When you’re young
You find inspiration
In anyone who’s ever gone
And opened up a closing door
She said, “We were never feeling bored.”
Cause we were never being boring
We had too much time to find
And we were never being boring
We dressed up in faults
And faults make amends
And we were never holding back,
Time would come to an end.
-From “Being Boring,” by Chris Lowe and Neil Tennant.
For decades now, New York has been stereotyped as the place for those seeking a place. But Keith Haring, the boy from Kutztown, Pennsylvania, who would become an art icon of the 80s, needed less and more. As an artist, he connected emotionally naturally; his images became internationally recognizable in a heartbeat. Yet as a gay kid brought up, like most, with an essential component of himself under wraps, he needed a home, a place where his uncensored self could really emerge.
New York gave him that because of the moment when he arrived. Haring hit the city in the late 70s. He needed to join the dance.
And they were dancing.
Keith Haring’s struggle for recognition as a “serious” artist was not won in his lifetime. But he is the kind of lively figure who calls the importance of “seriousness” into question. The real communities that nourished Haring had little to do with dealers, curators, collectors, or critics. Despite the flashes of support from art powers, the safety, comfort, and sense of connection that freed him and spurred him on came from the work itself, kids, other artists, and the life he found in the heart of gay New York.
Some of his most characteristic imagery involved figures twirling around and playing together, happy but never aimless. To understand why such uncomplicated and effortless-looking art is actually meaningful, one needs to look at it all in conjunction with Haring’s story, gay lives, and a specific moment in time. It is easier now, with some years elapsed, to sort out. Haring’s legacy is the joy of a spirit, once restrained, taking flight and making leaps. Dancing safely, finally.
And in Haring’s later work we can feel the safety give way to danger and loss.
Born in 1958, Keith Haring had a churchy, pie-baking, your-parents-and-country-are-always-right upbringing. “We were staunch disciplinarians,” his father, Allen Haring, says. But Keith was no Beaver Cleaver Little Leaguer. He didn’t take to all-American boyhood.
Mr. Haring worried about his son’s lack of stick-to-itiveness. Drawing and doodling were this boy’s life, but from early on he had little interest in the purely representational. He didn’t see things straight, as it were – he went for cartoons, that lightly subversive pop form. He would grow up to look like one himself – a caricature of normalcy, a Cub Scout askew.
Haring’s youthful ambition was to work for Walt Disney. But he also believed in his destiny-as a “fine,” as opposed to “commercial,” artist. He saved jottings in notebooks maintained in pristine condition, and in the eighth grade signed his name twice in the school record. (He noted that the more glamorous version was his “art signature.”) By Haring’s 16th birthday, his parents, Allen and Joan – deep-rooted in several generations of the Pennsylvania Dutch – thought Keith had gone haywire. No more the kid who looked like a baby Buddy Holly. First he was a Jesus Freak. Then came drugs. Not the example his parents had planned for his three kid sisters. Not the White Picket Path.
Instead of attending his high-school baccalaureate in June 1976, Haring hotfooted it to the Jersey Shore. Then he headed off for art college in Pittsburgh, quit, and drove cross-country with his girlfriend. In San Francisco, where you could smell sex in the breeze, he looked at a guy. The guy looked back. It probably wasn’t the first time such glances had been exchanged. But San Francisco ’76 seems to mark the end of Haring and girlfriends.
Upon his return to Pittsburgh there were odd jobs, classes to zone out in – and a boost when the Pittsburgh Arts and Crafts Center gave a show of his work. None of that was enough.
Allen Haring was worried. But if God insisted that his only son be delivered into a Life of Starvation and Failure – in the form of Manhattan’s School of Visual Arts, on East 23rd Street – he would do the driving! Though the trip from Kutztown took just a few hours, the Harings had routinely avoided the metropolis, and Keith’s father was not certain about where it was legal to park. Keith was dropped off on a curb outside the Y.M.C.A. (where Allen, who had dutifully paid the tuition to S.V.A., determined his son should stay). His dad can’t get over it now: “Where was I? – dumping him in the middle of New York City, putting him on the sidewalk with his boxes of belongings. I couldn’t even go in with him. I didn’t want to leave the car.”
