Saturday, May 4, 2013

Happy Birthday Keith Haring!

by Drew Martin
Today is Keith Haring's birthday. He was born 55 years ago but died when he was 31.

Simply put, Haring was the one of the most prolific and fluid artists of all time. He could paint the side of a building in a day, and did a series of murals around the world. He even painted a blimp. Most importantly, Haring probably had the biggest heart of any artist. He loved kids and did many community-based art projects. He saw his radiant baby as the symbol of humanity, reasoning - why would we invest so much in a mouse (Mickey) when there is nothing as special as a newborn.

I finished reading his diary, Keith Haring Journals, three days ago. The first entry is April 29, 1977 in Pittsburgh. The last entry is September 22, 1989, from Italy. Haring died almost five months later, February 16, 1990, because of AIDS.

Haring's Journals never waver from his intense interest in and through knowledge of art. A continued thought is that he is happiest when he is working, not in a workaholic way, but because that is when he was most alive.

Haring was a good friend of Andy Warhol, and in his mind, he was the next step because Warhol brought pop into the artworld, while Haring brought the artworld into pop. The truth is, he was the first artist to make art a real language, comparable to hieroglyphics and pictographs. His work was informed by these visual linguistic predecessors, and was influenced by Morse code, which was a hobby of his father, along with drawing cartoons.

Unfortunately, despite all his successes in his brief lifetime, Haring was often given the cold shoulder from the art establishment and was too often glanced over and misunderstood by his immediate public audience. The end of his July 26, 1988 entry is telling:

We had a long discussion trying to figure out Japanese understanding of American culture, particularly me. Through trying to answer their questions about my situation in the past and present in Japan, I came to explain how I felt I was losing my naive confidence in the Japanese understanding of (or capacity for understanding) my work. I had always felt that the things people responded to in my work were tied to their own traditions of the "sign" and the gesture and the concept of the "spirit of the line" that is so evident in sumi painting and calligraphy. I thought people here were more receptive to my work than Westerners because they understood it and felt it more clearly and deeply. The proliferation of all the imitations has taken away some of my confidence. The things that are copied are usually redrawn and therefore the whole "power" of the line is lost. This is very distressing to me since I believe the very essence of my work rests in this concept of the "gesture" and the "spirit of the line" to express individuality. The only thing that remains is the concept or the "cuteness" and the fashionable hype. I really wanted to believe that people here loved the work for the right reasons and that they were even more in touch with it than Europeans and Americans because they "felt" it and "read" it in this way. I still believe that this is the case, but only in the minority. The majority of people only know about my work from all the things they see on clothes and in magazines. This is not a bad thing, necessarily, but it is a fact. I mean, I am a new phenomenon that is neither "good" nor "bad" or "right" or "wrong." It just is what it is. My challenge now is to deal with this situation and try to go forward by continuing to work and define my position and my art. I believe that in time all things will become clear.