Keith Haring  
An all-consuming art
By S. Amanda Davis

From Gadfly March/April 2000


Son of Pop Art, cartoon kid, media genius, entrepreneurial whiz, AIDS activist, founder of the Keith Haring Foundation, American art's radiant child. Keith Haring packed a lot of living into his short life. An art school dropout from Kutztown, Pennsylvania, he arrived in New York at the age of 19, energized by a sense that great things were going to happen.

The early years saw art exhibits at Club 57, an attention‑grabbing blitz of subway art, and his work included in the "Times Square Show." By age 24, he was propelled into the big time with solo exhibitions in New York's most prestigious galleries and as a participant in the Whitney Museum Biennial. The remaining years followed at an exhilarating pace: body‑painting disco‑diva Grace Jones; collaborating on projects with William Burroughs and Brooke Shields; and hobnobbing with Jean‑Michel Basquiat and Andy Warhol. All the while, Haring jetted around the world as a celebrity artist on assignment, covering walls and buildings with his trademark images—barking dogs, glowing babies, multi‑limbed monsters and spaceships—all sketched out with buoyant, comic‑book optimism.

Though he was in demand worldwide, the French claim a special relationship with Haring. He was their "Little Prince in basketball shoes," an American star welcomed into the privileged coterie of France's favorite artists. "Made in France," a show which ran at the Musee Maillol‑Fondation Dina Vierny in Paris from June 23 to September 22, 1999, explored this special relationship. The first exhibition of his work in France since his death in 1990, it assembled paintings, drawings and photographs, providing an overview of Haring's many public works in France.

There is no denying the provocative and elemental force of Haring's simple line drawings. He created vital, eternal forms that you might see on a Grecian urn, a Mayan ceremonial tablet or a Romanesque capital, yet they were completely modern. As a child growing up in the '60s, he was nurtured on the cartoons of Dr. Seuss, Walt Disney and his father, an amateur artist. Later, he turned to other sources for his drawings—cave paintings, aboriginal art, pre‑Columbian art and Chinese calligraphy. But it was seeing Pierre Alechinsky's evocative, childlike drawings that decided Haring's direction. Another influence was environmental artist Christo, whose large‑scale productions resonated with Haring's artistic impulse to take art out of the museum and into the streets, making each artistic creation a community happening.

A large‑scale project in Le Mans in 1984 was one of Haring's first works in France. As artist‑in‑residence, he designed the logo, posters and T‑shirts for the Le Mans car competition; the day of the event he painted for 24 continuous hours to the roar of cars racing at the track. The drawings from that day are as outrageous as they are funny: cars being consumed by great beasts, a figure of Time sodomizing a multiheaded monster and a dopey‑looking mascot sporting a silly grin and a tiny pink penis. Several works are covered from edge to edge with elaborate detail, revealing Haring's amazing ability to create rich and intricate decorative worlds.

The room of Le Mans drawings captures the highs and lows of Haring's art; at his best, he drew vital and vibrant iconic sketches, executed with such unswerving self‑confidence that they could have been carved in stone. At his worst, he was repetitive and glib, churning out images as raunchy and as vapid as any schoolboy doodle.

The Paris show left you with the powerful impression that the key part of Haring's fame rested on performances like Twenty‑four Hours of Le Mans. Whether he was defiantly drawing chalk figures on advertising placards in the New York subway or decorating his nude body for an Annie Leibovitz portrait, he was keyed into the modern notion of art as performance and ritual. Even in Haring's early days as an art student in New York, whenever he put pen to paper it usually turned into a media event, though Haring hardly looked the part of Post-Pop Art Superstar. Pictures taken of him in his mid‑twenties reveal a rather unspectacular‑looking fellow: thin‑lipped, lean, hair already thinning, more computer programmer or pre‑med intern than international celebrity. But as surely as Keith Haring was a prolific and talented artist, he was a creation of the media.

Haring's flair for performance went hand in hand with his uncanny natural abilities. He had a wellspring of creative energies, and his art gushed out in great, seemingly inexhaustible torrents. He could fill a monumental canvas in a few hours, working without sketches or plans, not knowing where the work would take him, and relying on the element of chance with each creation.