Keith arrived in 1978 with a few basics: a certainty about making himself an artist, uncertainty about everything else – and a lively shot of talent. I always think of him as the “Smalltown Boy” in that Bronski Beat song. Before more than a few years had passed, he had established a reputation as an up-and-comer in a scene where the newest urgent ambition was “to mix things up.” A budding synergy-of visual art forms, music, film, and performance combined with a need to incorporate the textures and politics of real life was shaking out old postures and dried-up intellectualized expectations; Haring had neither. But by the early 80s he had all kinds of friends in the art hoods and on the dance floor; one was the ambitious, not-so-blonde Madonna, who shared what a friend called his “Jungle Fever.” According to club owner and DJ. Johnny Dynell, who worked with Madonna when she was a coat-check girl at Danceteria in the early 80s, she and Keith always clicked. “Haring would get boys from Madonna.”
Without shedding his geek look, Keith Haring eventually became a media star befriended by Yoko, Princess Caroline, Timothy Leary, and William Burroughs, not to mention rock stars, designers, and a publicist’s dream list of the hip and glamorous. Haring definitely seemed seduced. But he remained Keith.
He did it all in a short time, because a short time was all he had. In 1990, at the age of 31, he died of AIDS, leaving more art than most octogenarians. In his vast, multifaceted body of work, you can see one still-rarely-represented chapter of our very modern times. Julia Gruen, who worked with Haring for six years and who now runs the Keith Haring Foundation, remarks, “This is what differentiates Keith from the other artists; he incorporated so much of what was going on day to day in his life, and in all of our lives.” Charged with theenergy and rhythms of American pop, he worked with confidence, unwavering purpose, and dazzling speed. Those who saw him create were amazed at how quickly he tossed off images; to belabor was to risk the pure exuberance and spontaneous feeling he so often transmitted. He was not one of those guys who sweated over a handful of canvases per year. No – he kept it moving, making thousands of things, from buttons to enormous murals. This speed and productivity did not enhance his reputation among high-minded types, but other artists were as quickly won over as the “regular people,” who couldn’t turn away.
Kids always say that Haring’s work makes them happy. And yes, the good-naturedness is part of what sucks people in, even when a second glance reveals something heartbreaking. Because of the stick-figure simplicity, Haring’s art can seem Gumbyesque, almost dumb. But there’s undeniable humanity in his unindividuated little people; at their best, in fact, they seem infused with the essential spirit of life. But Haring, the rare artist with the becoming modesty to harness his talent to unpretentious, childlike forms, can also be breathtakingly intricate. Yet, embarking on even the complicated work, he never began with a sketch; he had it all in his head. He expressed himself in every medium, but the point is how he drew. Whether it was with chalk, markers, or paintbrushes, Haring had an almost miraculous ability to energize a line and give it personality and meaning. Although he knew color’s punch, the black-and-white work most clearly reveals his gift, demonstrating his ingenuity at making much of what superficially seems so little. This is one of the things that make Haring’s art worthwhile. And, ironically, it is part of what has stopped the Establishment from seeing how it shines. They associate value with what looks worked on or complicated. Haring’s art is so at ease it doesn’t look like stuff for the history books. The ultimate subversion.
Of course, by the time Haring appeared, Andy Warhol was already the pop of Pop. And Pittsburgh isn’t all these two very American artists had in common. Both were prolific, dared to create all over the place, and had the audacity to be informal and casual-seeming about art, which misled critics already determined to find them frivolous. Both were gay and – perhaps, at some level, because of that – had an extra drive to be anointed as popular and famous. Haring didn’t have Warhol’s range, or complexity, or genius at getting under the skin of the culture. But one could say that Haring became a sort of mini-Warhol and, in one way, went beyond his idol. Because of the tenor of the times, Haring’s queer sexuality was much more out-front than Warhol’s enigmatic image, behavior, and sensibility. But Warhol’s need to belong, to be a star among stars, was shared by Haring. He was an American kid who equated-at least at the beginning-success with public recognition and media validation.
