A portrait of the artist as a young man? Let's see.
Keith Haring. Twenty-seven, quiet, intense. Probably the hottest artist in New York at the moment.
Assumed in downtown art circles to be a millionaire, though a few years back drew welfare checks. Came to prominence chalking distinctive drawings at subway stops. Now shows at top galleries as well. Also paints school buildings, Madonna's jacket, Grace Jones' body and the walls of major museums.
Chum of Brooke Shields, hangs out at the Palladium with Andy Warhol, knows princesses and rock stars and 15-year-old graffiti artists from Avenue D. Signs autographs graciously.
Plans to open a Lafayette Street boutique this spring to sell T-shirts, refrigerator magnets and radios he designed. Expects to be reviled for it. Doesn't care.
In downtown Manhattan, art, fashion, music, video, nightclubs and retailing are cooking into a kind of indistinguishable cultural soup. Phrases like "selling out" are old-fashioned, meaningless. Artists who grew up watching "Batman" and knew Warhol's work before Caravaggio's see no inconsistency in designing Swatch watches and Bowie album covers, murals, coloring books and $90,000 sculptures.
Not since pop hit the magazine covers 20 years ago has a young artist been such an enviable, indisputably hip thing to be, and it no longer requires years upon lean years to reap the rewards of being one. The process -- learning technique, developing style, finding galleries, getting reviewed and collected, breaking into museums -- has been speeded up like Keystone Kops footage so that it is possible to talk about "third generation" East Village artists when Haring and his friends of the first generation are not yet 30.
"Ten years ago, kids used to think, 'I want to grow up and be a rock 'n' roll star and make lots of money,' " says Gracie Mansion, who began hanging art exhibits in her bathroom (her landlady objected to the crowds) and now has a genuine gallery on Avenue A. "Now kids are thinking, 'I'm going to grow up to be an artist. And make a lot of money.' "
"It's 1985!" Haring insisted the other day. "An artist has to deal with its being 1985! You don't communicate the same way you did 20 years ago, or 50. You can't just stay in your studio and paint; that's not the most effective way to communicate."
The artist was, at that very moment, in a taxi headed uptown to -- where else? -- MTV to paint the studio set where two members of Duran Duran were about to be guest veejays. He considered whether this would constitute the largest audience that had ever seen his work. No, he decided. He'd done a painting at the Live Aid concert at J.F.K. Stadium in Philadelphia last summer, to be auctioned for famine relief. And he'd been on "CBS Evening News," "the one with Dan Rather."
"It's a whole different role," he acknowledged, emerging from the cab with plastic shopping bags of brushes, paint and official Keith Haring buttons and T-shirts to give away. "And I'm inventing the role as I go along."
Consider, for example, Haring's idea of a gallery opening.
This fall, he showed towering, Crayola-colored steel sculptures at the prestigious Castelli Gallery in SoHo; around the corner a raft of his new paintings was simultaneously opening at the Shafrazi Gallery.
Normally an opening entails inviting one's pals and the critics for a cocktail hour, but Haring expected five thousand guests, so the festivities began at noon and wound up in the small hours with dinner for 500 and dancing for hundreds more at -- where else? -- the Palladium. It wasn't quite as celebratory as the birthday party he throws for himself there each May ("The first time Madonna sang 'Like a Virgin' in public was at my party" two years ago), but it came close.
Haring, who's spare and diffident-looking, with quizzical eyes behind round spectacles, was accepting congratulations from a diverse crowd including uptowners in fur coats, downtowners in stirrup pants, fellow artists in paint-smeared jackets and people who happened by while walking their dogs. (The dogs came in, too.)
A venture capitalist from California was snapping photographs because he thought the pieces might work in an "urban retail center." Someone from Elle magazine said the exhibit was fabulous and wanted to use it for a fashion shoot. Haring passed out free Keith Haring coloring books to children in strollers and greeted two graffiti writers he had met in the subways. "I think it's real good work," appraised one kid who specializes in spray painting the M and RR trains. A camera crew from British independent television recorded the whole scene. "We're showing it," the director said, "as an event."
Indeed. The opening eventually turned into a kind of dance, as the crowds thickened and the taped synthesizer-rock overwhelmed conversation. There was even what gallery owner Tony Shafrazi labeled "an action street-art performance," with two young men suddenly tossing hot tar and feathers at the artist. They missed Haring, but ruined a friend's clothes and watch and littered the Shafrazi Gallery with swirling white feathers.
