The year was 1976. After getting my Master’s at the California Institute of the Arts, I moved to downtown New York City to be an artist. I had no money to make art or rent a studio, so I got a job uptown in a fancy clothing store on Madison Avenue, just to pay my rent. I got stuck in this job for the next four years until I met the legendary street photographer Bill Cunningham, who used to chase me down the street photographing my crazy downtown outfits, which were quite unusual for Madison Avenue. He kept asking me why I wanted to come uptown every day to this rich neighborhood when downtown was so much more interesting. He finally hooked me up with a fashion editor’s job at the then super hip downtown newspaper called The SoHo Weekly News. The weekly tome was a bible for the very underground and often radical downtown kids in New York who were thriving creatively in this still un-gentrified yet very exciting section of the city located below 14th Street. You see, thirty years ago, downtown New York was a bit of a scary place. While uptown was for the wealthy, downtown was fairly low-rent: drug laden, crime infested and dangerous when the artists began moving in. The wealthy folks from uptown would never dare to come below Houston Street in those days. They were simply scared. Because rents in SoHo, Tribeca, and the East Village were so cheap in the seventies, it became a hub for all types of struggling creatives, from musicians, artists, and underground filmmakers to young radical fashion designers, poets, and performance artists.
Culture was clashing big-time in those days downtown. People were breaking out of their “boxes”. Fine artists were making music, musicians were making underground movies, fashion designers were collaborating on clothes with artists. And the “hub” of this cultural exchanging took place after hours in the clubs. The streets and the landscape of these neighborhoods were vibrant as well, filled with amazing-looking creative folks who hung out twenty-four hours a day on the streets, which had also become canvases for artists of all types, especially graffiti artists, inspired by a parallel creative phenomenon going on at the same moment in another edgy and dangerous section of the city above 125th Street in Harlem and the South Bronx. Culture was clashing up here as well, where maverick rappers, double-dutch girls, break-dancers, and scratch dee-jays were creating totally new sounds and styles to go with them. Soon, rappers and graffiti artists from uptown were visiting and collaborating with artists and musicians from downtown.
What a rich cultural time it was! You could hear Blondie’s Debbie Harry performing an improvised rap at 2 a.m. with hip-hop legend Afrika Bambaata and Fab Five Freddy in a club called the Mudd Club located on a dark, desolate street in Tribeca. You could go see break-dancers performing for the downtown art crowd in East Village clubs and see graffiti artists from the Bronx who painted entire subway cars being documented by downtown filmmakers.
And so, I happily dove into my role as a style editor, using this cultural criss-cross as my inspiration to create new ways to extend these collaborations into print. This was the world that we at the SoHo News covered, so of course I had to be everywhere all the time experiencing it all for myself. I became a participant and began collaborating on concepts with artists and shooting fashion layouts on downtown rock stars like the Pretenders or Siouxsie And The Banshees, using talents like Robert Mapplethorpe or Timothy Greenfield-Sanders to take the photos! The more I became involved with the pop cultural world downtown and the cultural exchange going on among art, music, film, performance, and fashion, the further away I drifted from the traditional art world. I was much more interested in the art that was happening outside of the traditional galleries – the combustion that came from art colliding with all these other cultural phenomena. I was not interested in limitations or seeking a traditional artists’ career, and so I began pouring my creativity into my editorial visions. And this is how I came to do what I do today.
During this unique time, the clubs were where it all happened. I remember one night in the late seventies an artist friend from Cal Arts, the painter Ross Bleckner, called me and invited me to come to his loft on White Street because he had rented out the ground floor to “some crazy kids who were starting a club called the Mudd Club” I arrived and there was no bar, no deejay, but instead a “ghetto blaster” (a handheld portable tape deck) and some cheap wine in plastic cups. This was the beginning of the legendary Mudd Club. I used to go to the Mudd Club every single night because I lived around the corner. It was such a fabulous scene. Downtown luminaries from Lou Reed to Betsey Johnson, John Lurie and Arto Lindsay to The B-52’s Fred Schneider and Kate Pierson and filmmaker Amos Poe would hang there every night until dawn. One night, someone brought Andy Warhol (who was growing tired of the uptown “Studio 54” disco scene) downtown to see the Mudd Club and he loved it and started bringing others to see it. Suddenly we began seeing Bianca Jagger and a gaggle of rich socialites skulking on the dance floor at three in the morning in the middle of this low-budget, scary place. They all thought it was so thrilling. We used to make fun of the rich people when they came downtown for a thrill, invading our space. We called it “slumming”.