Haring’s open homosexuality cost him with critics who just couldn’t go there and who didn’t see sex as art, politics, a language all its own for a generation absorbed in exploring it. This summer, when the first major American Haring retrospective opens at the Whitney Museum, we’ll see whether time has changed these attitudes. We’ll also see whether the museum has the vision, and the guts, to honor its best intentions by truly representing Haring’s journey and including a full range of the graphic, unabashed celebrations of gay sex that are so crucial a part of him. American museums, unlike their European counterparts, have always shied away from Haring’s boldly’ licentious material, perhaps shrewdly. After all, the Whitney has not been able to find a corporate sponsor for the show, which would seem to have the makings of a popular blockbuster.
The last time I saw Haring was in August 1989. I ran into him in a restaurant in the West Village. He was just the type to understand the sultry magic of New York on a charged-up summer night; he wasn’t the kind who checked into the Hamptons once he had a checkbook. But, dressed for the bleak midwinter, he looked like hell, eyes receded, his brainy-boy forehead marked by Kaposi’s sarcoma lesions. I can’t remember what we said; I remember only the heaviness that had replaced his fizz.
We’d been acquaintances for about 10 years. I had been editor of Artforum when he was coming up, and over the years the magazine had published both pro and con assessments of his work. In 1988 I’d bumped into him at an ACT UP demonstration on Wall Street. As part of the group’s AIDS awareness strategy, Haring lay in the street, blocking traffic and finally getting arrested. I had already been told that he was H.I.V. positive, though not sick. But by the summer of 1989 sick he clearly was. Days after I ran into him, I read an interview with Haring (by David Sheff) that had just appeared in Rolling Stone. Init, the young man looked back on his life, as so many others were doing in those days of borrowed time.
After the article, Haring’s prices shot up and he accelerated his already furious work pace until he became too sick to go to the studio. Near the end, he received a letter from Disney, asking for a meeting. He couldn’t believe it, but he couldn’t actually read it. He was just too sick.
He died on February 16, 1990, leaving an estate of $25 million. His last weeks were spent, without life support, saying good-byes to family and friends in his New York apartment. Not long before, his bedroom had been transformed-by designer and friend Sam Havadtoy – into a suite reminiscent of those at the Ritz, his favorite Paris hotel. Such luxury was the antithesis of God-fearing Dutch frugality, but aesthetics actually represented the most superficial of the distances he had traveled. Haring’s personal life had become so different from what he had known as a child that, as far as his parents were concerned, he might as well have moved to the moon.
He had to have felt it, too; it hardly seems possible that he, any more than his parents, could have avoided the tension of change. So much had been jettisoned out of necessity. Or choice. Practically the only constant through the hectic, dizzying years was children. He could not live without kids around him. The Haring Estate’s creative director, David Stark, says, “Everywhere he went, he wanted to do some kind of outreach program with kids.” His feelings went beyond sentimentality; he needed to connect with them, to join their games and play. If he’d go to a friend’s house for a holiday dinner, he’d ask to be seated at the children’s table, and 9 times out of 10, he’d end up down on the floor doing pass-a-long drawings. This was a game his father had taught him.
Once he arrived at the School of Visual Arts, the games exploded. Haring’s friendship with fellow student Kenny Scharf was sealed after he helped Scharf drag about 50 broken televisions, to be used for a sculpture, through the New York streets. According to Scharf, “Keith was the most fun, funny, happy person. He was the best go-go dancer.” Then he added, “Even then we knew that it wasn’t just regular times… it was something special.”
Part of what was extraordinary is the fact that everything was happening at once – on both the conceptual and theoretical fronts. In the subway and on the street, vital talent was bubbling up. At S.V.A. – no ivory tower – Jean-Michel Basquiat, who was not the application-form type, sneaked in to use the walls as canvas. Haring, who would later go Basquiat one better, was tuned in to all this – and turned on: gay New York was alive as never before. The old shame was being exorcised. It was a tribal moment.
Haring, along with so many, improvised each step in his continuing sexual evolution, sometimes hiding, sometimes pushing others to accept him as he really was. At S.V.A. he made a video entitled “I’m Looking for My Tupperware Book,” which juxtaposed footage of his mother puttering around her kitchen (“Where is my Tupperware book?”) with scenes of the family dog twirling on its hind legs, and three guys, probably including himself, having it off together in a bathroom. Keith never actually described himself as “gay” to his parents, but clearly wanted them to deal with his sexuality. His attempts to enlighten them were awkward, sometimes cruel. His father recalls his son’s once coming home with what might as well have been a bomb. “It was a tape of him taking a bath,” Allen Haring remembers. “I guess he thought it was art or something. He even brought the VCR. He was proud of this, but he was not proud of the way we reacted. That’s for sure. We told him to turn it off.” The dialogue was always half unspoken. Later, Keith would introduce his first boyfriend as his “bodyguard.”
