Keith Haring: Just Say Know
What made you want to be an artist?
My father made cartoons. Since I was little, I had been doing cartoons, creating characters and stories. In my mind, though, there was a separation between cartooning and being a quote-unquote artist. When I made the decision to be an artist, I began doing these completely abstract things that were as far away from cartooning as you could go. It was around the time that I was taking hallucinogens – when I was sixteen or so. Psychedelic shapes would come like automatic writing, come out of my unconscious. The drawings were abstract, but you’d see things in them.
Were you taking drugs because it was fashionable?
Drugs were a way to rebel against what was there and at the same time to sort of not be there. And I remember that all the antidrug things on television at the time only made me want to do them more. They showed all these things to scare you: a gas burner turning into a beautiful flower. I thought, that’s great! You mean I can see like that?
Drugs showed me a whole new world. It completely changed me. I was a terror when I was a teenager, an embarrassment to the family, really a mess on drugs. I ran away. I came home stoned out of my mind on downs. I got arrested – for stuff like stealing liquor from a firehouse, on my newspaper route, no less. Me and my friends were making and selling angel dust.
If you had conformed to your parents’ expectations, what would you have been like?
We were in a little, conservative town. You grew up there, went to high school there, stayed there, married someone from there, had kids there, and your kids stayed, too. I had been a good little kid. My parents had taken us to church and things like that, but I became this little Jesus freak, and my parents were appalled. I had fallen into the movement out of a lack of any other thing to believe in and out of wanting to be part of something. Part of deciding I wanted to try drugs was realizing that it was time to start thinking for myself instead of blindly following just to be part of a group.
When did you decide to go to art school?
I’d been convinced to go by my parents and guidance counselor. They said that if I was going to seriously pursue being an artist, I should have some commercial-art background. I went to a commercial-art school, where I quickly realized that I didn’t want to be an illustrator or a graphic designer. The people I met who were doing it seemed really unhappy; they said that they were only doing it for a job while they did their own art on the side, but in reality that was never the case – their own art was lost. I quit the school. I went to a huge retrospective by Pierre Alechinsky at the Carnegie Museum of Art. It was the first time that I had seen someone who was older and established doing something that was vaguely similar to my little abstract drawings. It gave me this whole new boost of confidence. It was the time I was trying to figure out if I was an artist, why and what that meant. I was inspired by the writings of Jean Dubuffet, and I remember seeing a lecture by Christo and seeing the film on his work Running Fence.
How did these artists inspire you?
The thing I responded to most was their belief that art could reach all kinds of people, as opposed to the traditional view, which has art as this elitist thing. The fact that these influences quote-unquote happened to come along changed the whole course I was on. Then another so-called coincidence happened. I applied at a public-employment place for work and happened to get placed in a job at what’s now the Pittsburgh Center for the Arts. I was painting walls and repairing the roof and things. I started using their facilities to do bigger and bigger paintings. When someone canceled an exhibition and they had an empty space, the director offered me an exhibit in one of the galleries. For Pittsburgh, this was a big thing, especially for me, being nineteen and showing in the best place I could show in Pittsburgh besides the museum. From that time, I knew I wasn’t going to be satisfied with Pittsburgh anymore or with the life I was living there. I had started sleeping with men. I wanted to get away from the girl I was living with. She said she was pregnant. I was in the position of having to get married and be a father or making a break. One thing I knew for sure: I didn’t want to stay there and be a Pittsburgh artist and married with a family. I decided to make a major break. New York was the only place to go.
What did you do once you got there?
At first I was just working in the same style as I was at home. But then all kinds of things started to happen. Maybe the most important was that I learned about William Burroughs. I learned about him almost by accident – like almost everything else that has happened to me, sort of by accident-chance-coincidence.
Apparently, you believe in fate.
From the time that I was little, things would happen that seemed like chance, but they always meant more, so I came to believe there was no such thing as chance. If you accept that there are no coincidences, you use whatever comes along.
