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Moco Roof Keith Haring Grace Jones

Simon Doonan on Keith Haring: AIDS and 1980s New York

Almost as if he knew his time on this planet would be limited, self-confessed workaholic Keith Haring created during his brief lifetime a profound body of work, so iconic that it is still relevant today.

His distinctively joyful vocabulary of images and signature symbols with their thick black lines and vibrating colors are immediately recognizable — who doesn't know the dancing dogs, radiant babies, and signature stick figures? They continue to live on — printed on clothes, sneakers, cups, toys, posters, and whatnot — across the world. Perhaps today more than ever because his socially and politically charged art resonates with the current Zeitgeist in which social movements like Black Lives Matter and Me TOO find wide recognition and following. Hence the flood of fashion collaborations, expos and books, and most recently a biography by good friend and British fashion trailblazer Simon Doonan. Reason enough for us to talk with Doonan about his memories of the epic 1980s in New York — the era in which Keith Haring flourished — and why the artist is still relevant.

Moco Roof Keith Haring Mural

Keith Haring paints a large mural at East Houston Street and the Bowery.

This installation is said to be Haring’s first large-scale public work, summer 1982.

East Village

Born in 1958 in Reading, Pennsylvania, smalltown boy Keith Haring moved to New York at the age of 20 where he entered the School of Visual Arts in 1978. By that time the underground art scene was already thriving and the East Village, with its cheap rents and multicultural, sexually liberated crowd was a hotbed of contemporary culture. Art, activism, fashion, hip-hop, graffiti, and computer games all came together. It was this electrifying energy of the early 1980s that the young artist got swept up in. Inspired by alt-culture and a burning passion to make art accessible, Haring took to the streets to express himself and quickly submerged himself in the city's graffiti culture. From subway stations to the walls of Manhattan and beyond, his iconic cartoonish figures were quickly seared into the minds of art lovers and commuters alike. It is around this time that he began frequenting experimental art spaces and nightclubs, where he not only met Doonan but also became close friends with a new generation of ground-breaking young artists including Jean-Michel Basquiat, Kenny Scharf, and Futura 2000.

Simon Doonan: "New York was absolutely fundamental for Haring. If you were a creative person, a gay person, a curious person, a seeker, you left your hometown. There was no other way. You have to realize there was no social media back then, no iPhone, no internet. You really needed to get out there. And the magic of leaving home for him was the fact that there was no social media. If you were gone you were truly gone, so you could go reinvent yourself. There was no scrutiny, no horrible tweets that could come back to haunt you, and nobody videotaping you while you were doing something completely demented. There was a total freedom, just geography to overcome. Gay people and artists and creative people and unconventional people and misfits, we all took advantage of that and got on the Greyhound bus."

So, New York was the perfect place for Haring to thrive. But it was also the backdrop of that era, the 1980s, that contributed to the rise of Haring as an artist, activist, and rebel. In those years everything came together in a way that it hadn't previously.

"In the 1970s art stayed away from fashion because art felt that fashion was ephemeral and that it had a corroding, cheapening effect on art. But then the 1980s came along, right after the punk years. Punk had sort of liberated everybody, there were no rules anymore. Everything could be anything could be everything. There were artists like Stephen Sprouse who started putting graffiti on their clothes. So when people talk badly about the 1980s saying it was cheesy and tacky, they are missing the magic of that decade. Think about it as a post-punk explosion, and people like Keith Haring took advantage of this new world where all the preconceived ideas went out of the window. They could reinvent the landscape."

Moco Roof Keith Haring Portrait
Moco Roof Keith Haring Grace Jones

The Mudd Club & Club 57

In those days, Haring partied as hard as he painted. While he rode around in the subway during the day daubing anything and everything — from sidewalks to telephone poles — with his little chalk figures, at night he frequented gay bathhouses, notorious S&M Sex club The Anvil, and legendary downtown underground venues the Mudd Club and Club 57. Both were founded as a reaction to the uptown glitzy, star-studded Studio 54 disco nightclub, known for its smoke machines, confetti cannons, and hot-shot VIP regulars. The Mudd Club and Club 57 on the other hand were the downtown antithesis to the uptown glamour. These clubs were home to the counterculture and became the hang-outs of Keith Haring, Jean-Michel Basquiat, and Kenny Scharf among others. Here, creatives formed a world of their own against the backdrop of a bankrupt New York, where recession raged and the art and gallery scene was virtually inaccessible to young artists. As a consequence, the artistic avant-garde founded their own galleries and clubs, challenging the art and ideas expressed in uptown museums and SOHO galleries. Keith Haring, one of the frontmen of this avant-garde, had the bright idea of turning a room on the fourth floor of the Mudd Club into a late-night gallery and organized spontaneous art shows in Club 57, such as the 'First Annual Group Erotic and Pornographic Art Exhibition' — a space for punk-rock feminism, male cabaret, drag, and invention and performance art. Kenny Scharf remembers years later: "At Club 57 there were drugs and promiscuity — it was one big orgy family. Sometimes I'd look around and say, "Oh my God! I've had sex with everybody in this room! It was just the spirit of the times — and it was before AIDS."

Artwork Keith Haring Garden of Radio Delight

Art For The People

By this time the name "Keith" was buzzing. His fame grew, yet the traditional art world was skeptical; they thought he was making-light-art because he made transient public art — drawing on anything and giving it to anyone who wanted it. The artist didn't seem bothered. A rebel at heart, he fought the elitist fine-art world which he believed was a discriminatory institution.