Keith and friends did a lot of things people would consider outrageous – some pharmaceutical (he favored “happy drugs” – pot, acid, and later ecstasy), and a great many sexual. “Are you kidding?” Scharf says. “Back then it was like a big orgy. Everyone was having sex in front of everybody all the time, in many different ways. That was the way it was.” There were other antics. One day Scharf offered to “customize” Haring’s glasses. Scharf’s optical improvisation pleased Haring so much that he had his pal paint and repaint the frames. Haring documented the evolution with photographs and eventually brought guest artists into the act.
Like kids, Haring loved clubs – all kinds. He frequented the Club Baths for sex, and he especially I liked fringe hangouts. (He didn’t have the right look to get beyond velvet ropes.) In 1979, at Club 57, a place that attracted a group of media-mixing artists, Haring became the “curator.” Scharf remembers, “At Club 57, Andy Warhol and the Factory were always in the backs of our minds…. All we wanted was for Andy to walk in. He didn’t.”
But Haring’s involvement got him noticed by Steve Maas, who invited him to create a gallery environment for his place, the Mudd Club. This was truly “arriving” for Haring; Maas ran an original joint. Johnny Dynell, owner of today’s Jackie 60, worked there as a DJ. and recalls, “Steve would say, ‘The club is too crowded. So, no fat people tonight-unless they’re famous, like Meat Loaf.’ … Or Steve might say, ‘No leather tonight, unless it’s Robert Mapplethorpe.’ Now, of course, you know 99 percent of the people in the club were wearing black leather!” Leather wasn’t the only thing that was dark and popular at the coolest of the downtown clubs. Once again, black culture was “it,” although Latin and Hispanic voices and themes eddied into the swirling urban synthesis. It was an era of passions, obsessions, visceral thrills. Directness was a virtue; everything was about feeling, powerful feeling: if you didn’t feel strongly about what (or whom) you were doing, you might as well have caught the Kutztown bus.
The source of the heat was the street. Haring felt it so much that he dropped out of S.V.A. in 1980. Everything seemed to lead to the city, not the classroom. Graffiti – and new kinds of images made out of letters – yelled out on trains, subway walls, and sidewalks, announcing the beginning of a metropolis that was part village, part Blade Runner. These were the days that witnessed the beginnings of break dancing, hip-hop, and rap; new sounds, new visuals, new styles. Everything was a mix, a layering, an amalgamation. Grandmaster Flash, a popular DJ, didn’t just spin records. Using his tongue and elbow, he’d scratch the vinyl, creating new sounds, and, sampling from records of previous eras, he’d add his own rap. The result was the sound of a different city, deep inside the old.
Haring connected, really feeling the beat for the first time in his life. For him, this was it-the city which he had dreamed of finding and which he was helping to create. At first he didn’t understand where the work of a white boy in thick glasses fit in. But he found his way. His 1980 breakthrough, a series of white chalk drawings on the empty black spaces in subway stations, distinguished him from the graffiti artists, but also – in the kind of synthesis that the era loved – linked him to the medium and messages of black visibility. Haring refused to allow his race to condemn him to a lifetime of stark galleries. He hip-hopped around boundaries, creating an urban iconography of babies, barking dogs, space raiders, pregnant women, dancing legions, and men with TV heads. He used image as language, as the graffiti writers around him were using language as Image.
By 1980, Haring, Scharf, and another friend, Samantha McEwen, were sharing an apartment on Sixth Avenue between 39th and 40th Streets. Eventually they were asked to depart because of an out-of-control party where a man who had just been stabbed in Bryant Park came stumbling in, dripping blood. The German guests had believed it was performance art. After that, Haring always lived downtown.
