Keith Haring: In The Moment

At the end of the seventies, when nineteen-year-old Keith Haring arrived in New York from Pennsylvania (the state where Andy Warhol had also been born and raised), the Big Apple was on the verge of bankruptcy. City Hall was bailed out by the federal government, but the city was dramatically split between the very rich and the very poor, between luxury and degradation, between glamour and marginalization, between uptown and downtown, perhaps more so than ever before in its history.

This was the schizophrenic character of the New York art world, too: on the one hand, there were the stars of the 57th Street establishment (principally the luminaries of pop art) and on the other, a band of creative people who marked out their territory around SoHo and the East Village, inspired by the counter-cultural ideals and lifestyles of the Beat Generation. Among these were the graffiti artists.

The graffiti artists, who arrived on the New York scene at the beginning of the seventies, experienced an “aggressive” period that lasted right through that decade. Emerging out of Harlem, the South Bronx, and the Lower East Side, they identified themselves through various “schools”, an artistic offshoot of fifties street “gangs”. Therefore, their art was historically confrontational, provocative, and illegal by vocation, tending to a uniformity of style as a mark of a particular identity. Keith Haring is very often associated with graffiti or spray art, but his relationship with those schools is minimal, although there are several points of intersection and they shared the same urban cultural milieu.

It was at the end of the sixties that the tag “Julio 204” appeared on the walls of New York, soon followed by “Taki 183” and then by thousands of other signatures in rapid succession. Within the space of a few years, the phenomenon had evolved into a real social “emergency”, to the point where the City of New York found it necessary to spend around 52 million dollars (in the years between 1970 and 1978) on cleaning the walls and cars of the subway, and the Transit Police arrested a total of 7,000 young people (in the years between 1971 and 1976 alone) for acts linked to graffiti or tagging.

But the characteristics of Haring’s art were to grow increasingly distant from the styles utilized on the graffiti scene. Haring drew on quite different artistic sources, most of them from within the history of contemporary art (Pierre Alechinsky, Jean Dubuffet, Christo, Matisse, action painting). From the perspective of “outsider” art, his most direct debt was to the psychedelic milieu, as he himself stressed on several occasions in his Journals and in various interviews. However, there are other aspects that can be linked to the graffiti movement: the strong sense of belonging to a community, the marked athleticism and dynamism of the execution, the idea that the works should be completed within a contained unit of space and time (and more often than not in a single sitting), the counter-cultural inspiration, the continual backdrop of hip-hop and rap, etc.

For Haring, painting was an experience that at its best allowed him to transcend reality, to go somewhere else, completely outside his own ego and self. This was a radically different experience from the one that lay behind the culture of the tag, which entailed a monotonous affirmation of the writer’s ego, traced in clearly visible letters in every corner of the metropolis. What was at work in Haring’s vision was an altered level of consciousness, much closer to the lively period of psychedelia and counter-culture, whose products were still evident in the America of the seventies. It is well known that Haring made use of psychedelic drugs. But his roots in counter-culture are clear, too, He had absorbed the art of the cartoon from his father, with whom he used to draw comic strips. But after his father, the most fertile encounter was with William Burroughs, the most radical and maudit spirit of the Beat Generation, direct heir to the post-surrealist tradition by way of his close ties to Brion Gysin.

In the summer of 1959, the writer and painter Gysin had cut newspaper articles into strips, rearranging them at random. Minutes to Go was the result of this first experiment with the cut-up. Cutting and rearranging a page of written words introduces in his opinion a new dimension into writing, enabling the writer to turn images in cinematic variation. The work of Gysin and Burroughs reflected not just an attempt to bring out the hidden meaning of things, but also a completely radical approach towards technology and, last but not least, a sincere interest in North African cultures. Haring would refer explicitly to them in the shaping of his own poetics, even prior to the decisive meeting with Burroughs, who in the mid-seventies set up his own studio on the Bowery, in New York’s East Village.

Art passed through Haring, almost as if he were a vehicle, bringing the great symbols of the collective imagination and unconscious to the surface. This is where Haring’s investigation into Burroughs’ theory of the cut-up lies, for he saw it as a technique that facilitated the emergence of the hidden and the “revealing of the essence of things”. From this perspective, the pictorial influences of Central American, African, and Oceanic cultures cited by many critics appear harmonious and organic in his work. But perhaps it would be more accurate to interpret them as images of the unconscious, which had historically originated with those peoples and cultures.

Another thing that linked Haring closely to Burroughs (and to Timothy Leary) was undoubtedly his interest in multimedia art. For a long time, as his Journal clearly reveal, he had been thinking about an art that would absorb and unite the aesthetic and performative modalities of different media. These were ideas whose time had come.

The end of the seventies was the period when the information-technology communities in America emerged from their incubation to unexpectedly take on the identity of a new industrial sector. Microsoft was set up in 1976, and some amateurs in California garages had invented not only the personal computer, but also the modem, and even the rudiments of the Internet. In some ways, that period marked the end of the incredible sixties and Haring was situated right there – the last bard of a profound revolution of the spirit, of a revolution that had broadened the scope of awareness. But Haring was not, or at least not only, a mystic. At the end of the seventies, at the age of nineteen, he had been understandably overtaken by an irresistible desire to live in a city, New York, which at that moment had so much to offer. That period was not only to see the birth of rap, but also of the punk and post-punk scene. It was through frequenting these circles that he came to know Madonna and Grace Jones (both at the beginning of their careers), and it was in this context that he was photographed along with Burroughs, Patti Smith, and Lou Reed.