Meanwhile, another even younger movement was going on simultaneously in downtown’s East Village, where a very underground group of art students had pioneered a cute homegrown club called Club 57, which was located in the basement of a church on St. Mark’s Place. This club was like a playground for these new young kids who arrived in New York to go to art school and ended up making their own very edgy and campy scene filled with performance art and fuelled by LSD. The aesthetic was different and younger than that of the punky Mudd Club crowd. Club 57 was more like a clubhouse than a club. The cast of characters was awesome and the same people would be there night after night. It was more like a big family playground than a real nightclub. “Club members” included a big group of (School of) Visual Arts students and friends like Keith Haring, Ann Magnuson (now an actress and writer in LA), Kenny Scharf (now a legendary artist), Joey Arias (performer, singer), Debi Mazar (now an actress living in LA), Tseng Kwong Chi (the late artist and photographer), John Sex (the late performer), Marc Shaiman and Scott Whitman (now famous musical arrangers in Hollywood), Jack Smith, Bruno Schmidt, Michael Musto, Katy K, and many, many others – too many to name them all. This crazy talented group would buy cases of beer and bring a turntable and some vinyl and everyone would pay two dollars to come in to cover costs. It was approached as an art project. The members often held parties with themes. They would have art shows. They would put on plays. One night would be called the “LOVE BOAT” party, so everyone was dressed like the characters of the Love Boat TV show. It was crazy. Sometimes they had performance nights and some nights were “monster movies club” nights; sometimes they would show very bad porno, like Russ Meyer films! Every night would be amazing and different. Always filled with sarcastic, social, and pop cultural commentary though. These new kids in town were born and raised in the sixties on the absurdity of the Brady Bunch television episodes. They were political and funny and smart and super brilliant. It was new, exciting, and creative.
Club 57 is where I first met Keith Haring. I thought he seemed quite a shy guy at first, but I fell in love with him when I watched him perform one night, hilariously squashed inside a big broken television set with the glass removed. I’m sure he was on acid! As he was performing, someone whispered to me that this was the guy who drew those little chalk crawling babies on the sidewalks, in the subways, and on the telephone poles downtown that we had been seeing everywhere. Downtown was always known for having some kook making art on the streets. But this was different. These symbols were like little “Elmo was here” symbols. Haring’s babies began popping up on the subways while at the same time a young, very handsome artist named Jean-Michel (Basquiat) was also running around drawing a small crown with the word “SAMO” under it. “SAMO” and the “BABY” became the new symbols of downtown. They were everywhere below 14th Street.
And so I converted from a Mudd Club addict to a Club 57 freak. I was so excited by what I saw at night in that church basement that I also started employing some of these kids to create style stories on my editorial pages. They were all poor and needed the money and they came up with the most extraordinary ideas. Ann Magnuson produced fashion stories for me. Tseng Kwong Chi photographed them all. Kenny Scharf helped us out. And Keith Haring even modeled in a couple of crazy fashion editorials along with the rest of the Club 57 gang. By this time, Keith Haring began obsessing more with his drawings in the subways, which were now everywhere. He would be tagging crawling baby vignettes on all the subway lines from 14th Street to 57th Street to the South Bronx to Grand Central Station. He would just travel in the subway all the time, and so everywhere you went you saw these things. I remember being at an editorial meeting at the SoHo News and the editors all wanted to write the story about this guy who does his things in the subway. We did the first story on the phenomenon. It was becoming a “thing” as we New Yorkers like to say. The super hot British design team Vivienne Westwood and Malcolm McLaren contacted me because they wanted me to ask Keith if he would design fabric for Vivienne’s next “Buffalo Gals” collection. I hooked them up and made it happen. The word of “Keith” was spreading.
I used to see Keith often in those days. Not only did we get to know each other at Club 57, but he also had a studio in my neighborhood and I would often run into him on Canal Street – where I lived – and where he would be going to pick up art supplies at Pearl Paint. He was still quite a quiet and shy guy, but he always had a hint of humor and charm. He wore these funny “nerd” eyeglasses that he would paint different colors every couple of days. One day his glasses would be silver. The next day I’d run into him and they would be silver with pink polka dots. Then a couple of days later they would be pink. Then later that week they’d become pink with red stripes on them. Then they’d turn red. And so on. Every time I saw him his glasses were different colors. The funny part was that he never took the paint off, so as he kept adding paint, the glass frames kept getting caked thicker and thicker because they had so much paint on them. They were ridiculous. And funny.
