Photographer and collector David LaChapelle spoke with Sotheby's David Galperin about Keith Haring and his monumental work The Last Rainforest, which features in the Contemporary Art Evening auction on 28 June.

David Galperin: Do you remember the first time you met Keith?

David LaChapelle: Well, we ran in the same downtown circles. Those guys were 5 to 7 years older, and that makes a difference when you’re 17. It was a smaller world back then. Tony Shafrazi was my dealer and Keith’s dealer. Everybody knew everybody. We were always at the same places – I remember the first time that I met him, we went to the movies in Times Square with Martin. We saw a double feature. I was in a cab and I had my money in this little paper bag – I was getting money out of this paper bag to pay the cab fare, and Keith turns around, looks at me, and says, “That’s so East Village”.

DG: What was it that drew you to The Last Rainforest?

DL: I just fell in love with the painting. I thought it was prophetic. I love the layers, and the density of it. I love the mystery of it. It was very much about the horrors of the world, but yet, there is a definite prevailing optimism within the horror. It’s about finding personal enlightenment. Keith was an optimist – he faced death very head-on. He never felt sorry for himself and he never felt guilty. He just worked. It’s the one thing we can do: change the world. It’s a Michael Jackson idea – the ‘man in the mirror’, or, changing yourself changes the world.


DG: So Keith was quite conscious of his own mortality at this point, four months before he tragically passed?

DL: Keith knew he was dying when he made it. There were too many people at his studio then. He was sick and needed a quiet place to work, so Tony arranged for him to have a private space that nobody knew about so he could go just paint. He and Tony together were really an incredible team – everybody changed galleries back then, but between them both there was so much energy. They complemented each other. You could see in this painting the new direction that he was going in. Who knows where he would have gone had he lived. Most of the time he was painting on tarps and other things, but these pictures on canvas – these were different. He had a sense of his time running out, and he really wanted to say something with these works. There is an urgency to them.


DG: Some of the themes that stand out in this painting mirror thematic strands consistent in your own work: surrealism, sexuality, religion, the duality between heaven and hell… Do you consider Haring to be an important influence on your work?

DL: I very much relate to Keith’s concern with making work that’s accessible to people. I want to make photographs for everyone: not just for a specific world, like the art world or fashion world. It’s just for the world. Keith was such a populist, you know. He was a zeitgeist; a supernova; a phenomenon. He believed art belonged to everyone and he believed that art could change the world. He got raked over the coals by the critics for opening the Pop Shop, which really led the way for young kids to collect art: to buy a pen for fifty cents, or a t-shirt for a couple bucks, or a skateboard, or whatever. Critics were really rough on him for the Pop Shop. Meanwhile, fast forward 20 years, and you have Murakami selling handbags in the centre of LA MOCA, and nobody says anything. Keith was a hero. His work is as strong and vital as it was when it was painted. His own boundless energy is really apparent in his work. If you ever watched him paint, he would put music on and go into a trance. It was very automatic, very right side of the brain. He would never step back and look at it. He would keep going from one corner to the next. He just built it without ever crossing lines. He was so intuitive with his work. He would get into the zone with his music and dance around while he painted. He was literally like a dancer.


DG: What comes across in your work is a profound engagement between art history and street culture, which feels particularly relevant with respect to the art historical influences that abound in The Last Rainforest.

DL: I think that Keith’s work was very human and very important for the spirit. It was optimistic, it was enriching, it was enlightening, and it was for everyone. Just look at his public sculpture: Keith wanted people to use it. He wanted kids to climb on it. That’s just his spirit, his nature, his generosity. Keith always went seamlessly from the subways to the streets to the galleries. When he would do a show in a city, he would make sure that they would allow him to do a public work in that city. The gallery or museum would have to secure something, whether it was a children’s hospital, a church, or a giant public wall. He would require that, which is very generous and very inclusive. He came up with these concepts when he was a kid. Keith had a very interesting life. He was very Christian at one point; he was even called a ‘Jesus Freak’. Then he became a Grateful Dead adherent. Then he got into gay culture. I don’t think that ever leaves you; it changes, but it always stays in you. If you’re spiritual, your beliefs just transform, and you figure out a way that it works for you.


DG: There is real violence and apocalyptic energy within The Last Rainforest, which is juxtaposed with the signature iconography that encapsulates Keith’s pure joy and spirit. How do you see the light and dark coexisting within the picture?

DL: At first glance, the picture has this very hellish feel: it’s very Hieronymous Bosch, Garden of Earthly Delights. You have these various layers, which give it depth. I love the texture and the technique. It really goes to certain art historical roots, like horror vacui. This is one of the most complex paintings he ever painted. It’s a painting about discovery. I was looking for the longest time at this dense image for the baby, because the crawling baby is Keith’s most important icon. I finally found it about 3 months after I got the painting. When you find the baby– which I think is the key to the whole painting – you realise that it’s sitting in Lotus position, protected within the womb-like hollow of the tree, with rays coming out of his head. Here, it’s almost like he’s ended his journey. In Keith’s earlier paintings, at first, he was always crawling. Now, it is like the baby has reached his destination and is enlightened. So there is optimism within all of that horror. Without the baby, the painting is purely apocalyptic and does not have the sense of hope that Keith had. That’s where it starts: it starts with the individual. What’s interesting about it is that you have to look for it – it’s not in your face. That is, for me, so important to this painting, to Keith’s legacy, and to his life. That is who he was, even when he was approaching death. I think that baby represents a lot of things, but mostly I think it represented Keith in a sense.

DG: This being one of Haring’s final masterworks, there is something prophetic in his titling it The Last Rainforest.

DL: Yes, there is. I think it was a new chapter and a new beginning in his work. It shows an artist growing in a new direction. He really was a master: there is only one Keith Haring. I live in the rainforest in East Maui. My home is an open space – there’s no glass, it’s all screen. So the painting is sitting in a dark living room most of the time, which is not the place for a masterpiece.


28 June 2016 | London