"Keith thought art was ridiculous. It was stuck in galleries, very elitist, often very obscure, artists trying to be incomprehensible in order to be seen as more esoteric. Haring on the other hand, was very focused on creating art for the people. He felt that the general public were not getting the art they deserved. Yes, he had very sophisticated ideas, but he actually did communicate directly to the people. His aim was always to make art accessible; he cared more about raising consciousness than he did about raising capital."

Just like his mentor, Andy Warhol, Haring was definitely "pop". However, he had a much stronger and more ethical social conscience and a more generous spirit than Warhol. Haring wanted people to see and engage with his art — he was very giving, sensitive, and inclusive. Much of his work was a kind of propaganda for compassion.

"l think he got to that activism through idealism and altruism. He had a very light touch to his activism. He was sensitive to injustice, but he wasn't preachy and going around screaming. It was very practical. He realized the power of art to speak to people and make them conscious. It's interesting to see that all the activist causes he was into were causes that he had some familiarity with. He had an assistant who became addicted to crack, so he thought, 'What can I do? I can't treat people for crack addiction, but I can make a mural!' And so he did this famous 'Crack Is Wack' mural in uptown Manhattan. Keith was also into diversity as he had a very diverse group of friends; his boyfriends were Latino or Black which made him conscious of themes like racism. Again, he just thought, 'Oh I know what I can do, I'm Keith Haring, I can make a thousand posters of this "Free South Africa" image' — and then he did just that, Signed them and gave them away during a big rally in Central Park. AIDS hit him very directly as he was gay and the whole gay community was affected by this ghastly disease. His 'Safe Sex' posters are still being used. They are wonderful, they are really funny. Yoko Ono once said about Andy Warhol, that he would take everyday simple things and make them mysterious and complex, like soup cans. Suddenly it becomes this really important mysterious thing. Warhol would give grandiosity to everyday objects. Keith Haring, on the other hand, would do the exact opposite, observed Yoko Ono. He would take Overwhelming things like AIDS, drug addiction, and racism and make them bearable in some way. Something you could encounter without recoiling. He would give them a tinge of humor. There is always a humor to all of his activism, which makes it even more powerful, combined with an incredible seriousness. That's a really clever thing to do when you think about it."

Madonna & Grace Jones

In terms of combining humor with seriousness, one could argue that Banksy would be the modern equivalent of Haring. Except that Keith Haring didn't want anonymity; he adored being the center of attention and wanted everyone to know who he was. He went to clubs and openings and hosted parties.

"At that time, he became close friends with Madonna. Madonna is very much the musical equivalent of Haring; she loved to be a pop art pop star. She had interesting songs that talked about life — Papa Don't Preach' was about getting pregnant without being married — and she was popular because she spoke directly to people about reality, just like Haring did. They would talk a lot about art and that they never quite got the respect that they felt they deserved from certain critical circles. Yet, anyone who was interesting at the time, Haring was working with them. He did all these projects with Grace Jones, painting her body, working on her videos, incredible stuff. She is completely original, a true one-off. The androgyny, the sculptural nature of her presentation.„ It is hard to think of anybody more impressive in that world — and Keith fully appreciated her."

In the meantime, new collectors arrived and pumped money into a previously doomed market. A burst of fresh galleries arose throughout the East Village and the fine-art world started to take notice of Haring. Checkbooks opened and media attention skyrocketed. Haring loved it, however, the victory was bittersweet. The AIDS crisis was in full bloom, and it hit New York hard and fast. When Haring got diagnosed with HIV in 1987 it was a devastating blow to the then-29-year-old, however, he chose to confront the disease head-on and his drive to paint was bigger than ever. His work around this time included many paintings that depicted sex acts and phallic line drawings, which were used to create attention and awareness of HIV/AIDS. Eventually, Haring died from AIDS-related complications in 1990 at the age of 31, leaving a large legacy behind. In -1989 he told his biographer proudly: "Those works that I've created are gonna stay forever. There are thousands of real people, not just museums and curators, that have been affected and inspired and taught by the work I've done.., so the work is gonna live on long past When I'm not gonna be here."

"He was absolutely right about this. Teenagers now will discover his work and feel it's so fresh! They see it for the first time and it speaks directly to them. They are like, 'Whaaat, he died in 1990?!' It's because his work is still very now and grounded in the moment. Now you can show your work through social media, but back then, decades before Art Basel, art was very freewheeling. If Keith were still alive today. I bet he would be all over Tik Tok. He's perfect for Tik Tok, you know, in 20 seconds he would make a painting. If you think about it, it's so sad that he missed this: he would have grabbed all these new media and made them interesting, and challenged people to find new ways to use them. He'd be all over social media and completely addicted to it and good at it."
Although he died in 1990, in many ways Keith Haring is still alive. There are Haring T-shirts, Haring shoes, Haring chairs, hats, playing cards. key rings — his work is everywhere, cheerful, and instantly recognizable like graffiti tags or small signifiers that say, "Keith was here." Moreover, since his death, his foundation has supported hundreds of youth, community, art, LBGT, safe-sex, and planned-parenthood projects, partly funded by the revenues of the sold Haring gadgets.

"The thing is that the core of all his success and his work is empathy. You can't be that communicative without being an empathetic guy. When he's drawing symbols on the subway, he knows what is going to attract people's attention: babies, flying saucers, men with holes in their stomachs. That comes from a certain empathy. He is an empathetic person and that's why he is still so resilient, loved, and enjoyed."

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