"There's so much hype about art and success and money, so much illusion," Haring mused later. The East Village has reacted to the artist-as-rock-star phenomenon with mixed adulation and hostility; in the course of an opening or a walk down the street, Haring and other art stars like Kenny Scharf or Jean-Michel Basquiat can encounter either response or both.
"The irony is, we came out of the East Village, we made the East Village art scene," Haring said. "And some people kept getting singled out as the most interesting. It wasn't anyone's fault, nothing you should suffer for, because people like your work. And all those other people became alienated."
But with artists so hungry for recognition that Shafrazi received 3,000 sets of slides and samples in 1981, the year he opened his gallery, success is not a matter of dumb luck. Haring likes to say it "just happened," but that's like saying a musician who played dingy bars and cut demos for 10 single-minded years has become an "overnight star."
"He's gentle in person but his character is very directed," says Henry Geldzahler, former Metropolitan Museum curator who's now curator at -- where else? -- the Palladium. "It's a double message you're getting. One is, 'Isn't he sweet? Let's have dinner.' The other is, 'I'm only alive when I'm working.' "
He works in a big studio down the street from Tower Records on lower Broadway. The anteroom, filling up with boxes of Taiwan-manufactured merchandise for the forthcoming Pop Shop, houses a secretary and an assistant and a wallful of black-and-white Haring paintings, early ones that show his cast of characters -- his "vocabulary," he calls it -- developing. They are simple, cartoonish figures he learned to execute quickly at subway stops, before a transit cop could arrest him for "criminal mischief." There's the crawling infant, a critic labeled Radiant Child, the triangular-eared Barking Dog, spaceships and TV sets and humans.
Haring's humans -- faceless outlines of people drawn as an unusually deft child might -- romp and struggle. They get fed into machines or emerge from them. They get blitzed by hovering spacecraft. They worship dogs on pedestals, or dogs jump through openings in their middles. The effect is sometimes whimsical and sometimes threatening, simple but skillful.
When thousands of drawings like these began appearing in 1980, chalked on the black paper panels that cover unused advertising space on the subway platforms, people with trained eyes knew that they weren't the work of a teen-ager with a spray can. "There was an artistic quality, a maturity there that stood out," remembers Idelle Weber, an established SoHho painter. "I said to people I knew, 'That's no graffiti. It's too good.' "
Other New York artists have adopted that take-it-to-the-streets approach that the graffiti writers pioneered and Haring validated -- someone stenciled walls downtown, someone else bolted his sculpture to lampposts (whence it was promptly stolen).
Sitting in the long loft where he paints (usually with a big radio thundering), Haring said he would be happy to talk about all this, but first -- "freaks me out" -- there was the urgent matter of P.S. 97, which had just painted over the schoolyard mural the artist had created there last summer. Claes Oldenburg loved it, Warhol came to the block party thrown at its completion, international art magazines photographed it, but P.S. 97 had just covered it with gray. Haring took to the phone to find out why.
"The whole neighborhood was so into that painting," he fumed, failing to get through. "When I did the last stroke, people applauded! . . . I did do it without permission, it's true. The police didn't stop me, because when you're doing something on that scale they think you have permission, and if they like it they don't care . . . I know thousands of people that live there" (on the lettered avenues of the Lower East Side, where Haring annually adorns a school, a candy store, a vacant wall). "They're proud of it.
"By putting yourself in public, it's the chance you take," he acknowledged. "In the subways, sometimes I do a drawing and come back on the train in the other direction two hours later and it's covered over by a new ad." He puts up new ones anyway; gallery owner Shafrazi was exasperated when he and Haring, already late for a critical meeting with the Whitney Museum staff, stopped several times. Haring had spotted empty ad spaces and insisted on leaving the train to fill them.
Why? "The same reason you show in galleries, or anywhere. The streets and subways were the fastest way to get to people. Now, because of my international stature" -- he says this matter-of-factly, because it's true -- "I can use galleries also, but when I started it was hard to get through that channel. A lot of red tape . . . It was easier to cut it out, go directly to the audience."
