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Remembering Keith Haring
February marks the 17th anniversary of the openly gay artist’s death

by Paul Varnell

Andy Warhol with Keith Haring in 1984.
Most gays and lesbians know of Keith Haring’s art through the poster he created for National Coming Out Day showing a cartoon figure stepping out of a closet and waving to the viewer. Or they may have seen his safe-sex and anti-AIDS posters — such as the “Silence Equals Death” posters he created for ACT-UP that showed similar figures covering their eyes, ears and mouth.

Haring is largely associated with these simple cartoon figures and their easy-to decipher messages. His identifying signature or “tag” of the crawling “radiant baby” or his barking dog are also wildly recognized. But far fewer people are aware of the wide range of other art Haring created, some of it crowded, complex and ambiguous.

Haring was born in 1958 in Reading, Pa., northwest of Philadelphia. As a youth he learned cartoon drawing from his father and drew simple unshaded, line-based pictures like the cartoons and comic books he was growing up with. After high school he went to Pittsburgh to study painting, drawing, art history, and commercial art.

Looking for a larger arts center and, with a growing awareness of his homosexuality, a more supportive gay community, Haring moved to New York City where he rapidly became a fixture of the club scene and the “alternative” art community that avoided, and was avoided by, the established galleries and presented works at dance clubs, one night exhibition, or subway spaces.

His earliest works were semi-abstract, imitating Kandinsky’s multiple shapes, Mark Tobey’s “white writing” and others. One drawing that seems abstract, however, turns out to consist of dozens of tiny white penises and testicles on a black background, an early example of the open homoeroticism expressed in many of his pictures. Fairly rapidly he abandoned abstraction and returned to figurative drawing, wanting to communicate with the public and believing that abstract art had nothing to say.

He quickly became known for his drawings at New York subway stops, created with white chalk on the black, unused advertising spaces. There he developed a characteristic set of images, producing one frame cartoons, or a set of cartoons that told a story over a series of subway stops. Surprisingly, his drawings were seldom defaced, a rare sign of respect in New York.

People waiting for subway trains would gather to watch him work so he began handing out free stickers and buttons carrying his signature images.

He was frequently arrested by the police, receiving more than 100 tickets for defacing city property.

Although galleries and museums began soliciting and displaying his work, he continued to work outside the gallery system as well, opening his “Pop Shop” in 1986 to sell his images inexpensively on button, posters, T-shirts, even refrigerator magnets. He repeatedly insisted that art should not be an elitist activity and should be available to everyone.

At the same time that he continued using his simple cartoon figures, Haring created other work of growing complexity. Some are crowded with what seem to be decorative details that almost obscure a larger but less conspicuous central image.
A few large canvasses, 10 foot square or larger, are crowded with dozens of monsters and small human figures, the monsters eating or excreting human figures while other human figures engage in sexual activity. Many of these are untitled, but one clear precedent is Hieronymus Bosch’s depiction of Hell.

Haring was no naif: he was familiar with art history and sometimes encoded references to earlier works in his own. Besides the early imitations of Tobey, Haring alludes to the American gay painter Charles Demuth’s “I Saw the Figure 5 in Gold,” while a painting of a skeleton urinating on a flower is avowedly labeled “for James Ensor,” the late 19th, early 20th century Belgian artist who frequently included images of death in his paintings. The image, though, is closer to a painting by the German Max Klinger titled “Death Pissing.”

He occasionally included popular culture and current events references in his paintings. Some works include a Mickey Mouse figure, or his own Andy Warhol caricature named Andy Mouse. His version of Cruella De Vil from Disney’s “101 Dalmatians” depicts her as the ugly hag she is inside, as if a “Dorian Gray”—like painting reflected the state of her soul. And several drawings of characters with a hole in their stomach use an image originally suggested by the murder of singer John Lennon, an event that greatly upset Haring.

In 1986 Haring learned that he was infected with HIV and in 1988 he was diagnosed with AIDS. He continued painting and drawing, working with increased fervor as if to hold off the disease or express everything that was in his mind before he died. Toward the end, he stopped working only because he became too weak to hold a paintbrush. He died on Feb. 16, 1990 at the age of 31.

A year before his death he spoke to Rolling Stone magazine about the personal satisfaction he got from producing an artistically successful work, but then went on to say, “When I paint, it is an experience that, at its best, is transcending reality. When it is working, you completely go into another place, you’re tapping into things that are totally universal, of the total consciousness, completely beyond your ego and your own self. That’s what it’s all about.”

info: Perhaps the best introduction to Haring’s work is “Keith Haring, 1958-1990: a Life for Art” by Alexandra Kolossa The book is short (96 pages), cheap ($9.99) and has more than 70 color pictures of Haring’s art as well as a dozen photographs of Haring himself.

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