Mayor Richard M. Daley has declared it Keith Haring Week in Chicago. The artist is here to work with some 300 public-high-school kids on a mural, and Daley has issued an official proclamation with lots of official-sounding whereases. For example: “Whereas Keith Haring is internationally recognized as one of the most important artists of his generation and is acknowledged to have popularized and expanded the audience for the art forms of painting and sculpture.” Or this one, Haring’s favorite: “Whereas he is respected for committing his life and work to the democratic ideals of social justice, equality and compassion for his fellow man.”
A 520-foot ribbon of whitewashed plywood has been constructed in Grant Park across from the city’s Cultural Center. Haring and the kids will spend several days painting the wall, which will then be moved to a building construction site near downtown Chicago and eventually broken up into panels that will be placed permanently in the participating schools. Haring encourages and coaches the kids as they add to his dancing figures and abstract creatures and shapes. De la Soul plays from the boombox. One kid paints dancing fairies. Another writes, I WOULD FLY IF I HAD WINGS AND SOMEWHERE TO FLY. Others: NO SEX UNTIL MARIGE, and DON’T USE DRUGS.
One day it begins to rain, so the kids are asked to come back to paint the next day. Before they go, they swarm around the artist, asking him to draw on and sign their hats. They walk away in Keith Haring hats and T-shirts. One girl in a cluster of seniors says to him, “I really got to thank you.” Another pipes in, “Yeah, not many people pay attention to us.” The first girl says, “Most people consider us an eyesore.” A tall boy who has been silently watching adds, “Like we don’t exist.”
In Haring’s hotel room, one of the students, a seventeen-year-old junior named Joe Asencios, orders a well-done steak from room service. Haring has invited Asencios to see the Cirque du Soleil, a theatrical circus, tonight. “I haven’t ever taken art,” Asencios says. “I’ll take it next year.” This experience has transformed him. Asencios, who lives with his father, an exterminator, and hasn’t seen his mother except twice in nine years, says Haring is the nicest person he has ever met in his life.
His last day in Chicago, Haring paints two walls in Rush-Presbyterian-St. Luke’s Medical Center. The next morning he will jet off to Iowa to visit an elementary school where he painted a mural five years ago, then he will return to New York to work on a series of etchings and to paint a mural in the Lesbian and Gay Community Services Center. In June he travels to Antwerp for the opening of an exhibition of his newest paintings. After that, he’s off to Paris, where he and Soviet painter Eric Bulatov are painting huge canvases that will fly over Paris on opposite sides of a blimp. From there he travels to Pisa to paint a mural on a historic site within the walled city.
It’s an exhausting schedule, but Haring, 31, has rarely set down his paintbrush since he first gained attention in the late 1970s for his drawings in the New York City subways. With white chalk, he made simple, powerful and distinctive figures – crawling babies, dogs, flying saucers and the like – that were cartoonlike, reflecting his earliest influences, which included Walt Disney and his father, an engineer whose hobby was cartooning.
The Harings lived in Kutztown, Pennsylvania, where Keith had an unextraordinary childhood of paper routes and odd jobs. He experienced the Sixties via television; he was ten when Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr. were shot. In his early teens he was, for a time, a Jesus freak. He later became an ersatz hippie, hitchhiking across the country, selling Grateful Dead and anti-Nixon T-shirts he made and experimenting with drugs. The one constant throughout was his art. He had his first exhibition when he was only nineteen, at what is now the Pittsburgh Center for the Arts.
He arrived in New York in 1978, enrolled in the School of Visual Arts and became immersed in the art and social scene of the East Village. It was a vibrantly exciting period from which emerged such artists as Jean-Michel Basquiat, Kenny Scharf and a singer named Madonna. Four years after arriving, Haring had his first major exhibition. Andy Warhol, who became his close friend, Roy Lichtenstein, Robert Rauschenberg and Sol Le Witt attended.
His work in and out of studios became more and more well known. He made huge sculptures for playgrounds and public spaces and murals for inner-city walls, clubs and children’s wards of hospitals. Much of his art contained political messages about AIDS, crack and apartheid. He also began to work with inner-city children all over the country. For the hundredth anniversary of the Statue of Liberty, he and 1000 kids made a building-size painting. In 1986 he painted on the Berlin Wall. He had fast become one of the most popular artists in the world, although his ascent was controversial: Some viewed him as a pop, commercial media manipulator, while others took him very seriously, describing his work as an assimilation of some or all of Warhol, Lichtenstein, the minimalists, aboriginal art, American Indian art and primitivism. Prices for his paintings soared – one canvas recently sold for $100,000 – and Haring’s images became some of the most familiar of our time, partly because they were circulated on T-shirts, buttons, posters, billboards, watches, walls and even clothes, many of which are now sold at the Pop Shop, his store in New York City.
Haring is openly gay, and he has used his art to benefit gay causes. Since the AIDS epidemic began, he has been an advocate of safe sex, and the disease that has taken the lives of some of his close friends has been an inspiration in his work. Two years ago, Haring himself was tested HIV positive, and he has since developed Kaposi’s sarcoma, a form of cancer that often accompanies AIDS. While KS can be fatal, his illness hasn’t slowed Haring down at all. To the observer, the only noticeable effect is lesions, faint plum-colored splotches behind his ear and on his forehead.
A sticker on the heavy industrial door of Haring’s lower-Broadway studio reads, JUST SAY KNOW – TIM LEARY. Through the door, the studio is like the inside of a kaleidoscope. There are Warhol soup cans, Mobil flying horses, a Mona Lisa with colored nails smashed into her face, toys – a talking Pee-wee and Chairry and a Roger Rabbit Super Flexie – and stacks of art books. There are wrapped wall-size canvases, a huge hot-pink phallus, a larger-than-life black-and-white sculpture of a headless man and shelves of paints. There are photographs of Brooke Shields and Michael Jackson, a poster of Grace Jones painted like a warrior and a pair of fluorescent bikes.
Haring is wearing paint-splattered jeans, untied Nike Delta Force high tops and one of his safe sex T-shirts – two cocks jerking each other off. He is thin and pale, eyes wide behind thick-rimmed gray glasses, sort of like Sherman of Peabody and Sherman.
We begin our interview – the first of a half dozen extensive, late-night sessions in Manhattan and Chicago – while Haring paints a new series of canvases. There are several abstractions obviously influenced by his recent trip to Morocco and a two-part black-and-white series painting. The first canvas has a skeleton peeing on a small sunflower. In the second, the flower has blossomed. Keith talks like he paints. It comes out in a line, a spontaneous, smooth line.