Keith Haring, one of the most highly publicized artists of the 1980s, is once again in the news. Radiant Baby, a musical based on his life, opens at the Public Theater in New York at the end of this month. Given the attention that this production is likely to receive, it seems an opportune time to evaluate Haring's market.
The fact that Haring has been dead for over a decade makes it much easier to assess his reputation. Gone is the hype of the 1980s, when Haring was a vital part of the East Village scene -- a veritable poster child for the era's exuberant sense of possibility. If you're unfamiliar with Haring's legend, he was the artist who made hit-and-run raids on New York's subway stations, chalking his spaceships and barking dogs on exposed sheets of black paper that were once covered with advertising posters.
For a while, Haring seemed to be everywhere. Countless articles appeared that lavished praise on his work's "street cred" and originality. Eventually, his work became so popular that he opened the Pop Shop in SoHo -- a retail store that specialized in Haring "products." A quick perusal of the aisles revealed Swatches, sweatshirts, tee-shirts and buttons, each decorated with images culled from Haring's unique visual vocabulary. Oddly enough, this may have been his finest moment, because Haring was, above all, a highly talented graphic designer. Whether he was a serious fine artist is open for debate.
Haring's market is inconsistent, but at the right price there always seems to be a buyer. At this point in time, I feel convinced that at least a portion of his collectors have purchased his work out of a sense of nostalgia -- Haring and the East Village feel like ancient history. They represent the art world's last naïve moment, when young artists thought they could control their future by opening galleries and dealing their own work. Given the cost of renting gallery space in a viable neighborhood and the growing seriousness of the art business, a new East Village doesn't seem possible. Therefore, there will always be collectors who long for those days and see acquiring a Haring as a tangible souvenir from that vibrant era.
An overlooked aspect of Haring's market has been the lack of museum support. I cannot recall the last time I saw one of his paintings hanging in an institution. A reason why museums haven't been interested may be due to the work's medium. It was one thing when Haring drew his sophisticated brand of graffiti on the papered walls of a subway station. A sense of spontaneity coupled with urgency, thanks to the risk of getting caught defacing public property, became part of the work's content. Haring's art wasn't about creating a finished product ripe for gallery exhibition. When he became famous, he transferred his marks from an ephemeral surface to one that was more permanent -- canvas. Once Haring began painting with acrylic paints on sheets of tarpaulin, complete with grommets for easy mounting on gallery walls, it was all over -- the work's original anti-market stance had evaporated.
Unfortunately, in 1990, Haring died of AIDS. At that point, his work had become so "pacified" that the conservative and very uptown Andre Emmerich Gallery -- the antithesis of what Haring's art was about -- was tapped to handle his estate. Along with this questionable decision came ever-expanding commercial opportunities, such as Volkswagen's use of Haring's imagery in ads to sell cars. Then came large outdoor Keith Haring sculptures, fabricated in bright primary colors, temporarily installed on Park Avenue -- which represented the final integration of Haring into the mainstream of popular culture. Currently, his estate is handled by Jeffrey Deitch. Available paintings are priced at $60,000-$300,000.
The last round of auctions, in November 2002, featured a number of Harings. Perhaps the finest painting to come up for sale was an untitled canvas that appeared at Phillips, de Pury & Luxembourg. This five-foot-square painting depicted an open hand with extended fingers -- a closer look reveals a single digit that has mutated into a human figure. Painted in bright greens, pinks and yellows, the work fetched $196,500 -- which exceeded its $100,000-$150,000 estimate. Over at Sotheby's, no fewer than five Harings were offered for the audience's competition. Two of the pictures sold within estimate and two sold above estimate. The fifth, and most expensive, was a portrait of John F. Kennedy, Jr. Sotheby's was looking for a price of $150,000-$200,000, but the painting failed to meet its reserve and passed.
How should we interpret the auction results? Unlike most artists, who seem to have a detectable upside or downside, Haring is more problematic. Yes, the work does have a legitimate auction following. But future appreciation will probably be based on some sort of nostalgia boom, rather than the work's growing or diminishing place in art history.