Altogether, 1980 was a big year for Haring, who, to make ends meet, was freelancing as a wildflower picker on the New Jersey Turnpike and delivering rent-a-plants. He was in a bunch of shows, and briefly became a gallery hand for Tony Shafrazi, who would eventually become his dealer. Then, in June, came “The Times Square Show.” Organized by a group called Collaborative Projects, it was multileveled, multicultural – and dynamic. Haring was proud to be included. So was Fred Brathwaite – better known as Fab Five Fred, graffiti artist and rapper.
“Lee Quinones and I walked into the gallery where our paintings were hanging, and there’s this white guy with funny glasses on looking at the work. He tells us that they’re by Fab and Lee, that these guys are really important. We’re like, What’s with him? Then somebody yelled, ‘Fred and Lee! Is everything cool?’ Keith was mortified. He said, ‘Oh man, I feel like such a fool.’”
Their bond held when, a whle later, Haring came out to his new friend. “It was a revelation,” Brathwaite recalls. “I remember thinking, This guy and I are really good friends, we’re buddies, and he’s telling me he’s gay, and that’s cool…. I had to respect Keith, as did all the other in graffiti who eventually found out he was gay. Nobody dissed him. It was sign that we were on a new playing field.”
Walking one night with Brathwaite, Haring discovered the place that would be for him what Tahiti was for Gauguin: the Paradise Garage. Haring’s Nirvana, where cars had once actually been parked, was just off Varick Street. Here he watched the city kids who turned dancing into declaration – the soft-skinned Spanish boys, the Snap Queens, the drag royalty from the Houses of Labeija, Xtravaganza, and Ninja whose voguing would inspire Madonna. He also met the lovers he would stay with the longest (Juan Dubose, who is now dead and Juan Rivera). At the Garage he witnessed gay life at its most pagan and communal. A night of dancing at the Garage became a ceremeny of “coming in” to a community, to a lifestyle, to a circle of friends, to sex. The titles of the songs that Larry Le Van played in the heyday of Haring’s fixation with the place – “Heartbeat,” “Walking on Sunshine,” “Can’t Get Enough,” “Life Is Something Special” – would have also been appropriate for his art. They were anthems – mantras really – of affection and brotherhood, expressing the sorts of sentiments that usually make sophisticated New Yorkers recoil. But don’t forget what Kenny Scharf said, “It wasn’t just regular times.”
“The Garage was the best club that ever existed,” recalls Johnny Dynell. “It was about happiness, music, and dancing. They didn’t serve alcohol, but there was plenty of acid around and later, ecstasy. The big thing wasn’t the cocaine of Studio 54 and all the bullshit that came with that. The Garage was a lifestyle. People went to it as much for the communal experience that it offered as for the entertainment. Keith would totally lose himself. You can’t fake that…. For a white boy… it wasn’t the easiest thing. He had his obsessions. After you see somebody with different boys, and they’re all black or Spanish, it becomes obvious that this is what he likes. He was always popular, but once he got known, he was a real boy-magnet. He became the official artist of the Garage. He designed T-shirts, did parties, and created invitations that we always saved.”
The inclusive energy of the Garage fed Haring’s creativity. By 1982 he had exhibited in dozens of group shows and was being repped by Tony Shafrazi. Toward the end of 1981, the poet Rene Ricard wrote an article in Artforum which dealt with a number of artists, including Basquiat, but Ricard titled it ‘The Radiant Child,” in honor of Haring’s recurring image of a baby with lines of energy emanating from its body.
Haring’s first show at the Shafrazi Gallery involved some collaboration with LA II, a gifted graffiti painter whom Haring admired. At the exhibition, there was abundance: wall upon wall of drawings and paintings, filled with zigzaggy currents of energy, sharp visions and gentler ones. One memorable work showed Mickey Mouse doing something with his penis; there was also a black-light installation and all sorts of objects bursting with imagery. The point was to make the place as full and vital as the world.
Tony Shafrazi had kept his eye on Haring since the young artist had worked for him. Recently I asked the gallery owner what had impressed him about the young, pre-fame Haring. “He was incredibly fast and attentive to everything,” Shafrazi recalled. “He had the peculiar habit of looking at something and doing a double take. To me, it signified extra curiosity. At the end of the day he would leave all his things – his brushes, his sneakers, his tools – all neat and clean and lined up in a row. Then he was gone. You had to run to catch him.”
