Photographer of the Downtown Era: The Community of Tseng Kwong Chi and Keith Haring

By Daniela Lazo-Cedre
"One day, in the spring of 1979, I met Kwong Chi. He was standing on a street corner on First Avenue and Fifth Street, and he was wearing these really high-waisted, white corduroy pants. He was so eccentric looking that I knew I had to meet this person, I ended up sort of cruising him, but then we became friends."
Keith Haring in 'Keith Haring: The Authorized Biography' by John Gruen

S hortly after their meeting on First Avenue, Tseng Kwong Chi went home only to receive a call from Keith Haring, inviting him to a poetry reading at Club 57, the legendary downtown nightclub in the basement of a church at 57 St. Mark’s Place in the East Village where both artists would come to form part of a community that would congregate there. Tseng Kwong Chi would soon meet Kenny Scharf, John Sex, Samantha McEwen, Bruno Schmidt, and Ann Magnuson and Jean-Michel Basquiat, among others, and become the primary photographer who would document the art of his friends as well as the happenings and ethos of the developing alternative art scene in New York towards which the city was beginning to rear its head. Among the notable shows held at Club 57 was the Xerox Show which Haring curated, and to which Kwong Chi and Basquiat both contributed works.

Tseng Kwong Chi was born in Hong Kong in 1950. Considered a child prodigy at the age of 10 for his drawing skills, he decided at a young age to be an artist and go to Paris to fulfill that dream, where he would live between 1970-1975. Kwong Chi would arrive in New York in 1978, the same year as Keith Haring, to pursue a career in photography, and would remain one of Keith’s closest friends throughout the duration of both of their lifetimes.

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.

Called “a cross between Ansel Adams and Cindy Sherman” by Timothy Greenfield-Sanders, Kwong Chi is best known for his East Meets West and Expeditionary Self Portrait series. In both his own presence is an essential feature against backdrops that were either landmarks or tourist destinations (in the case of the former), or abundant natural landscapes (in the case of the latter). East Meets West confronts the tensions between China and the West that were heightened in the 1970s after President Nixon tried to open up relations between the two countries. Kwong Chi would pose in a thrifted “Mao Tse Tung suit ” with an official-looking ID badge, heightening the semiotics of his country of origin and the accompanying political landscape against Western symbols of popular culture, patrimony and mass pilgrimage.

Samantha McEwen and Tseng Kwong Chi in Paris. Photo: Tseng Kwong Chi. © Muna Tseng Dance Projects, Inc. Courtesy of Yancey Richardson Gallery, New York

The Expeditionary Self Portrait series, by contrast, is in one way the antidote to East Meets West, equally centering his figure here in places of interest but now as a wanderer and admirer of nature, rather than locations dominated by human construction and their associated symbolism. Inspired by both Ansel Adams and the sublimity of nature in early classical painting like Caspar Friedrich, these photographs evoke feelings of something which is larger than life, and by placing himself in the shot, we are reminded of the scale of humanity within the majestic context of nature.

Tseng Kwong Chi’s earliest solo show, titled East Meets West, was held at one of the most storied establishments of the Downtown Era —none other than the Mudd Club— where he would also often capture the scene. One of the most famous centers for artistic experimentation in New York’s history, the Mudd Club was a gathering place for beat poets such as Allen Ginsberg and William Burroughs, musicians such as Lou Reed, Debbie Harry and Madonna, and artist such as Keith, Tseng, and Jean-Michel Basquiat, later attracting famous personalities such as Andy Warhol, Grace Jones and David Bowie.

Andy Warhol and Tseng Kwong Chi in 1982 (left) Courtesy of Eric Firestone Gallery, New York/East Hampton. Madonna and Tseng Kwong Chi in 1985 (right). Photo: Tseng Kwong Chi. © Muna Tseng Dance Projects, Inc.

In the early years of their friendship, Keith Haring was reflecting extensively on his artistic practice and place as an artist, and describes one of his most important breakthroughs after visiting the Nova Convention while at SVA, where William Burroughs was discussing his book The Third Mind with Brion Gysin. It was this that sparked an immediate interest in semiotics, and together with other influences – most notably European artists Jean Dubuffet and Pierre Alechinsky, as well as the street art scene in New York – that stimulated the beginning of Haring’s essential lexicon that Tseng Kwong Chi would famously capture throughout New York City.

"From the beginning, I had been friends with Kwong Chi, who was this great photographer, and Kwong Chi saw the potential of what was beginning to happen with the subway drawings. He volunteered to start photographing them. When I did these route trips, I'd call Kwong Chi up and tell him where I'd just done the drawings, and he'd go there and photograph every one of them."
Keith Haring in “Just Say Know,” 'Rolling Stone Magazine,' 10 August 1989
Keith Haring and his Subway Drawings in 1981. Photo: Tseng Kwong Chi. © Muna Tseng Dance Projects, Inc. Courtesy of Eric Firestone Gallery, New York/East Hampton

Tseng Kwong Chi amassed over 5,000 photographs of Keith Haring’s subway drawings, and more than just portraying some of Keith’s early and most transient works, these photographs in themselves capture the New York City subway both historically and with a narrative sensibility. Some images capture the graffiti and grittiness of the subway that some have disdained or romanticized of the era, while others encapsulate the populace en route— the faces of New York City as they inhabit a space in transit.

The Tseng Kwong Chi Estate today holds the largest archive in the world of Keith Haring, with approximately 20,000 photographs relating to their time together. Kwong Chi would be one of Haring’s travel companions around the world, documenting at an official capacity Keith’s murals and exhibitions, as well as at a personal capacity their time spent together and with other friends. Some of Kwong Chi’s most famous photographs, such as Bordeaux, France, 1985 , were taken during trips with Haring, while many of Haring’s works became known on a larger scale due to Tseng Kwong Chi’s Expeditionary Self Portrait photographs. Passing away less than a month apart in early 1990, both from causes related to HIV/AIDS, Sotheby’s is honored to feature works by both artists and their friendship on the 30th anniversary since their passing for a cause that was important to them both— The LGBTQ Center in New York City.

Tseng Kwong Chi’s works are found in some of the most prestigious private and public collections around the world, including The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, SFMOMA, The Walker Art Center, Carnegie Museum of Art, The Smithsonian American Art Musuem, The National Portrait Gallery, Tate Britain, and M+ Hong Kong.

Juan DuBose, Tseng Kwong Chi, and Keith Haring, with drawings by Keith Haring on the original photographs by Tseng Kwong Chi. Photo: Tseng Kwong Chi. © Muna Tseng Dance Projects, Inc. Courtesy of Eric Firestone Gallery, New York/East Hampton

"I was called the minute Keith died. It was 4:40 AM on Friday, February 16, 1990. On March 3rd a memorial was held in Kutztown. Exactly one week later, on March 10, one of Keith's closest friends and collaborator, Tseng Kwong Chi, died of AIDS in New York. He was thirty-nine. Kwong Chi had taken thousands of photographs of Keith all over the world. With the death of Keith and Kwong Chi, a big part of my world had come to an end... as indeed had two great friendships."
Julia Gruen, Keith Haring's longtime assistant and Executrix and Director of the Keith Haring Foundation between 1990 and 2020.

Browse Works by Tseng Kwong Chi in Dear Keith:
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