He was new to the city then, a refugee from Kutztown, Pa., who'd come to New York "to find my peers" after failing to find them during a brief and impoverished six months in Pittsburgh. He'd drawn all his life, taught by his father to invent "funny characters, funny stories, wild imaginings." He watched "The Jetsons" and "My Favorite Martian" ("really about fantasy and imagination"), and wanted to be either Walt Disney or Dr. Seuss when he grew up.
But serious artists, he learned as a teen-ager, worked in abstraction. When Haring enrolled in Manhattan's School of Visual Arts, he was "just painting all the time, pseudo Abstract Expressionist things."
He fell in with a crowd of young East Villagers, made videotapes with Kenny Scharf, studied semiotics, the science of signs and symbols. "I wanted to do something that had a real relationship to the world, that people had to confront and deal with," he said. Abstraction seemed "less and less relevant." He was noticing -- everyone was -- the graffiti transforming the subways. "The trains were incredible; it was inspiring. The best art in the city was on the trains."
He began drawing again, "these images, which little by little turned into an entire vocabulary. Humans, flying saucers, energy from mythical sources, power conflicts between people, glowing rods which are like any kind of weapon, like Darth Vader . . . Reducing expression to simple images that could be read by anybody."
Soon "Keith Haring, graffiti artist" began showing his work in hangouts like the Mudd Club and Club 57. But Haring's recounting of his artistic progression was interrupted before he could talk about the Whitney Biennial; the museum shows in Lucerne, Switzerland; Sa o Paulo, Brazil; and Bologna, Italy; the theater curtains he painted in Marseilles; and the dance-floor backdrop he did at -- where else? -- the Palladium.
First, secretary Julia Gruen buzzed to say that the principal of P.S. 97 had gotten complaints about the late mural. "I cannot believe it. Who in that neighborhood would complain? They loved it," Haring protested. Then, more doubtfully, "Maybe they did think it was ugly. Maybe it's true. I'll have to ask the kids." Neighborhood kids are staples at Haring events, Palladium parties as well as gallery openings.
Then word arrived that Grace Jones would like to see the photo taken after Haring decorated her body with painted squiggles and metal headdresses for a performance at the Paradise Garage.
And then, abruptly, Haring was due at MTV for his set-painting stint. "Brushes, paint, sneakers, pants," Haring muttered. He packed a videotaped animation he'd made for a Swiss department store: The sponsor had shouldered the $20,000 or so expense and now Haring could show it, minus the store plug, on MTV. He pulled on a hooded sweat shirt and leather jacket adorned with motor oil patches over a Barking Dog T-shirt (available soon at -- where else? -- the Pop Shop). He headed up Broadway in a cab.
How did he meet Simon LeBon and Nick Rhodes, the Duran Duran stars who invited him to share their guest veejay hour? Through Andy Warhol, of course. Warhol is part mentor, part role model; Haring and Warhol and Palladium coowner Steve Rubell all flew out to the coast for Madonna's wedding last summer.
"Andy, I learned so many things from him," Haring said from the back seat. "He's one of the sweetest, kindest people in the world. I was so intimidated by him for so long." One consequence of fame was getting to meet one's heroes: William Burroughs, Oldenburg, Warhol. Another was being, like them, resented for one's gifts.
"All people hear about is how much money I make," Haring said. "I hate having people hate me. It happens to everybody; I mean, Andy got shot."
Success has brought "a kind of guilt. You have to live up to it. I try to turn it around, to help people and give things." Haring, art folk say, continually spends time and money designing antinuke posters, organizing benefit art shows, visiting elementary schools and strewing buttons and T-shirts in his path. But no amount of good works can shield him against all the flak that hits an artist who's flown the garret.
He will take more, he knows, when the Pop Shop opens. He could defend the venture, he said, on the grounds that unauthorized "Keith Haring" designs are already internationally available; if someone is going to popularize his symbols, it might as well be the artist himself. Still, he was anticipating the sniping. An artist selling limited edition Swatch watches? Inflatable Radiant Child pillows?
"I could make more money if I just made paintings and not all this other stuff," Haring insisted. "I wanna be pop! It's part of the whole thing. I have strong feelings about the world, and they're becoming more evident. The things in Tony's gallery, they're really serious.
"You catch people with the bait, and they have to take the whole thing."
