In June, I was in New York speaking with a friend of mine who is also a writer, and she happened to mention that she had gone to art school (SVA) with Keith Haring. My wife almost lost it; Haring is one of her all-time favorite artists.
She’s been a fan since forever, but the depth of her reaction might have been helped along because by a book I’d bought her a couple of years earlier.
Entitled simply Keith Haring, by Jeffrey Deitch, Suzanne Geiss and Julia Gruen, this one is what I’d call an “art biography”. You don’t get much about the subject’s childhood, you don’t get too much about who was sleeping with whom, but you get a comprehensive explanation of the milestones in his artistic career, from elements of his style to people he met along the way and even specific trips and events that proved particularly notable in his career.
It’s a book tinged with sadness, of course–Haring died of AIDS in the early 1990s at far too young an age–but it doesn’t dwell on the sadness. This book represents that overused phrase: “a celebration of life”.
And it was a life to be celebrated. Few artists mix innocent style and good-natured self promotion with controversial (and sexual) themes as seamlessly as Haring did. He preferred to change the world that affected him, even though he wasn’t averse to taking on the bigger-picture issues if he was called to do so. To me, his Crack is Wack mural is much more indicative of the way he thought–it was inspired by one of his best friends’ addiction–than his action in anti-nuclear protests.
I will admit that his art isn’t exactly my cup of tea. It’s interesting, especially as I see the eighties as a morally straight-laced decade wildly at odds with his more pornographic imagery, but it’s not the kind of thing I would go out of my way to view. Give me a good Constable any day.
However, this is a man who defined a city in a decade. The book gives us a glimpse of New York’s art scene and a city lost to gentrification. Also, a night scene lost to AIDS which utterly destroyed the libertine air that Haring lived and breathed. From that perspective, this volume is fascinating even if Haring isn’t your favorite artist. You want to read this book as a cultural icon of a lost world that still influences us today.
And most people who love art think of Haring in terms more similar to the way my wife does than the way I do. I bought this book in L.A. alongside one of the Complete Peanuts volumes. The guy at the cash register looked up at me approvingly. “Haring and Peanuts,” he said. “Two of my favorites.” And then he offered me a Barnes & Noble points card.
Anyway. This is interesting for both arts lovers and people who want to know what the eighties were really like.
Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine novelist and short story writer. He sometimes creates literature as opposed to entertainment. If you like that kind of thing, you might enjoy his collection Love and Death. You can check it out here.