How did Burroughs influence you?
Burroughs’s work with Brion Gysin with the cutup method became the basis for the whole way that I approached making art then. The idea of their book, The Third Mind, is that when two separate things are cut up and fused together, completely randomly, the thing that is born of that combination is this completely separate thing, a third mind with its own life. Sometimes the result was not that interesting, but sometimes it was prophetic. The main point was that by relying on so-called chance, they would uncover the essence of things, things below the surface that were more significant than what was visible.
How did you use the concepts?
I used the idea when I cut up headlines from the New York Post and put them back together and then put them up on the streets as handbills. That’s how I started work on the street. There was a group of people using the streets for art then, like Jenny Holzer, who was putting out these handbills with things she was calling truisms, these absurd comments. I was altering advertisements and making these fake Post headlines that were completely absurd: REAGAN SLAIN BY HERO COP or POPE KILLED FOR FREED HOSTAGE. I’d post them all over the place.
With what intent?
The idea was that people would be stopped in their tracks, not knowing whether it was real or not. They’d stop because it had familiar words like Reagan or pope and it was in a familiar typeface – so they had to confront it and somehow deal with it.
What was it like living in the East Village at that time?
It was just exploding. All kinds of new things were starting. In music, it was the punk and New Wave scenes. There was a migration of artists from all over America to New York. It was completely wild. And we controlled it ourselves. There was the group of artists called COLAB – Collaborative Projects – doing exhibitions in abandoned buildings. And there was the club scene – the Mudd Club and Club 57, at St. Mark’s Place, in the basement of a Polish church, which became our hangout, a clubhouse, where we could do whatever we wanted. We started doing theme parties – beatnik parties that were satires of the Sixties and parties with porno movies and stripteases. We showed early Warhol films. And there was this art out on the streets. Before I knew who he was, I became obsessed with Jean-Michel Basquiat’s work.
Was this the period in which Basquiat was doing his early graffiti?
Yeah, but the stuff I saw on the walls was more poetry than graffiti. They were sort of philosophical poems that would use the language the way Burroughs did – in that it seemed like it could mean something other than what it was. On the surface they seemed really simple, but the minute I saw them I knew that they were more than that. From the beginning he was my favorite artist.
And how was your art developing?
I’d gone from the abstract drawings to the word pieces, but I decided that I was going to draw again. But if I was going to draw again, I couldn’t go back to the abstract drawings; it had to have some connection to the real world. I organized a show at Club 57 for Frank Holliday and me. I bought a roll of oak-tag paper and cut it up and put it all over the floor and worked on this whole group of drawings. The first few were abstracts, but then these images started coming. They were humans and animals in different combinations. Then flying saucers were zapping the humans. I remember trying to figure out where this stuff came from, but I have no idea. It just grew into this group of drawings. I was thinking about these images as symbols, as a vocabulary of things. In one a dog’s being worshiped by these people. In another one the dog is being zapped by a flying saucer. Suddenly it made sense to draw on the street, because I had something to say. I made this person crawling on all fours, which evolved into the quote-unquote baby. And there was an animal being, which now has evolved into the dog. They really were representational of human and animal. In different combinations they were about the difference between human power and the power of animal instinct. It all came back to the ideas I learned from semiotics and the stuff from Burroughs – different juxtapositions would make different meanings. I was becoming more and more involved in the underground art scene, doing graffiti, and then I would use people’s studios and do paintings. It was one of the first times graffiti was being considered art, and there were shows. In the summer of 1980, COLAB organized an exhibition of a lot of these artists in the Times Square Show. It was the first time the art world really paid attention to graffiti and to these other outsider artists. It was written about in the Village Voice and in the art magazines. Jean-Michel and I got singled out of the group then.
Ja Morant Suspension: Adam Silver Says Decision Will Come After Finals
- Post-Final Decision