trains, but incredible calligraphy on the inside of the cars. The calligraphic stuff reminded me of what I learned about Chinese and Japanese calligraphy. There was also this stream-of-consciousness thing – this mind-to-hand flow that I saw in Dubuffet, Mark Tobey, and Alechinsky.

The forms I was seeing were very similar to the kinds of drawings I was doing, even though I wasn’t making the voluminous letters and the aggressively fluid lines, which were done directly on the surfaces, and without a preconceived plan. They were really, really strong. Well, I felt immediately comfortable with this art. I was aware of it wherever I was. So the time spent en route to a gallery or to a performance or to a concert was just as interesting and educational as that which I was going to see. Sometimes I wouldn’t even get on the first train. I’d sit and wait to see what was on the next train.

Graffiti were the most beautiful things I ever saw. This being 1978-79, the war on graffiti hadn’t really begun yet. So the art was allowed to blossom into something amazing, and the movement was really at its peak. These kids, who were obviously very young and from the streets, had this incredible mastery of drawing which totally blew me away. I mean, just the technique of drawing with spray paint is amazing, because it’s incredibly difficult to do. And the fluidity of line, and the way they handled scale – doing this work on these huge, huge trains. And always the hard-edged black line that tied the drawings together! It was the line I had been obsessed with since childhood!

As I was coming to the end of my time at the School of Visual Arts, there started appearing on the streets this graffiti which said SAMO. It appeared for almost a year, and I had no idea who this person was, but I began to religiously follow the work, because it was appearing where I was living, walking, and going to school. It was the first time I saw what I would call a literary graffiti, one that wasn’t done just for the sake of writing a name or for making a formal mark. These were little poems, little statements – they were non sequiturs – and they were conceptual statements – and they were on the street. For me, it was condensed poetry which would stop you in your tracks and make you think.

Well, SAMO, which some said stood for “same old shit” turned out to be Jean-Michel Basquiat. I had heard that Jean-Michel was attending an alternative high-school program, that he was part of the Mudd Club scene and that he lived wherever he could crash. Actually, I still hadn’t met Jean. Michel – I had only heard about him. Well, one day a kid came up to me just as I was going into SVA, and he asked if I could walk him through, past the security guard. He wanted to get inside the school. I said, “Sure” and we walked through. I disappeared into a class. When I came out an hour later, I noticed there were all these fresh SAMO poems and tags in places they hadn’t been an hour ago. I put two and two together and realized that the person I had walked through was Basquiat.

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