We met through the divine intervention of the New York Times classified section. That such a prosaic beginning should lead to the excitement of a new career and a new outlook on life still amazes me.
For six years I worked alongside him – at first in his studio and office at Broadway and Houston Streets, and then a few blocks north, in a larger space, where I still work today, fifteen years after his death, twenty-one years after we met. His unforgivable disappearance from our lives at the age of thirty-one in 1990, a casualty of the AIDS epidemic that annihilated so many young, vibrant, talented people, still haunts me.
Every day for the last twenty years, I have walked into a building whose lobby he painted. Every day I walk into his studio, where the ghosts of his paintings have bled onto the walls. This is where I work. It is the same place that used to reverberate with the bass-line of the relentless dance music he constantly listened to, a space that quivered with the kinetic energy he exuded and the unending flow of visitors he welcomed at all hours.
It isn’t like that any more. It hasn’t been, not for a long, long time. Nevertheless, I’m still here. I’m here because he asked me to stay. I’m here because his life gave more meaning to mine. We were both twenty-five years old when we met. He was raised in a very small, conservative Pennsylvania town, the eldest of four children, the only boy, with an engineer father and a homemaker mother. I was born in Manhattan’s East Village, the only child of a writer and photographer father and a painter mother. Keith wanted to be an artist; I wanted to be a ballet dancer.
When Keith arrived in New York in 1978 to attend the School of Visual Arts, I was just finding my way out of the world of classical dance. Through my family, I had met some of the day’s great artists, musicians, dancers, and writers. I had traveled the world. I spoke other languages. I had grown up living and breathing a lot of culture and a lot of so-called New York sophistication. In 1980, when Keith began leaving his anonymous, supercharged marks in the New York subway stations, I continued my art, language, and writing studies at Columbia University, and like millions of other underground commuters, took casual delight in these magical graffiti. Few knew who was responsible for these ephemeral interventions into people’s workday routines, but that was all about to change.
In 1982, Keith Haring exploded onto the New York art scene with his debut SoHo exhibition, held at the Tony Shafrazi Gallery and a nearby annex leased for the occasion. From this moment on everyone knew the name Keith Haring, and everyone knew who was behind the subway drawings. By 1984, he would have solo exhibitions in Tokyo, Naples, Antwerp, London, Cologne, Milan, and two more in New York. He had painted three public murals in Australia, the Fiorucci store in Milan, Italy, a building in Tokyo, and the body of dancer Bill 1. Jones in London.
Keith’s newfound popularity and his swift ascent into the stratosphere of art-stardom found him in need of some sort of help to cope with it all. It was the spring of 1984, and it was just then that a former dancer, gallery worker, and art lover, frustrated by a string of unfulfilling jobs, opened the New York Times to its classified listings. She responded to an ad placed by the Tony Shafrazi Gallery. She made an appointment, had her interview, and was soon hired to be the personal assistant to one of their young artists, Keith Haring. My life would never be the same.
I remember my first meeting with Keith, who seemed just like a young kid. He had this incredibly open personality and seemed perpetually curious and excited by life. He had just returned from Italy and had adored it. He was full of enthusiasm and inspiration from this trip and he felt validated by the acceptance his work had found there. And so we met, we talked, we laughed, we clicked. We figured out how I could be helpful to him and, in time, my work for Keith proved both fulfilling and enlightening. In fact, this amazing job was the beginning of my real education, and it was from Keith, this small-town, unsophisticated emigre, that this “worldly” New Yorker learned what it meant to be alive.
Keith was someone whose real obsession and passion was work. No one I had ever met before worked as fervently, as frenetically, and as ardently as Keith. But Keith was more-he thrived in the spotlight. He was a performer and a ringmaster. He loved being the center of the action and the engine of events. I was comfortable with that charismatic spirit of his – and, while things sometimes verged on the madly chaotic, it was thrilling to be near a man who eventually became one of the most recognized and controversial artists of the eighties. However, his ascent, though swift, was not always smooth.
By bypassing some of the traditional steps by which artists are introduced into the gallery and museum systems, Keith was often treated as an opportunist riding the wave of graffiti’s popularity. His hastily executed and illegal subway drawings (and his resulting arrest for Criminal Mischief) made him a media figure and a popular hero, but the transition from the street to art world acceptance was a complex journey. Keith longed for both “respectability” and the absolute freedom to make his art accessible to all, through any means at his disposal. Even as the New York gallery world was embracing the works of Fischl, Schnabel, Salle, Cucchi, Clemente, Chia, Baselitz, Lupertz, Immendorf, and others, Keith Haring was deemed less “legitimate” an intruder, not deserving of the respect conferred upon his contemporaries. Keith wanted to be more than a studio artist. He wanted to make public art, to work with children, to explore unconventional ways of communicating, and, despite the criticism and controversy, he succeeded-not beyond his dreams, but in accordance with them. Yes, Keith wanted to show his work in galleries and museums. But his true objective was to make his imagery accessible to everyone. Of course, adding to the controversy and debate was his decision in 1986 to open the Pop Shop, a retail store selling merchandise bearing his own images. At the time it was heresy. Now, it seems visionary.
To me, Keith was an artist entirely and truly of his own era. The themes he addressed in his work ranged from mass technology, televangelism, and sexuality to greed, poverty, violence, and racism. Watching him draw or paint in the studio, which I did on a daily basis, or observing him atop a cherry-picker painting a public mural, I was awed by the incredible fluency and confidence of his line and the unadulterated pleasure he took in expressing himself, regardless of scale. Accessibility was his goal. With a passion to reach out and to be completely honest, to expose his feelings, beliefs, and his obsessions, Keith was driven to explode established means of visual communication. I believe that in this, he succeeded brilliantly.
When Keith died on February 16, 1990, I had worked for him for six years. We had become close friends, our relationship characterized by a deep trust and respect for one another. This resulted in his request that I remain in place, supervising and managing and perpetuating his vision. This was fifteen years ago, and today his work is more accessible and more beloved than ever. He remains a voice of his generation and ours. More admired and validated than ever, his philosophies and visual messages remain meaningful and continue to exert their powerful influence. He lived a life that demonstrated the importance of breaking boundaries and taking chances – of being loving, tolerant, and extravagantly generous. Keith dared to be passionately alive, and his life changed mine.
Keith, I am still here.
This essay is published in The Keith Haring Show
(Milan, Italy: Skira), 2005. P. 29 – 35
Catalog edited by Gianni Mercurio, Demetrio Paparoni
Exhibition curated by Gianni Mercurio, Julia Gruen.
Fondazione Triennale di Milano
September 27, 2005 – January 29, 2006