Angels with Dirty Faces

Radiant: The Life and Line of Keith Haring By Brad Gooch. New York: Harper. 512 pages. $36.

The cover of Radiant: The Life and Line of Keith Haring

YOU KNOW KEITH HARING. He drew breakdancers and mushroom clouds and triclops and dicks and death and he drew Warhol’s envy. He painted on the Berlin Wall and on Bill T. Jones and on Grace Jones. He painted CRACK IS WACK and SILENCE = DEATH. He smuggled SAMO into SVA to tag the school’s graffiti-blitzed stairwell. His chalk ikons perfused Ed Koch’s decrepit metro, scrawled on seemingly every empty ad space. They called him Chalkman and the Degas of the B-boys, they called him genius and sellout. Club 57, Danceteria, Area, the Roxy, the Pyramid, the Palladium, the Mudd Club, Paradise Garage. Uniqlo, Coach, Nike.

“The first believable twentieth-century halo,” one critic called his Radiant Baby, that eureka light bulb of an infant. “It looks as if it’s always been there,” wrote Rene Ricard of the signature tag in “The Radiant Child,” his 1981 Artforum essay on East Village art now best known for boosting Jean-Michel Basquiat to greater prominence. “If Cy Twombly and Jean Dubuffet had a baby and gave it up for adoption, it would be Jean-Michel,” Ricard surmised. And if Dubuffet had a tryst with Warhol, their radiant child would be Keith, his “primitive” Pop flowing from a seemingly endless élan vital cut short by the artist’s death at thirty-one from aids, in 1990. Thirty-four years later, everybody knows his name. But do we still believe that halo?

He was born in 1958 in Reading, Pennsylvania, not to Andy Warhol and Jean Dubuffet, but to Allen and Joan Haring. Keith’s parents encouraged his passion for drawing but frowned on his obsessions. He worshipped Disney. He worshipped Davy Jones. And he worshipped Jesus, deluging his neighborhood in Kutztown with “One Way” stickers of fingers pointed heavenward. Contrary to Haring’s later claims to have embraced only “the paraphernalia and the surrounding symbols” rather than the tenets of Jesus freakdom, his juvenilia betray a real belief in God. And he never abandoned Christian afflatus in his art, so replete with angels and apocalypse, crosses and Madonnas and bleeding hearts.

Haring’s teenage fling with evangelism, Brad Gooch writes in a new biography, Radiant: The Life and Line of Keith Haring, stemmed from a lifelong “desire to belong to something larger.” Drugs helped with this, too. In 1986, Haring would explain in a letter to Timothy Leary that his first acid trip, at age fifteen, “became the seed for all of the work that followed and that now has developed into an entire ‘aesthetic’ view of the world.” By seventeen, Haring had dropped out of the Ivy School of Professional Art (too commercial); acquired a girlfriend; and become a Deadhead, hitchhiking across the United States to sell custom merch. By twenty, he had come out as gay, had his first solo exhibition (at Pittsburgh’s Center for the Arts, where he worked a menial job for two years), and enrolled at the School of Visual Arts. 

“I arrived in New York at a time when the most beautiful paintings being shown in the city were on wheels,” Haring wrote. This was 1978. His infatuation with the graffiti enveloping the city’s trains and buildings was hardly anomalous; many an East Village artist (e.g., Jenny Holzer, Richard Hambleton, David Hammons, David Wojnarowicz, his classmate Kenny Scharf) took inspiration from aerosol art, be it the baroque wildstyle of Fab 5 Freddy and Zephyr or the recherché poetry of SAMO, aka Basquiat and Al Díaz. But none rivaled Haring’s hustle, exemplified by the thousands of cartoon automatisms he dashed off in white dust in the subway—transient amusements with a power, as critic Carlo McCormick put it, both “apocalyptic and rescuing.” With Scharf, Haring organized influential one-night-only exhibitions at Club 57. He minded the gift shop for Colab’s “The Times Square Show,” a 24-7 Salon des Refusés in a shuttered massage parlor. He was in Diego Cortez’s “New York/New Wave” at P.S. 1 and Documenta 7 with Basquiat in 1982, and in the Whitney Biennial with Basquiat in 1983. He showed at Tony Shafrazi and bombed Patti Astor’s FUN. Unveiled in SoHo in 1986, his Pop Shop followed Warholian “Business Art” to its logical conclusion. (Gooch sees Haring as heir to Warhol, with a caveat: “Unlike for Warhol, irony was not Haring’s métier.” Or was it that Haring understood more than most the sincerity at the heart of the Factory?)

Keith Haring, Pittsburgh Center for the Arts, Pittsburgh, PA, 1978. Photo: Courtesy of the Keith Haring Foundation.
Keith Haring, Pittsburgh Center for the Arts, Pittsburgh, PA, 1978. Photo: Courtesy of the Keith Haring Foundation.