While I was thinking about this article, I happened to go to the Byzantine exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and despite all the obvious connections that Haring’s work has with 20th-century art, from Jackson Pollock’s “all over” strategy to Pierre Alechinsky’s more banal patterned abstractions, to Sol Le Witt’s Minimalist wall drawings and Jenny Holzer’s pithy social criticisms, it was in the Byzantine era that I found the most interesting Haring parallels. After all the censorship that had gone on earlier with the puritanical church, these Byzantine artists expressed their feelings, beliefs, and new freedoms. They put their stamp on everything, as did Haring. His work also came after a long period of puritanism in art, and his images of the body, sex, and homosexuality were part of the taboo-busting that was as intrinsic to this period as the Reagan rightwingers.
By 1983 he had also finally met his hero – Andy Warhol. Becoming friends with Warhol propelled Haring into an even higher orbit of pals in high places. Alba Clemente, the wife of artist Francesco Clemente and one of Haring’s close friends, recalls a night when they hooked up with Sean Lennon and wanted to move on to a club. Lennon was quite young and getting him in anywhere was an issue. Haring instructed Clemente to tell the doorman who he was, and she, not one to name-drop, became flustered and got her Seans mixed up, blurting out that they were with Sean Connery.
Even with all his clubbing and socializing – or perhaps because of it – Haring kept expanding his resume. By the time he was done he had created fabric for Vivienne Westwood and worked on the Fiorucci store in Milan. He had designed Swatch watches and collaborated with Richard Avedon on a project involving Brooke Shields. (Haring’s contribution was awful.) He had produced a backdrop for the Palladium and painted Grace Jones’s body for a big night at the Paradise Garage. He had made album covers and anti-apartheid posters, had created a powerful drawing for the Berlin Wall. And on it went, from Japan to Pisa. In addition to all this, there were thousands of drawings, hundreds of paintings, a huge array of sculptures, and much, much more.
But there had also been the news and the reality of AIDS, and with it a kind of change so radical it will take decades to understand. You can’t really measure what happened, but something did. In the clubs they played “I’ll Be Your Soldier” and Madonna’s “Keep People Together.” Everywhere there was this soft whisper of sadness. The losses built, as did the fear. And Haring worked, socialized, and tried even harder, as if he knew. Once he did know that he, too, was infected with the virus, which was about 1988, he became compulsive about using his time for all it was worth. He worked like a maniac and got even more celebrity-happy. More than ever, he needed to know that he had become a somebody. But that didn’t mean that he denied what was going on. He put a lot into AIDS activism and, of course, he brought everything that was going on into his work. The art from this period in his life tells it all. He painted knives going through hearts, sperm that seemed to shoot with an epic force, people being pulled apart, bodies piling up. Eventually, in 1989, he made a diptych that includes a skeleton touching an image that looks like an emaciated baby or a key. He also did a large pattern painting, leaving a corner unfinished, as if to point to the work he would never get to do. By this time, the Garage had closed. The people who pushed night past noon soon moved on to the Saint and later, the Sound Factory, where D.J. Junior Vasquez pioneered a darker House style.
Haring started to go back to Kutztown much more often than he had before. His mother remembers that, when he arrived, he always talked about how good it smelled. As news of his illness spread and some of his celebrity friends dropped him, he passed most of his time with his old buddies, such as Adolfo Arena (his last assistant), Kenny Scharf, Julia Gruen, Francesco and Alba Clemente, Lysa Cooper, and a few others. Gil Vazquez, a man Haring had fallen for, was often by his side. Haring and Vazquez were never lovers, because Vazquez is straight, but by all accounts their friendship gave Haring a kind of companionship he’d been longing for.
As the years go on, questions like “Who was Keith Haring?” and “Why does he matter?” get both simpler and harder to answer. Time has allowed the work to assert itself; it is a document of a time. Haring’s eternal boyishness has joined somehow in our minds with the memories of all those who came to the city and died before they ever really had the chance to grow up. Because of this, the Whitney show will have special meaning in New York. The Whitney staff understands this, and Elisabeth Sussman, who is the curator of the Haring show, says that everyone intends “to do it right.” A lot of planning and care have gone into this exhibition. Everybody involved seems dedicated to the idea of showcasing as many facets of his talent as possible. But good intentions often aren’t enough. It’s hard to physically recreate the mood of the times without hokeyness or condescension; in addition we still live in a country where if a show has too many penises and too much homosexuality there’s an outcry. So, I imagine Haring’s most sexually explicit art will need to be circumvented, or there will be warnings.
