Like many people, I first encountered Keith Haring in the bowels of the New York City subway system. It must have been around 1978. Graffiti was everywhere, much worse than it is now. It covered the trains, the walls, the pillars. It was as if the anti-graffiti enforcers had given up.
Actually, some of it was pretty good. Let’s face it, graffiti artists-or "writers," as they liked to be called-really knew how to form their letters. And the airbrushing was quite amazing.
But then the oddest images started appearing. They were done in white chalk on black matte material that had been pasted over posters whose time had expired. Some were of a glowing baby crawling on all fours. Some were of a giant spaceship hovering over a cartoonish, stick-like figure.
You might have walked by them the first couple of times, but sooner or later you would see one and stop in your tracks. Wow, you would think. Whoever drew this is on to something. He is really good. Soon the drawings were the talk of the town. You talked about them at work. You talked about them to strangers waiting for the A train. And you heard stories about the guy who did them-a young kid, everybody said. One day I even saw him. He was skinny and bespectacled, crouched down and hard at work, chalk in hand, furtively looking over his shoulder to see if any cops were approaching. When the inevitable happened and he was arrested, it was front-page news-in the New York Post, anyway.
I suppose any generation thinks its time in New York was the most exciting, but the late ’70s and early ’80s have a better pedigree than most. True, the city was shabby and not very governed, but it had a raw bohemian energy that has pretty much disappeared after the onslaught of all that money during the ’90s. Disco was considered an art form-seriously-and there was something new called the "club scene." The chicest thing to be was gay. Gay men ruled the design and theater worlds; the media was discovering them as a subculture; and for the first time ever, it seemed, they were getting good publicity. The unimaginable tragedy of AIDS had yet to happen.
Keith Haring was at the nexus of this world. He had a great artistic vision and the brains to pull it off. He also had a genius for getting the right kind of "folk hero" publicity and a knack for friendship with the right people, a coterie of New York’s hippest, who liked him and understood his uniqueness: Madonna, Jean-Michel Basquiat, William Burroughs, Andy Warhol. He was openly and rather sweetly gay.
What seems hardest to believe now, considering his present fame and influence, is that his entire career, at its peak, lasted a mere five years.
Like Andy Warhol, an artist he resembles in terms of Zeitgeist and persona, his iconography is deceptively simple. At first it was just the cartoon-like images from the subway. They grabbed your eye in a friendly and amusing way. The glowing baby looked so cute.
Or did it? Haring grew up just 50 miles from the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant; maybe that’s why the baby is glowing. And some of his images are even scarier: alien abduction, zapping with rays, barking dogs. There was clearly something darker going on here, some dichotomy between good and evil, security and danger-but always that element of the "cute," of accessibility.
Art purists are quick to point out that Haring really wasn’t a graffiti artist. First of all, he really didn’t deface anything, and second, his work is stylistically different from the "writers." It comes from the art history traditions of hieroglyphics, of pattern, of neo-expressionism. Plus he was infinitely better than the graffiti artists. His work was realized and complete in a way the graffiti artists’ never was. Nowadays people compare him to Matisse.
Much to its credit, the art world saw this immediately. His arrest made him a superstar, and he went from triumph to triumph. He started getting gallery shows, museum shows, projects like murals for the United Nations, the famous "Crack is Wack" mural, even a painted dirigible. He was a populist. He wanted his art where ordinary people could see it, he loved working with children, and he had a social conscience. He was even more famous in Europe than he was in the United States, and more famous in Japan than anywhere else.
I’ve seen some references in the biographies to minor drug use, something that would have been hard to avoid in that time and place. But nothing ever got in the way of his wonderful work ethic: a painting a day. Saturday night was for dancing. His favorite hangout was the Paradise Garage in the West Village, a giant gay disco for which he did the murals. Even if he were in Europe working, he would make it a point to fly back on Saturday so he could go dancing. It was his favorite place on earth, with the tribal feeling of all those gay men dancing together.
Then one day in Japan, where he was working on a mural, he discovered a Kaposi’s sarcoma lesion on his leg. His lover had already died of AIDS, and he dreaded what might be in store for him. Still, it was his death, at age 31, that transformed him into a true tragic hero. From all accounts he died with an extraordinary dignity, enjoying each day right up until the end. He never stopped working. He never became bitter. He felt all along that he would die early. But he always expected an accident, not a disease.
Several years before he died, he opened his famous Pop Shop in SoHo, which sold inexpensive clothing and gift items featuring his designs. Critics at the time thought it crassly commercial, an idea that seems almost quaint given today’s standards. To celebrate the Pop Shop, the Tampa Museum of Art has re-created it in an exhibit that has more than 100 items, including works on paper, ephemera and Pop Shop products-and best of all, some of them you can purchase.
I almost purchased my own Keith Haring once. When I heard that the "subway guy" was having an exhibit, back in 1982, I ran over to the Tony Shafrazi Gallery to check it out. There they were, a whole big room full of his iconic images. My eye was particularly drawn to a glowing baby, and I learned for the first time that they’re called "radiant babies" and that they, more than anything, are the Keith Haring signature piece. This particular one was rectangular, perhaps 20 inches long, Day-Glo lime against black. I loved it.
I asked the price. $400. I wandered around the exhibit, thinking. Not cheap, but I could afford it. Why not? It was the sort of thing I would cherish for the rest of my life. And who knows? The guy might even become famous. But something kept nagging me. Why pay money for something I could get down in the subway for free?
So the next day I set out on a little caper, with a plan to peel one off the subway walls. I had trouble finding one-it was like looking for a cop; there’s never one around when you need one. But finally, in a corner of the Canal Street Station, I found three of them, beautiful ones, right in a row.
I looked around. No one was in sight. I dug my fingernails under the top right-hand corner and very carefully began to pull. I got about an inch loose before it ripped. In frustration I ripped harder. A big piece came off.
I moved on to the next. This time I was even more careful, but still it ripped. Those things were really glued. I came up with a plan involving a single-edged razor blade and a way to cut and scrape, but by the time I got back the next day with my burglar supplies, the drawings had been covered over with posters for some new movie.
By the way, that $400 piece I didn’t buy? It’s now worth around $34,000.
Keith Haring: Art & Commerce, A Tribute to the Pop Shop continues on view at the Tampa Museum of Art through June 11. For more information call (813) 274-8130.