Haring was also a cultural activist, and not only in terms of the commitment to the community expressed through his efforts to arrest the spread of AIDS and crack cocaine. In fact, he was one of the main promoters, one of the true leading spirits (with legendary dee-jay Larry Levan) of the Paradise Garage on the western edge of SoHo. One of the first multimedia dance clubs, it was a place that as he himself declared various times played a crucial role in his development and socialization, at least up until 1987.

Consistently counter-cultural in spirit, Haring actively participated in several socio-political movements and was adopted by them as one of their own: he fought for gay rights and against racial discrimination, against the crack and AIDS epidemics, and acted on behalf of children. At the same time, he considered it quite natural for others to intervene and paint over his murals. Notwithstanding the controversy that blew up over the legitimacy of Haring’s Pop Shop operation, his advertisements for Absolut Vodka and designs for Swatch Watch, the activist community always regarded him as being on their side.

Today, it is clear how little Haring’s work had to do with graffiti art: his outlook was that of the individual artist, who did indeed have the desire to create an art for all, but with a new, personal, unique language, a sort of recognizable brand in the manner of Warhol, but with more historic roots, more “idealistic” and universal aims than those of his master. “…art history…always was and always will be the product of the individual… Art is individuality”.1 Haring’s background and cultural curiosity, his artistic (more than political) ideology, his embrace of chance, and his temperament, all of this conspired to lead him to choose the subway stations as the outlet for his art. It was a conscious, strategic act of self-promotion. In fact, Haring did not draw his “graffiti” on the subway cars and only very rarely on the walls of buildings (his murals and public works are another story), and these subterranean drawings only occupied the spaces set aside for publicity, the areas that marketing experts chose to advertise their products. His art was gentle and conveyed its message through seduction rather than with cryptic aggression. But Haring utilized the communicative force of graffiti art and its tools to break into the more conventional art “system”, at that time almost exclusively controlled by galleries, museums, and the wealthy collectors who lived to the east of Central Park.

Haring became a celebrated artist in the yuppie era and, like the wunderkind financial consultants of Wall Street, enjoyed success at a very young age. When Haring opened his Pop Shops, which he considered artistic experiments, in New York in 1986 and Tokyo in 1988, he was well aware of Warhol’s ideas about the possibilities of new avenues of communication for artists. Said Haring: “Here’s the philosophy behind the Pop Shop: I wanted to continue the same sort of communication as with the subway drawings.”2 After Warhol’s Factory, the Pop Shop was the second attempt on the part of a single artist to spread, through reproducibility, his art as lifestyle and message for humanity.

For Haring, the idea of a universal art was a philosophy informed by a strong interest in the aesthetics of decoration that coincided with the focus of the post-modern currents of the eighties. Additionally, it was an attempt at the deconstruction of objectivity (his works are deliberately “untitled”) in the name of the subjectivity of the observer (the artist’s ideas are not fundamental to the meaning of the work). Rather, it is the observer who becomes an artist, in the sense that he or she must find his or her own unique way towards understanding.

Haring pursued the objectives he had set himself with resolve: on the artistic plane, he worked towards the reduction of forms and concepts to the primary elements of line and aspired to a hybrid of painting and writing. Adopting a system of expression inspired in part by Egyptian hieroglyphics and Japanese, Chinese, or Mayan pictograms, he developed a means of formal communication through a syntax of signs. Haring’s iconic “Radiant Baby”, conceived in the same year as Steven Spielberg’s E.T and carrying the same message of eternal childhood, in combination with his zoomorphic and anthropomorphic figures, became a visual language of totemic symbols that could be assembled in different ways to produce a system of relationships, and thus did not appropriate reality, as pop art had done, but created a reality of its own, a direct and succinct idiom capable of speaking directly to the hearts of the younger generation, in particular.

To sum up, art for Haring was an immediate response to life, a means of representing its minor and major themes in the frenetic rhythm of our time. This also explains the importance of movement and visual exuberance in his installations, imparting a strong element of “athleticism” to his art, lent vitality by music and in particular the rhythms of hip-hop.

Art reflects time that passes and each instant is different from the one that preceded it. Like life, art has to be lived moment by moment. “I think, feel, act, conceive and live differently every day, every instant… I paint differently every day… My paintings are a record of a given space of time… To paint differently every day makes it impossible to paint a consistent composition over the period of more than one session.”3

In a period – the eighties – that consciously rejected the grand narratives that had guided human action over the last two centuries, Haring represented the Zeitgeist, the spirit of the time: he was a true artist of the moment, and lived his life with the same intensity and originality as the era with which he will forever be identified.

  1. Keith Haring, Journals (New York: Penguin Books, 1996), p. 11
  2. Taken form an unpublished interview by John Gruen.
  3. Keith Haring, op. cit., p. 10

This essay is published in The Keith Haring Show
(Milan, Italy: Skira), 2005. P. 17 – 27
Catalog edited by Gianni Mercurio, Demetrio Paparoni
Exhibition curated by Gianni Mercurio, Julia Gruen.

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