Most of his commissions in France were large‑scale crowd‑pleasing spectacles. In 1986, Haring hung from a lift for two days and painted a gigantic mural on a fire escape at Necker Hospital in Paris. In just a few years, he executed enormous paintings based on the Ten Commandments in a Bordeaux warehouse, wall murals in the Grande Halle de la Villette for the Paris Biennale, a backdrop for the Marseille Ballet's performance of The Marriage of Heaven and Hell and a series of paintings installed in Paris Metro stations in 1984. Included in the show was the painting from the Dupleix station, a monumental canvas with a spotted monster holding his distended member and ejaculating little men (a prurient twist on Dr. Seuss, too colorful and whimsical to be offensive).

Haring's last large‑scale work in France was finished in June of 1989. Working with Russian artist Erik Boulatov, he completed an enormous banner for a blimp scheduled to fly over Paris during the ceremonies commemorating the French bicentennial. Though the banner was completed in only four and a half hours, the flight was eventually cancelled because of technical problems.

One has a sense that Haring's great outpouring of creative energy was fueled largely by libido; he described it as a force more powerful than his drive to create art. From the discreet to the sexually explicit, Haring traced out the endless variations of the life force in his artwork. In the untitled painting completed at the Pompidou Center in 1987, a red devil looms on one side of the canvas; the length of the canvas consists of the devil's nose impaling two male figures. Part violent, part sexual, such scenes of intersecting body parts are a recurring theme in Haring's work.

The early studio drawings were not so subtle: there were men fornicating with men, angels having their way with dogs, figures masturbating, and a general confusion of interspecies coupling (the female form rarely appears in Haring's orgiastic male world). Even though I often felt as if I were peering through a peephole at a raunchy club act, the Paris show was relatively subdued considering Haring's early output of pornographic art.

As Haring became increasingly popular, he sublimated these overtly sexual images in his large public artworks. But the sexual continued to play an important role in his studio works. For a few years beginning in 1985, he produced a stunning series of paintings based on Revelation: canvases reminiscent of the French Tapestry of the Apocalypse in Anger and scenes of the Last Judgment at the cathedrals in Autun and Arles, in which a pandemonium of beasts, serpents and sinners copulate amidst the flames of the apocalypse. One of the works included in the show is a black‑and‑white variation of Hieronymous Bosch's The Garden of Earthly Delights. As expected, Haring's painting writhes with dense layers of demons violently copulating. These aren't Haring's usual whimsical creatures but medieval mutations of nature—strange birds with human legs and headless beasts brandishing sticks. Yet in spite of its surface nastiness, Haring's version seems rote in comparison to the outrages depicted in Bosch's masterpiece.

Haring's phenomenal success began to take the shape of one of his multilimbed giants, an ever‑expanding thing, with arms reaching out in all directions. Not only was he drawn into an increasing number of artistic collaborations and international media events, he threw himself into AIDS activism and even dabbled in advertising for a time, designing watches for Swatch Watch and drawing ads for Absolut vodka. In 1986, he began his first business venture in New York, opening a retail store called Pop Shop that sold products he designed—buttons, stickers, T‑shirts, ties, bags and posters, all emblazoned with his trademark images.

When Haring opened Pop Shop, he exposed himself to questions that would inevitably arise on mass marketing his artwork. How can art be important when it is mass produced? How can an artist's work evolve when created at such a slapdash pace? Consequently, the criticism often leveled at Haring as an artist can be applied to the show itself. There was too much of the same thing. Haring had a few clever and appealing ideas, but he soon exhausted them. There were glimpses of promise, but nothing to stop you in your tracks. In front of Haring's great oeuvre, you wanted to sniff and shake your head like a Frenchman. Mais oui, there is a lot of it, but it's all the same. Just another stunning American enterprise, n'est‑ce pas? Art is something special, very rare.

But Haring never had the time. Diagnosed with AIDS in 1987, he died in New York three years later at the age of thirty‑two. Picasso had 60 years to create his legacy, Haring had only twelve. That he did the whole thing in such a short period of time is itself an astonishing feat. One would like to think that Haring would have created something extraordinary with more time, a canvas dense and extravagent and worthy of his astonishing talents. It's a heady thought. But it's more likely that Haring would have continued along on that merry‑go‑round called celebrity, perhaps producing a blockbuster movie based on his cartoon drawings. For a few years, Keith Haring was the art world's radiant child. And in that fast track of success there was little time for great art.