Artist and activist Keith Haring found community and creativity in his friends and contemporaries.
S teeped in the alternative arts scene of New York in the 1970s and ‘80s, Keith Haring embraced a diversity of creative perspectives outside the fine art world’s mainstream. Outspoken in his calls to dissolve distinctions between “high” and “low” art, Haring produced a rich body of work in his signature Pop-graffiti aesthetic – rhythmic lines and recurring characters that combined optimism with an urgent sociopolitical consciousness.
Writing in his personal journals, Haring reflects: “I am not a beginning. I am not an end. I am a link in a chain.” His understanding of himself in the context of a greater endeavor, one connected by his relationships and collaborations with friends and contemporaries, defined Haring in both his art and activism.
In 1978, a 20-year-old Haring arrived in New York to attend the School of Visual Arts. Embedded in the vibrant downtown scene, he discovered a thriving creative community that would energize, inspire, and support him throughout his brilliant career – from SVA peers Kenny Scharf and John Sex, to fellow upstarts Jean-Michel Basquiat and George Condo, to the graffiti writers Futura 2000 and Lee Quiñones, to Pop Art icon Andy Warhol. Scharf was an especially close friend; roommates and collaborators, he and Haring frequented the nightclubs and performance spaces around which the downtown art scene revolved. Club 57 – which opened its doors in 1978 out of an East Village church basement – was a particular favorite, attracting a constellation of emerging artists, musicians and performers. Haring became a regular, organizing exhibitions (like the famed Annual Group Erotic and Pornographic Art Exhibition) and befriending fellow artists including Basquiat and Tseng Kwong Chi.
Both Haring and Basquiat would rise to meteoric success, achieving (an albeit grudging) mainstream acceptance of street art’s legitimacy. Of Basquiat, Haring described an “intensity and directness of vision [that was] intimidating,” and cited him as his “main inspiration for doing graffiti.” Starting in 1980, Haring created hundreds of subway drawings, rapidly executed in white chalk and often documented by Tseng’s camera. Haring recalled: “Kwong Chi saw the potential of what was beginning to happen with the subway drawings…I’d call [him] up and tell him where I’d just done the drawings, and he’d go there and photograph every one of them.” Their decade-long collaboration yielded over 20,000 images – an essential record of Haring’s often ephemeral street art. In his own words, “It is, after all, the phenomena of photography and video that have made the international phenomenon of Keith Haring possible.”
“Haring frequently said that ‘art is for everybody,’ and he meant it.”
“Usually when I think about Keith, I think about the fun. Something simple like buzzing him in downstairs when I lived in the East Village, opening the door and there he would be. I was just so happy to have him around me.”
I n 1982, Haring made the leap from subway stations to SoHo, debuting at Tony Shafrazi Gallery to great critical acclaim. The show’s closing party was attended by none other than Pop Art legend Andy Warhol, long one of Haring’s heroes. Speaking with Rolling Stone in 1989, he recounts: “Before I knew [Warhol], he had been an image to me. He was totally unapproachable.” Introduced by fellow artist Christopher Makos, the two developed a quick rapport: “We started talking, going out. We traded a lot of works at that time.” Warhol became a mentor for the younger artist, who recalled, “I learned a lot from him. Some of the best things were about generosity and about how to conduct yourself…He was really supportive.” The friendship inspired numerous pieces – from Haring’s Andy Mouse series (1986), depicting Warhol as Mickey Mouse, to Warhol’s intimate Untitled (1983) portrait of Haring with his lover Juan Dubose – and added to Haring’s prestige within the art world.
This rarefied realm, with its vertiginous price tags and intellectual elitism, was at odds with Haring’s own beliefs. He once wrote, “…it is the responsibility of a ‘self-proclaimed artist’ to realize the public needs art, and not to make bourgeois art for the few and ignore the masses.” For Haring, art went hand-in-hand with activism, and he devoted much of his career to creating public works that championed the causes he believed in. From his famous Crack is Wack mural of 1986 to 1989’s Once Upon a Time, a large-scale piece for The Center commemorating the 20th anniversary of the Stonewall Riots, Haring dedicated himself to his communities and believed fervently in the artist’s responsibility to the public. In 1986, Haring opened the Pop Shop, a SoHo retail shop from which he sold affordable objects – buttons, posters, T-shirts, magnets, and more – with imagery tackling subjects from AIDS to apartheid. Writing in 2008 for Vanity Fair, Ingrid Sischy connects the enterprise to Haring’s overarching philosophy: “Haring frequently said that ‘art is for everybody,’ and he meant it. You could see that belief in his crowded Pop Shop…anyone, any age, anywhere can understand a Haring. His pared-down, instantly recognizable iconography…is vibrant with a profound sense of social engagement.”
Before his untimely death from AIDS-related complications in 1990, Haring established the Keith Haring Foundation. Charged with continuing his philanthropic work, the Foundation sustains, expands and protects Haring’s legacy, art and ideals. Now, for the first time, artworks and objects from Haring’s personal collection – rich with items exchanged, gifted and purchased from the many artists who influenced and inspired him – will come to auction, on offer from the Foundation. The collection includes works by Andy Warhol, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Kenny Scharf, George Condo and many more of Haring’s friends and contemporaries. Full proceeds from the sale will go to the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual & Transgender Community Center of New York (also known as The Center). Gil Vazquez, the Foundation’s Acting Director, notes that the auction “is an especially meaningful event in what is the 30th anniversary of Keith’s passing. It feels as if Keith himself rallied his friends to make art for this specific purpose.”
Lead image: SEVERAL ARTISTS FROM THE CLUB 57 CIRCLE OF FRIENDS, INCLUDING KENNY SCHARF, KEITH HARING, JOHN SEX, BRUNO SCHMIDT, SAMANTHA MCEWEN, TSENG KWONG CHI AND JUAN DUBOSE. PHOTO: TSENG KWONG CHI. © MUNA TSENG DANCE PROJECTS, INC.