Haring’s art advertised a new pluralism, reembodiment, urgent ecstasies. If the Pictures Generation brought representational art back to the galleries in the 1970s with their icy appropriations of mass media, Haring’s generation made it hot, shattering the critical distance between artist and image and embracing their own status as media subjects. (Tseng Kwong Chi alone took more than twenty-five thousand photographs of Haring and his work.) Where some saw audacious self-invention, others saw mere marketing. In a 1984 Art in America essay titled “The Problem with Puerilism” (unmentioned in Radiant), Craig Owens bemoaned the ongoing gentrification of the avant-garde, historicizing in real time a Potemkin East Village “scene” that, he argued, offered up “generic signifiers for ‘Difference’” for global consumption. Needless to say, such dissenting opinions have faded as the milieu congealed into myth, though Haring’s output remains markedly undertheorized among critics and curators even today, as if mainstream success precludes his work from serious inquiry.

As the mid-’80s art-market boom propelled Haring to aboveground celebrity, a necklace of underground nightclubs became his muse. Ingrid Sischy once wrote that Paradise Garage was, for Haring, “what Tahiti was for Gauguin.” So enchanted was Haring with Paradise that he planned his global travel itinerary around legendary disc jockey Larry Levan’s “Saturday Mass” at the mostly Black discotheque. Haring surrounded himself with Black and Puerto Rican boys and men, among them his young collaborator Angel Ortiz, aka LA II, and his two great loves, DJ Juan Dubose and Juan Rivera. He remained oblivious of power disparities in the studio, on the street, or in his bedroom (which was actually a huge tent pitched in his apartment). Art, dance, fucking: he felt these things would let him transcend his skin. “I’m sure inside I’m not white,” he wrote in his journal. Gooch cites the line offhandedly, as one of Haring’s occasional “exaggerations,” but one wonders how this feeling of racial incongruence manifests in his iconography, in those faceless everymen who collide in illustrations of sameness and difference, erupting in acts of violence as much as love.

If Haring’s line is alacritous, narcotic, imparadising, then Gooch’s is straightforward, sober, dutiful. Radiant is the first biography of Haring since John Gruen’s 1990 Keith Haring: The Authorized Biography, a useful collage of quotes by Haring and those who knew him. Gooch takes a similar tack here; remembrances from others (many drawn from the Gruen) form the architecture of his book. This can lead to inconsistencies, as when Gooch writes that Haring “never allowed the pleasures of fame to change his demeanor with his old friends,” only to quote Haring’s friend Carmel Schmidt six pages later: “When Keith got really famous, things got difficult. Suddenly, most of us old friends were relegated to second place.”

Still, Radiant is compendious and compassionate, even if its subject remains somewhat elusive. In his afterword, Gooch—who has also published lives of Flannery O’Connor and Frank O’Hara—notes that he had, for two decades, wanted to write a novel about Haring. That he wrote a biography instead is telling; to inhabit Keith Haring in a work of fiction would require understanding his motives and meanings, and the artist was opaque in this regard. He believed that a mystical force moved through him when he made his “art for everybody,” and he disliked saying what his work was about, even as he framed it as self-evident (“The message is the message,” he said, tweaking Marshall McLuhan’s dictum). His prodigious horror vacui seems, at times, to arise from a fear surrounding his own interiority, as a way to fill the emptiness that darkens around desire. “I’ve never really understood love or had a relationship that went smoothly,” he wrote in his journal after a fight with Rivera. “I always seem to seek rejection and the more I am loved, the more I don’t want to accept it because I want to be hurt.”

Like so many artists of his generation, Haring never got to have—or only got to have—a late style. By the end of 1983, 1,851 aids cases had been diagnosed in New York City, with 857 deaths. By 1988, 82,764 New Yorkers had aids, among them Haring, who first noticed a purple spot on his leg in a hotel in Tokyo, where he was opening a second Pop Shop. Once diagnosed, he redoubled his output, seizing death by the horns—horned “demon sperm” becoming a new motif. In one work, this black basilisk oozes from an egg strapped to a quivering Sisyphus. He painted SAFE SEX and IGNORANCE = FEAR for ACT UP. He gave an intimate, unprecedented interview to Rolling Stone about his diagnosis, and he railed against Reagan’s unforgivable inaction in addressing the crisis. For the twentieth anniversary of the Stonewall riots, in 1989, he muraled the lavatory of the Gay Community Services Center (now the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual & Transgender Community Center) in New York with a daedal paean to sexual freedom—paradise lost—that one critic declared the “Guernica of priapism.” He called it Once upon a time. He initialed his last will and testament with Radiant Babies.

Toward the end of his life, Haring moved into a new apartment and instructed interior designer Sam Havadtoy to make it look like a whorehouse. When Havadtoy asked him to elaborate, the artist clarified: “My idea of a whorehouse is like the suite at the Ritz in Paris.” His wish was granted, and he died there on February 16, 1990. Since then, Haring’s line has grown even more ubiquitous, the result of licensing partnerships that (charitably put) extend his contribution to “Business Art” while alienating his work from the matrix of libidinal drives and solidarities and grooves through which it arose. Without succumbing to what Gary Indiana has called the “necrophile sentimentality of the ’80s,” Gooch honors the village that raised this radiant child while evoking the deceptively simple spirit of an artist whose so-called universal language is no language at all, really, but a place where meaning breaks down, or breaks free.

Zack Hatfield is a writer and editor living in New York.