Keith Haring. A Great Artist, A True Friend

After many years of study and struggle in the heart of London and New York as an artist, I started a gallery because I felt that there was a real need to “open up” the art world in order to represent a more diverse variety of expressions, a more democratic and free culture than what appeared to have been the driving force of the late modernist tradition, which to me seemed to have truncated and tortured the world of joy and the spirit of free expression into a narrow, dogmatic, and oppressive cuI de sac.

Bill Beckley, an artist whom I had known since the mid-seventies and whose work I was and am still exhibiting, asked me if I needed anyone to help with installations at my gallery. He had been teaching in Kutztown, Pennsylvania, and had two very good students that were just coming up to New York to study at the School of Visual Arts: Keith Haring and his childhood friend Kermit Oswald.

From day one, Keith had a very distinct look about him. He looked like a young Buddy Holly who had rocked the world with “Peggy Sue” in 1958, the year Keith Haring was born. He wore thick frame glasses, often painted by his friend Kenny Scharf; full of energy and bounce, unusually flexible, alert, and athletic. Keith always had a great and original style: cool white sneakers with no laces, leather jackets covered with patches and decals, all the styles that are very much associated with hip-hop culture today. At the young age of twenty he was twenty years ahead of his time, a real trend-setter.

When he arrived, he already seemed to have a following and many distinguished and talented close friends, like Jean-Michel Basquiat and Kenny Scharf. Many of his friends came to help at the gallery with tending bar and various other tasks at my openings.

Keith was incredibly intelligent, working while listening and paying attention and fine tuning himself all the time. His job at the gallery was to paint the walls and prepare the space for exhibitions. I was immediately impressed by his tremendous work ethic, the rapid and systematic way he applied the paint, and the way he meticulously cleaned and arranged his tools and brushes afterwards. He was very tidy and organized.

I began to watch him closely and immediately wanted to get to know him. I soon learned that Keith was an artist, making drawings all the time. I asked him to show me his work since he had never approached me for help, which is what most people do. While most artists generally are in need of money, material, recognition, and support, Keith, by contrast, proved time and again that “a true artist doesn’t ask but gives.” So he gave me an invitation to an exhibition of his own work he had organized at Westbeth, a building that housed many artists. This was the first time I saw his work. The images were all cartoon and storyboard type drawings crammed with animated and highly stylized figures engaged in all sorts of ritualistic motion. It reminded me of the same energy I’d experienced in the early work of David Hockney in the early sixties, while a student at the Royal College of Art. But this was New York in 1979 and at that time no one was doing anything vaguely resembling his work.

As a young boy growing up in Kutztown, Pennsylvania, Keith was inspired and encouraged by his father’s cartoon drawings. When he was fifteen, he saw an exhibition of the CoBrA Movement, which incorporated signs and symbols, like snakes and animals, that made a big impact on him. He was very moved by the work of Pierre Alechinsky and he found the iconography to be spontaneous, truthful, and real.

At that time he used to go to lots of concerts, and like most young Americans dabbled with drugs, while attending performances by bands like the Grateful Dead, a wonderfully unique and intelligent group who were well versed and inspired by the writings of Jack Kerouac and William S. Burroughs. As a young man, Keith loved to dance and experience this collective movement with a communal sense of joy and celebration. This sense of belonging to a larger community as well as his passion for music, writing, drawing, and painting helped him to decide to become an artist.

In 1978, by the time he arrived in New York, Keith was ready to absorb the energy of the city, the messages in the streets, and the subculture in subway trains. The hot headlines in the Daily News and the New York Post became material that he would cut up and paste and reorganize into cryptic messages with clear subversive conceptual and political implications. While traveling the subway cars on his way to school he noticed empty black panels that were usually rented for advertising. He immediately recognized their beauty and potential and saw them as an invitation to participate and improvise his highly animated figurative language he had developed during his studies in semiotics, to compete and broadcast alongside the constantly changing rapid fire media blitz of graphic images of news, TV, radio, Broadway musicals, politics, cigarette advertisements, all screaming their messages to the multitudes of moving people in this subterranean metropolis. He quickly saw this massive underworld as a true museum of the people and every morning jumping out of bed, stuffing a box of white chalk in his pocket, he would dash off to ride the trains, traveling on all the lines from Brooklyn through Manhattan all the way to up to Harlem. With the speed of a hunter, spotting the empty panels at every stop, he hurried to rapidly cover the panels with his spontaneous images, making hundreds of drawings on his way to school.