The producer who met Haring at MTV led him, with the deference due any star, to a set covered in white paper. Even the desk and chair were wrapped, waiting for his brush strokes. Haring, scattering buttons and T-shirts as he went, mixed a styrofoam cup of black paint in the men's room.
As usual, he would work without preliminary sketches. Leo Castelli had watched him paint a frieze of cheerful cartoons around his gallery's walls to encircle the sculpture and found his speed and assurance "quite incredible . . . It was as if he were still in the subways and had to finish before someone stopped him."
The young woman operating the camera had seen scores of celebrities parade through MTV's studios including, at that moment, LeBon (in mismatched silver earrings) and Rhodes (heavily eye-shadowed). But she edged toward Haring, seated at the fake luncheonette booth waiting to paint, and rather shyly said, "I just want to say you're one of my all-time favorite artists."
"Really? Thanks," Haring said politely. They chatted for a moment. She was apologetic: "I've never been a groupie." He offered her some buttons of Barking Dogs and Radiant Babies.
"He's very up front about it," comments Lynn Gumpert, senior curator at the New Museum of Contemporary Art. "He's attempted to make his art as widely available as possible. It's that primitive urge to make your mark."
Castelli is similarly untroubled by the prospect of an artist with a boutique. "He wants his things to get around, be seen everywhere. And why not?" Pop artists like Roy Lichtenstein designed paper plates and wallpaper, Castelli reminds, adding, "I can hardly think of anybody that doesn't like [Haring's work]."
This is overstatement; plenty of people dislike Haring's art and the boundary-blurring it represents, and not just outraged youths with tar and feathers.
Former curator Thomas Hoving, now editor in chief at The Connoisseur magazine, says, "If Keith Haring had been an artist at the caves of Lascaux [France], art would have stopped in its tracks." Village Voice art critic Kim Levin wounded Haring by calling him "the Peter Max of the '80s." And Ivan Karp of the O.K. Harris Gallery calls Haring's work "ripened doodles"; he likes their jazzy verve but thinks "they will not leave a resounding impact on the history of art."
Still, Haring can hardly complain about a hostile art establishment. Richard Marshall, associate curator of exhibits at the Whitney, is a fan; he found Haring's most recent paintings "more complex than the previous work, more powerful."
Haring's recent painting is different, more disturbing, less joyful. His figures are suffering, surrounded by winged skulls, instead of dancing (people think that picture is about AIDS). Another huge painting shows white hands strangling a black figure as blood pours from the globe. In another, a beast with bloodshot eyes vomits forth a green tide of dollar signs, computers, autos and telephones that engulf the people the beast is suckling. "They're angrier," noted Henry Geldzahler. "He encouraged me a lot by stretching his subject matter and the size of his elements."
Approval from the uptowners, the museum curators and critics matters to Haring. It's part of the strategy, as much as modeling menswear in Dianne Brill's fashion show was. Haring wants to be pop and "serious" because he wants big corporate commissions and his buttons in people's lapels, because he wants, well, everything.
He wants to design playgrounds; the sculptures shown at Castelli were, to his delight, dirtied by the feet of climbing kids.
He wants to follow the primitive artists who gouged their drawings into the earth and make art near airports, pictures that can only be seen from the sky.
He was delighted, when an assistant brought in a respectful article from The New York Times, to see that the art columnist had mentioned Haring's interest in working with architecture. "Maybe Philip Johnson will do a building with me now," he said.
A couple of days after the MTV taping, Haring was posing for photographs at the Castelli Gallery. He leaned against the wall frieze and climbed atop his pieces, never smiling but confronting the camera lenses with practiced ease. One photographer was from the Associated Press, one from a forthcoming magazine called Fashion Contact that, the photographer said, "tries to do the whole scene, what's in vogue, what's cool."
Almost no one was gallery-hopping on a weekday morning until, suddenly, six middle-aged women from Long Island in expensive boots and this year's earrings burst through the door with their guide and clustered beneath one of the big blue Harings. Having shepherded the women through several unorthodox SoHo exhibits, Mimi Livingston -- director of art-in-action affiliates of Scarsdale ("meet the art people where they live and work," the brochure says) -- launched into her finale.
"Is it art?" Livingston rather dramatically asked her "girls" as Haring continued to pose and the strobes flashed. "Is it hype? Is the spewing forth of these cartoon images different from the spewing forth of the computer?
"What is the art world coming to?"