Ah, Keith Haring. It’s hard to speak of him without remembering that he died at the age of thirty-one. When I knew him he was a friend of Bret Easton Ellis and we spent the whole evening talking about Bret and his book Less than Zero, which we loved. And we talked about William Burroughs, who he was working with, and about the things that both of us had done for him and for Andy Warhol, an icon we both shared and adored.
It seems only yesterday that Salvatore Ala organized an exhibition for him here in Milan: an incredible throng of people, Keith with a pallid face, fixed smile, and wary, unhappy expression, dressed in T-shirt, jeans, and trainers, proud of being gay.
Keith Haring had come to Milan to hold an exhibition that turned out to be one of the successes to which Keith was already accustomed: one of those Hollywood-style successes. Then there was a dinner with many of his admirers, and I was at this dinner, too, and Keith Haring wanted me to sit next to him. As you can well imagine, I didn’t have to be asked twice, for I thought that he wanted to talk about the American poets who were my and his friends. But Keith Haring was a bit more unpredictable than that and wanted to talk to me about his glasses.
Dear Keith – of course he was interrupted by some ladies wearing just about the last fake pearls on the planet, and there, for once at least, his extraordinary humanity was apparent. To save me from those kind ladies he led them off to talk about his exhibition.
Keith distributed, in handfuls, the buttons that he always kept in his pocket for such occasions and signed dedications with his inimitable little men and drew on catalogues, and told me his story in a low voice.
So I heard, in his own beautiful voice, the fables he had invented for his puppet figures, all tender stories of pure poetry, all dedicated to a future that was surely never going to betray them or him.
But the future did betray him, and at the age of thirty-one he was carried off by the cruelest, the most irrevocable of diseases, the greatest enemy of youth in our time. When he was told he had it, he didn’t believe it at first. And then he walked to the bank of the river in New York, covered his face with his hands, and wept, for hours, with sobs that only grew in intensity and tears that drenched him from head to toe, without either God or the Devil being able to put a stop to them.
I don’t know whether he was still crying as he made his way home. I do know one more tender thing for his most tender genius: that after that moment he was able to work, even more frantically than before, to prepare the world for his art and to fill every accessible space in it with his little men, his playful babies, his inimitable tangles of lines and colors, the pages of his journals in which he put down forever his beautiful, tragic story.
Ah, the years, the years. It seems incredible, but by now the biographies list all the years and all the lovers and all the projects, including the mural he did on the outside of the Church of Sant’Antonio in Pisa, and which Keith recalls with love in the final entry in his journals on September 22, 1989. Already as famous as a rock star, he was surrounded in Tokyo and Belgium and New York by crowds of admirers or aspiring pupils, or at any rate by people who loved him and helped him to wait for death with their love.
His journals tell it all. They are the mirror of an extraordinary life: his creativity, his thoughts, and his everyday language (the only kind he believed in and which he used in his works), his nightmares and dreams, notes on art history that were always connected with practical problems, learned quotations, always with the same passion that every now and then was tinged with sadness. He said: “I wonder if the world of museums will ever take me in or if I will vanish with my generation.” And in order not to let himself be defeated, Keith Haring, mortally ill, worked harder and harder.
Haring was not indifferent to his fate. He succeeded in personifying the virus in a series drawn on paper in red and black sumi ink. His famous “devil sperm” hatched from an egg like an enormous horned insect, concealing itself in the syringes of junkies or in unprotected penises and vaginas. Keith Haring followed this moving denunciation with a diptych, Untitled (For James Ensor), an acrylic on two panels of canvas that he finished on May 5, 1989. The first shows a skeleton ejaculating on a flowerbed, and in the second the dead man’s sperm has caused flowers to bloom and reach out towards the sun, while the skeleton smiles.
But sex was not the only altar at which Keith Haring worshiped. Perhaps his real altar was innocence. For him, the sincerity of children was a refuge that protected him against the cynicism that surrounded him; and he had always believed in their purity. He wrote in his journals: “I never did erotic subjects in my subway drawings, because of the children: for me, children represent the future, the image of perfection. There is nothing negative in a newborn baby, nothing.”
A friend recalls how happy he was in November 1989 while painting in Knokke, in front of his mother, who had just arrived and was watching him work. One of his last trips was to Pisa, where he painted a mural on the outside of the Church of Sant’Antonio, but his final work was an altarpiece. It consists of three bronze panels covered with a leaf of white gold and engraved with scenes from the life of Christ: a child held between two hands, hands raised to heaven, and Christ on the cross. Executed in his classic and deliberately childish style, it has the form of a large Russian icon.
The fatal day for his admirers and friends was February 16, 1990. Perhaps we will eventually forget this date, but anyone who had the chance to talk to Keith Haring will never forget him: as elegant as a movie star, as gentle as a poet, as ambitious as an artist. Who knows whether his genius has been recognized in the vast and scented halls of eternity? Has he been given the love there that inspired the whole of his life?
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