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haring transgressor

by Peter von Ziegesar  


Untitled #4

A Pile of Crowns for Jean-Michel Basquiat

subway drawing

Monkey Puzzle

Keith Haring in his studio


Mural at the Lesbian and Gay Community Services Center

Drawings for Fashion Moda at New Museum


Haring and friends in front of Crack is Wack mural
   The Keith Haring show at the Whitney Museum almost recaptures the underground feel of an `80s Happening (which was retro even then). With its black-painted walls and tenement-style doors between the galleries, the installation has the kind of seedy weltschmertz that accompanied a Haring opening in the days when the East Village still stood for something -- ecstatic drugs, ecstatic sex and that kind of deep sodden indigestion of the soul that comes from living too close to the edge for too long.

The Whitney was packed to the air ducts on opening night, and it appears that the museum has a genuine summer blockbuster on its hands -- the initial printing of the catalogue is 35,000 copies, compared to the usual one or two thousand copies. (Published by Little, Brown and featuring essays by curator Elisabeth Sussman and nine other contributors, the 12-inch-square, 296-page book is a beautiful piece of work.)

Despite the popular view of Haring as the art-world's favorite cartoonist, happy and frolicking and particularly kid-friendly, Haring was a radical artist -- a radical gay artist. It is amazing just how much the reactionary powers-that-be have overlooked this fact. This is particularly interesting considering just how popular Haring has always been and continues to be, especially among the young. The young understand more than we think.

In its society-matron-gone-gaga manner, the Whitney is enlisting teenage docents and admitting children for free. Presumably, the museum is assuming that the guardians of public morals have become so focused on new TV ratings that they won't notice the Haringesque scenes of drug-ingestion, homosexuality, bondage, rape, bestiality, fellatio, masturbation and group sex that are central to the exhibition.

Perhaps unwilling to come to grips with Haring's transgressive homoerotic content -- Haring makes depravity seem so enjoyable -- many critics have dismissed the show as a bit of `80s fluff -- detritus of a glitter age. Typical was the reaction of Kurt Anderson in the New Yorker, who labeled Haring's iconographic output "pleasant downtown wallpaper, evanescent Bobby McFerrinism."

Admittedly, the show does encourage us to see the artist as a trivial celebrity icon by including bales of memorabilia along with the art (for example, the contents of his wallet at his death, videos of the Haring pogoing at the Paradise Garage, Polaroids of him arm-in-arm with such thoroughly time-swallowed personalities as Grace Jones and Boy George). In contrast, Haring's colleague, Jean-Michel Basquiat, at his own posthumous Whitney retrospective a few years ago, received fairly straight-ahead treatment as a fine artist.

But even a cursory walk through the show reveals that Haring was more than just a boy who loved sex and chasing celebrities. One cannot really ignore the shadowy depths lurking behind Haring's famous barking dogs and cutely radioactive babies. Haring briefly enrolled as a Jesus Freak during his teen years and gulped down gallons of contemporary Christian totalistic philosophy in the process.

He was obsessed with mankind's imminent apocalyptic end, which he saw as taking five possible courses: a) nuclear oblivion, b) alien invasion, c) viral holocaust, d) machine takeover of our minds and bodies, e) catastrophic breakdown of public morality, and e) any combination of the above. Many of the paintings are a hellish projection of the future, in other words, with the characters usually dancing a Dionysian mambo (or is it some kind of techno-disco vogueing?) down the Doom escalator.

This kind of fiddle-while-Rome-burns pose was part of the East Village program, to be sure (and Haring was heavily influenced by the dark cackle of William S. Burroughs' apocalyptic novels as well). But if Haring must be branded an `80s artist, one should note that he played to the sobering realities of the Reagan era: nuclear dread, social welfare breakdown, unprecedented public greed and immorality and the dawn of AIDS.

And for an artist working in the Postmodern era -- read, here, the end of style for style's sake -- Haring went direct with his clean lines, bare figures and an ability to summon a character in a few strokes of black paint. A work that I persist in thinking of as Pile of Crowns for Jean-Michel shows Haring paying a gentle, serious tribute to the egotism -- and talent -- of the artist he most admired. His later pieces show Haring piling hieroglyph upon hieroglyph in a form that rivals the automatic style of action painting.

Of course, to take Keith Haring "seriously" is probably the opposite of what he intended. He was a man with a ten-year plan who by most accounts saw his own fate rather clearly (he died of AIDS in 1990 at the age of 31). His goal was to open up the products of his own consciousness and to display them through the spontaneous expression of his art. This he achieved to an extent that is almost unprecedented in American arts and letters, with the notable exception of -- one hesitates to bring up his name, but it is appropriate -- Jack Kerouac.

The figures have not lost their impact, as the conservative critics like Robert Hughes and Hilton Kramer had predicted -- quite the contrary. His cartoon images have come to encapsulate the multicolored, utopian, apocalyptic frenzy of our millennial era.

Keith Haring, at the Whitney Museum, June 26-Sept. 21, 1997.

PETER VON ZIEGESAR is a writer and filmmaker who lives in New York.