As a most brilliant student at the School of Visual Arts, Keith quickly established various forms of experimentation dealing with different ways of using language and cut-up writing, as well as all-over drawing, and soon was notoriously famous and ready to take on the world. His early fascinations with linear forms of drawing, as well as simplified anagrams and an animated vocabulary enabled him to focus on the spontaneous moment, as well as a particular method of drawing somewhat akin to Zen calligraphy and Mayan and Egyptian hieroglyphs. It was a constantly moving and inventive language where there was no need for any preparatory sketch or plan with a rapid flow and stream of unconscious creativity, and a constantly evolving series of images would pour out with no need for precaution, pencil, pencil-outlines, outlines, projections, erasures, or corrections since there was no room for mistakes.

As an artist, he was conceptually quite unique, full of guts and heart. He lived and acted-out in the “Real World” and in the “Open City.” One of the most important and central features and criteria that had distinguished contemporary art in the late fifties and early sixties in America starting from Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns to Carl Andre and Richard Serra was the “concern of the Re al,” and “art of the Real.” Whereas the others had defined parameters and examples of the real in their studios and workshops, through methods that reflected common and industrial forms of fabrication, Keith Haring’s art defined the real in terms “of being in the world,” reflecting, commenting, acting, and in being made, being conceived and being OF THE REAL. When he decided to move on to make paintings, he came up with the idea of using an industrial material such as the tarpaulins that he had seen on the back of trucks, rather than traditional canvas.

To understand and appreciate Keith Haring, it is important to recognize what was central to his driving force: the absolutely fearless and unabashedly shameless desire to run out and embrace the real world, while transgressing and crossing over boundaries and barriers of race and culture, and while experiencing and transporting the simple truths of innocence, love, and friendship, upholding and expressing values and ethics that live forever in the heart of youth. He was to drawing and art what his hero John Lennon had been to music and lyrics. He aspired to ideals and dreams and concerns commonly expressed in the revolutionary language of poetry and music.

When John Lennon was shot in 1980 outside his New York apartment in the Dakota mansion, Keith Haring had a dream where he saw a figure standing, with open arms and a hole in his stomach and dogs jumping through.

In 1983-1984, the Roland Petit Ballet in Marseilles, which had in the past commissioned great artists like Miro and Picasso, asked Keith to paint a backdrop for a ballet entitled “The Marriage of Heaven and Hell.” Now, all the assistants who worked there were old French craftsmen in their fifties and sixties. They were used to old masters and they didn’t like the idea of working with this young man who looked very strange with his jacket and his sneakers, and they were especially resentful when he showed up with his boom-box radio and told them to lay the canvas down on the ground. They were pissed off; they really didn’t like him. But then slowly he began to paint. With no preparatory sketches or guidelines, he began to work from one end of the canvas to the other. The canvas was enormous measuring approximately 26 x 36 feet in length. He worked nonstop, while listening to music, for many hours. This was a different way of working; they had seen nothing like it. Within one hour there were a hundred people watching, and when he finished all the people and the workmen broke out into loud applause.

Part of Keith’s genius lay in the fact that he was able to communicate to so many generations and cross so many cultural boundaries. He moved easily from the streets of New York to the sophistication of the international art world. He wasn’t afraid to venture anywhere, easily making friends with people from all cultures and societies and from all walks of life. He recognized and celebrated that tribal energy, and truly embodied the vitality that is the heart of America.

This essay is published in The Keith Haring Show
(Milan, Italy: Skira), 2005. P. 67 – 74.
Catalog edited by Gianni Mercurio, Demetrio Paparoni
Exhibition curated by Gianni Mercurio, Julia Gruen.

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