One day I heard that Keith would be having an art show at Club 57. We were all curious. I’d never seen anything he’d done besides those chalk babies on the sidewalk and in the trains. I went to Club 57 that night and suddenly I was like, “Oh my God! This is major” He had the entire basement filled up to the ceilings with hundreds of drawings-mostly made on black plastic with silver and gold magic marker. The consumer that I am, I remember thinking like, “Wow! I want one” We were all saying this. The basement was mobbed with friends, and friends of friends. People were really excited because it was the first time anyone saw all his works together. In the back, he had made these amazing paintings, which were a series of Brooke Shields, taken from the famous Scavullo photo for the Calvin Klein Jeans ads. (“Nothing comes between me and my Calvins”) This was a very famous ad campaign. I think there was something pornographic that he added to Brooke Shields. (Perhaps a penis?) That was the last time I saw those paintings. I wonder where they went. The big moment of the night happened when suddenly Andy Warhol and Tony Shafrazi (the art dealer) walked into the basement. We all were in shock. Andy by this time had been sniffing around the Mudd Club and realized that something amazing was going on downtown. But he had NEVER come to Club 57 before. We were all buzzing, “UH OH,” “What are THEY doing here?” We were suspicious and in a sense excited and sad at the same time – because that night it felt like our amazing secret world downtown was being invaded and discovered and wouldn’t be the same again. Everyone there wanted to buy a drawing that night because they were so amazing and cost only 150 bucks each. We also all knew we were witnesses to a special moment. I remember saying to Keith, “I can’t decide which one to buy” and Keith answered, “Kim, why don’t you just come over instead of buying it here, I have thousands more at my home.”
So there I was at Keith’s storefront studio a few days later. I remember it was this empty space with millions of his drawings on the floor. So he said, “Just go through them and take your time” and I was, “Oh my God! How am I going to pick?” I must have been there for four hours going through every single drawing. I edited and edited until I narrowed it down to three drawings. As I was leaving, Keith gave me an extra drawing because he felt guilty for taking my money. In the end, Andy and Tony Shafrazi loved what they saw that night at Club 57 also. And the courtship began. Andy invited Keith to the Factory for lunch and suddenly the two were hanging out. And Tony invited Keith to have a big show in his gallery on Mercer Street. As we’d all suspected, Keith and Club 57 and even downtown as we knew it would never be the same again.
I do believe that at the time, as Keith’s fame grew, the more traditional art world was skeptical and dissed him because they thought he was making art that was very commercial and “lite”. But what Keith was doing was pop cultural and not ghettoized in any sort of art context alone. This was why I loved him. This was also why he made the old-school art world nervous. He was also making stuff that is antithetical to traditional artwork, like spending much his time making public art that was not permanent. He would draw on anything and give it to anyone that wanted it. He really loved the idea of “Art for everybody.” He is pop on one level, but had a much stronger and more ethical social conscience and a much more generous spirit than did his pop mentor, Andy. Keith became very involved in the early hip-hop South Bronx scene. He was very sensitive about it all and very, very generous, inclusive, and very respectful of the uptown graffiti artists. And so they embraced him.
In 1982, Keith had what I call his “coming-out show” – a huge debut one-man show at Tony Shafrazi Gallery on Mercer Street. The opening drew close to a thousand people and spilled out onto the streets for hours. He was “it.” The crowd was amazing-filled with celebrities, socialites, downtown Club 57 family, art students, and all of Keith’s way-uptown hip-hop friends from the Bronx and Harlem. What a mix. It was truly a magnificent “happening.” He spent the entire time doodling on people’s T-shirts, books, papers, anything that anyone put in front of him. He also made thousands of crawling baby buttons which were passed out to all, and became the “it” accessory of the moment. After that day, the world changed for Keith. He became an art star. The SoHo News had just gone out of business in 1981, so with my partner we began working launching our own downtown magazine called PAPER, which eventually debuted in 1984 (and which we still publish out of downtown today). I remember I was trying to sell the ads for the very first issue of PAPER and I saw Keith on Mercer Street outside of Tony’s gallery one day. His star status and “Andy connection” had brought him international fame, but he was still as humble and nice as ever and seemed to be very excited about the magazine we were starting, and asked if I needed any help. I asked him to be PAPER‘s Board of Directors for our launch and he said, “Of course! I’m so excited!” Keith was one of those people who even as he got more and more famous, he always tried to act responsibly and bring all his friends along with him and give back as much as he could to the hip-hop community and graffiti world that inspired him. I would see Keith a lot over the years, but it was never the same, as we’d all gone our separate ways. Club 57 had closed down, Keith had become a star, I started PAPER, which fulfilled downtown’s need for an alternative creative community, continuing to work with and write about all my Club 57 friends. (Ann Magnuson still writes a monthly column to this day for PAPER!) But most importantly, our amazing creative world began to struggle with a horrible plague called AIDS – a disease that began to suck the life out of our community.
The rest is history. Keith became rich and famous and eventually was struck down by the AIDS virus, as were many of my brilliant Club 57 friends and PAPER contributors. AIDS created a hellish time for artists in New York. And as our community struggled with this holocaust, downtown began to “clean up”, ultimately becoming “invaded” by uptowners who lusted after some of the creative artist juice to rub up against. They bought up the real estate, opened restaurants, clothing stores, and building after building until the artists couldn’t afford to live there any more. Now, as one walks the streets of SoHo, you see an Apple store where the old post office used to be, a Chanel store where a small, artist-owned restaurant used to sit, and a Gap on St. Mark’s Place, not far from that old church that started it all. And Keith is sitting in the history books and his crawling babies are on the walls of every prestigious art museum around the world. Funny how things turn out.
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