Keith Haring’s life, and New York’s Downtown Scene, and perhaps culture as a whole changed in 1980 when Andy Warhol and the art dealer Tony Shafrazi strolled into the basement of Club 57, which neither had ever stepped foot into before, and which Haring had filled with hundreds of drawings in gold and silver magic marker. It was the night of his opening. “We were all buzzing,” recalls Kim Hastreiter, who would soon afterwards found Paper magazine, “‘UH OH,’ ‘What are THEY doing here?’ We were suspicious and in a sense excited and sad at the same time – because that night it felt like our amazing secret world Downtown was being invaded and discovered and wouldn’t be the same again.” In many ways she was right. But first of all, Haring would be catapulted into the limelight.
Warhol invited him to his Factory for lunch and they soon became good friends; Haring kept Warhol up to date with 80s youth culture, and Warhol in turn introduced him to the glittering world of celebrity and success. In 1982, Haring had his breakthrough solo show at Tony Shafrazi’s illustrious gallery on Mercer Street. The following year, he collaborated with Vivienne Westwood and Malcolm McLaren on their autumn/winter 1983 Witches collection, and Madonna wearing a leather jacket he hand-painted to perform Like a Virgin on Top of the Pops. In 1985, he drew graffiti all over Grace Jones’ naked body for her live shows at Paradise Garage. He was at the heart of both modern art and pop culture, which is exactly where he wanted to be. Had he not passed away of AIDS-related complications in 1990, aged 31, Keith Haring would be celebrating his 60th birthday today – which makes this a good moment to consider his life and his legacy.
“I arrived in New York at a time when the most beautiful paintings being shown in the city were on wheels, on trains,” he once said, remembering coming to the city in 1978, “paintings that travelled to you instead of vice versa.” But rather than copying the Wild Style graffiti artists, Haring found a different way of working underground. Noticing one day that unsold advertising spaces on the New York City subway were filled with plain black paper, he ran up the stairs to Times Square, bought some white chalk, ran back underground and began drawing in his trademark language of comic figures and squiggles. Before long, he had made thousands of drawings – up to 40 a day – as he rode the subways across the five boroughs, to and from school, work, clubs, parties and cruising spots. His works would be seen by a colossal number of people every day, and because they were so often replaced, he had to keep coming up with fresh new ideas continually.
Haring loved the subway, with all its advertising posters, painted trains and flows of people, and also loved the secret Downtown, the hidden world of metropolitan fucking and clubbing. He loved dancing the night away at now legendary dives like Club 57, Paradise Garage and the Mudd Club, or cruising public bathhouses, or the backrooms of S/M orgy clubs like the Anvil, for the kind of sex that wasn’t so readily available back home in rural Pennsylvania. “He suddenly popped out like a flower, like a seed in that cauldron of energy: New York City,” Timothy Leary once said about Haring, “and he put all his remarkable energy together – the wall, the easel, the canvas, the pigment… it’s a dance!” The city’s nightlife, with all its joie de vivre, its shuddering, intertwined bodies and explosions of colour, was where he found his inspiration but also, in those hardcore early years, before the dangers of AIDs became so well known, and before he became such a prominent advocate of safe sex, that Haring contracted the HIV that would eventually lead to his death. In a classical tragic trajectory, New York is what made Keith Haring and also what killed him, all in the space of just over a decade.
His deep love for nightclubs, and for black and Latino culture, and everything around them, was also a huge inspiration for Haring. In that sense, his legacy can be seen in the practices of younger artists like Eddie Peake: who makes bright, graffiti-inspired work, and takes much of his inspiration from gay culture, black culture, club culture and pirate radio culture, and who strips his performers naked and covers them in paint, like Haring and Grace Jones. But of course he’s just one of many artists continuing Haring’s legacy in their own way.
“When I moved to New York City at the age of 20, I started to experiment with drawing on paper that was so large that I had to stand inside the drawing,” Haring once recalled. It wasn’t long though until the whole city had become his canvas, so in a sense he would spend the rest of his life standing inside of that drawing. Though he certainly wasn’t the first graffiti artist, he does have a strong claim, alongside his friend and fellow New Yorker Jean-Michel Basquiat, for being one of the fathers of street art. Haring’s characters, his glowing family of spinning breakdancers, barking dogs, whizzing flying saucers and shaking, flopping dicks, gave birth to the sprawling cast of painted characters that now populate the walls of the world’s cities.
In 1986, Haring opened up his Pop Shop boutique on New York’s Lafayette Street and began selling his own T-shirts, badges and all kinds of other things for everyday prices. This was what he was really about: art for all. His open-minded approach has subsequently been adopted by the likes of Japanese pop artist Takashi Murakami, who sells collectable sculptures in candy boxes in Japanese konbini (convenience) stores, who designs handbags for Louis Vuitton and collaborates on videos with Kanye West, and who also isn’t interested in the boundaries between high and low art. Both Murakami and Haring have large casts of invented characters that they use to take on very serious subjects, such as death and nuclear Armageddon, in a playful, flattened, comic style: in 1982, for instance, Haring designed an anti-nuclear poster, printed 20,000 copies himself and handed them out at a protest in Central Park. In the late 1980s, when he was at the height of his fame, he confronted the many homophobic and racist prejudices surrounding the AIDs crisis by painting works with slogans like “Silence = Death” and “Ignorance = Fear”. He was, undoubtedly, an inspiration for so many of today’s new wave of protest artists.
Today, Haring’s characters are everywhere, on T-shirts and posters the whole world over, and he’d be very happy about this. More than anything he wanted to connect with as many people as possible and spread some joy. He’s gone but his legacy is greater than ever, and not just in culture but also in the fabric of our cities: in the words of his friend and sometime collaborator William S. Burroughs, “Just as no one can look at a sunflower without thinking of Van Gogh, so no one can be in the New York subway system without thinking of Keith Haring. And that’s the truth.” His art will live on forever; or, in the more ecstatic, multidimensional words of Timothy Leary, “Keith could jump into one of his wall paintings and we’d never miss him, because the spirit of the artist is just merging with the magic that’s suddenly appearing on the wall. It’s metaphysical!”