Fear of sex in art is often rationalized as concern for children. Nina Clemente, who is now 16 years old and who adored and was adored by her parents’ friend Keith, got it right when she said to me, “I have a cartoon of two little boys having a conversation. The one says to the other, ‘I found a condom on the patio.’ The friend replies, ‘What’s a patio?’ People who say that kids can’t absorb information about sexuality or are frightened by it are preventing their children from learning about the world. The problem is the adults, not the children.”
For Nina’s seventh birthday, Haring made her a book called Nina’s Book of
Little Things! It has a purity that is reminiscent of the glorious feeling that Matisse could give his books. One of Haring’s instructions in his opening note to Nina is “Don’t be afraid to draw in the book.” Nina told me that Keith is her biggest inspiration for being brave. Her father hates the idea that people will think Keith Haring has finally made it now that his work is being celebrated at the Whitney Museum. He says, “Keith doesn’t need art-world legitimacy. He found a much more interesting legitimacy. He invented an audience for himself. There’s nothing better than that.”
I keep thinking about Haring’s relationship with his parents and about theirs with him. The fact is that in the end he did what they had wanted and what he had dreamed of. They had always hoped he would become a commercial artist, and he was. He also had an impact, which is what he came to most desire. As Sussman points out, “He made the line so flexible an animal, and he made it work on so many levels that spoke of the time.” Haring’s parents wanted him to be an inspiration to others, and he is just not the way they had planned it. I keep imagining their faces when they come to New York for the exhibition. Their pride in their son was obvious when 1 visited them for this article, as was their sorrow. The Harings have moved to the outskirts of Kutztown, to a beautiful spot on a hill. For the first 15 minutes after 1 arrived, we talked about the tree swallows, the wonderful weather, and the prop that Allen Haring was making for his granddaughter’s school play. Joan Haring served homemade vegetable soup and homemade coffee cake, and gave me extra slices to take home. Their decency is as unmistakable as their son’s art, of which they have a few modest pieces.
The Harings have gone through enormous changes since Keith’s death, including a questioning of many things they believed in before. When Keith was growing up, his father was patriotism incarnate. The night he saw Lee Harvey Oswald on TV being taken in for the assassination of John F. Kennedy, Mr. Haring shouted, “My God! That’s Ozzie!” Ozzie, as he called him, had been in the same squadron in the Marines as Allen Haring. Keith’s father remembers teasing his tent mate one night because he was studying a Russian dictionary. Now he laughs at the naivete of his Red-baiting, but much else about the past, especially in regard to his son, brings out his pain and regret, not his humor. You can see how all of it tears up his wife.
I asked them if they experienced injustice once word spread that Keith was suffering from AIDS.
Allen Haring: “There were some incidents.”
Joan Haring: “Keith was to be a godfather, and the head of the church said he didn’t think he should be allowed to even come into the church. That was the beginning of our being turned off.”
Allen Haring: “It was just the opposite of what the church is supposed to be about.”
And it’s a tale of what goes on in the name of righteousness. Keith Haring did everything he could to fight that kind of obscenity, and to celebrate the moment when people liberated themselves from hate with flying leaps and deep embraces. After 1 left the Harings, 1 wanted to send them a passage from an interview with Michel Foucault that was first published in Ethos in the autumn of 1983. In it, Foucault says:
You see, that’s why I really work like a dog and I worked like a dog all my life. 1 am not interested in the academic status of what I am doing because my problem is my own transformation. That’s the reason also why, when people say, “Well, you thought this a few years ago and now you say something else,” my answer is, [Laughter] “Well, do you think 1 have worked like that all those years to say the same thing and not to be changed?” This transformation of one’s self by one’s own knowledge is, I think, something rather close to the aesthetic experience. Why should a painter work if he is not transformed by his own painting?
Haring transformed himself, and he also transformed others. Silence equals death.