'Radiant' - Brad Gooch's expansive biography of artist Keith Haring

  • by Brian Bromberger
  • Sunday March 17, 2024
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Keith Haring (photo: courtesy Keith Haring Foundation/HarperCollins)
Keith Haring (photo: courtesy Keith Haring Foundation/HarperCollins)

Like Van Gogh, it's an artistic style you recognize immediately. His images speak their own language, canvases with cartoon-inspired barking dogs, flying saucers, hearts, pyramids, ziggurat stairways, televisions, UFOs, and even erect penises, with his trademark radiant baby, a crawling infant emitting rays of life, to sign his work.

Of course, we're referring to the visionary pop artist Keith Haring (1958-1990), whose short, meteoric, glamorous life and career is the subject of a new biography, "Radiant: The Life and Line of Keith Haring," by Brad Gooch ("City Poet," "Smash Cut").

Granted access to Haring's extensive archive (he never threw away anything including utility bills) and interviewing more than 200 of Haring's friends, family, and colleagues, Gooch has produced the authoritative and likely definitive account of this emblematic, prophetic artist of the 1980s, who has now become a cultural icon, his oeuvre worn on T-shirts globally.

Biographer Brad Gooch  

Cartoon inspiration
During his lifetime, while a huge popular success, the art establishment, such as the Museum of Modern Art, shunned his work. Today, his paintings, drawings, and sculptures sell out exhibition gallery shows, and over sixty museums worldwide own his works in their permanent collections.

In San Francisco, there's Haring's outdoor sculpture, "Untitled (Three Dancing Figures)" (1989), located at Third and Howard Streets and his bronze white triptych altarpiece "The Life of Christ" (1990), completed just a few weeks before he died, is installed in the Interfaith AIDS Memorial Chapel at Grace Cathedral. Haring's life-long goal to obliterate the distinction between so-called high or museum art and low or public art, has been achieved in the decades following his death.

Born in 1958 and raised in Kutztown, Pennsylvania, he was the eldest son of working-class parents. His father, a former Marine (in the same squadron as Kennedy assassin Lee Harvey Oswald), introduced him to Dr. Seuss and Walt Disney, which along with television (especially "Batman," "The Monkees," and cartoons) would exert a huge influence in Haring's later career. Haring was a born artist practically emerging from the womb with a crayon in his hand.

He became a born-again Jesus freak at age 12 for a year and soon after he realized he was gay, but knew he couldn't discuss it with his religious parents. He studied commercial art at Pittsburgh's Ivy School of Professional Art for two years, but bored and wanting to establish himself in New York, he studied painting at the School of Visual Arts.

Keith Haring's 'Untitled, 1982' included in the book 'Radiant: The Life and Line of Keith Haring' (photo: courtesy Keith Haring Foundation/HarperCollins)  

Gay Disneyland
Inspired by other graffiti artists, in 1980 he became a performance artist with his manic energy and intense concentration, drawing guerilla white chalk sketches on blank black unused advertising boards in subways as well as on sidewalks, billboards, and producing murals on buildings (i.e. Huston Bowery Wall or a handball court in Harlem). He seemed to be everywhere, which brought him public notoriety as well as his share of arrests and minor jail sentences.

He also discovered the West Village (especially Christopher Street), which he described as "like landing in a candy store or better, a gay Disneyland." By his own admission, "I spent 90 percent of my time being totally obsessed with sex and that became the subject of my work." He had an endless appetite for drugs, with some critics claiming his drawings possessed a psychedelic vibe.

His roommate was fellow art student Kenny Scharf and they both became fixtures in the underground art and club scenes. Haring became friendly with his artistic rival Jean Michel Basquiat (who overdosed in 1988 at age 28) and Madonna (they fought over street-looking Latino boys), both up-and-comers.

He organized exhibitions at Club 57 (the basement of a church) which also featured punk bands. All his work was photographed by his close confidante Tsen Kwong Chi, especially his outdoor drawings, before they were erased or destroyed.

Haring's genius as a graphic artist was an innate gift of animated line, as well as a keen eye for design. In addition to Disney, he was also influenced by Andy Warhol, who became a friend and mentor.

Keith Haring (photo: Patrick McMullen; courtesy Keith Haring Foundation/HarperCollins)  

Pop shopping
His first official art show was at Tony Shafrazi's gallery in 1982, and such aesthetic luminaries as Roy Lichtenstein and Robert Rauschenberg attended. Haring climbed to the top of New York's art scene, with his work selling for vast sums of money during a rapidly expanding art market.

He secured lucrative commissions in Europe, even drawing on the Berlin Wall two years before it was torn down. He painted a beautiful elegiac mural nicknamed the "Guernica of Priapism," in New York's Gay and Lesbian Community Center's bathroom and covered every inch of gay modern dancer Bill T. Jones's body from head to toe to the tip of his foreskin.

Believing art could enhance the world, he used his talent as a form of political and cultural protest, whether it be anti-crack ("Crack Is Wack"), anti-racism/apartheid, anti-police brutality, anti-Reagan, and pro-safe sex. He cut up newspapers, using its lettering to create wild headlines such as "Reagan Slain by Hero Cop," then attached them to lamp-posts or spray-painted messages on the sides of buses.

In 1986, he opened an art store, selling his own designed merchandise, decorating it in floor-to-ceiling graffiti, calling it the Pop Shop. "Art for everybody," meant that while you couldn't afford to purchase an original Haring print, you could buy an engraved watch or poster.

He later opened a similar shop in Tokyo, where they treated him like a rock star. This led to accusations he was a sell-out, with a jealous Warhol, who coined the term business art, commented disparagingly, "I guess he is a little like Peter Max."

Keith Haring's 'Ignorance = Fear, 1989' included in the book 'Radiant: The Life and Line of Keith Haring'  

Fame game
Many serious critics ignored or despised him, with influential Time magazine commentator Robert Hughes calling him Keith Boring. He became an art world superstar celebrity, mingling with the likes of Brooke Shields, Yoko Ono, Grace Jones, and Dennis Hopper (who gave the eulogy at Haring's memorial service) among many others.

Haring was attracted to POC men and had two long-term Black lovers, Juan Dubose and Juan Rivera, both of which were open relationships. Rivera bitterly observed Haring's need for "boys...boys...boys to keep his creative juices flowing." Haring could be show-offy, narcisstic, prizing celebrity relationships over old friends, non-introspective, and hedonistic.

He tested positive for AIDS in 1988. He subsidized ACT UP, designing posters for them, eulogizing deceased friends and lovers, but also generating attention and awareness about the disease, that many admirers felt was his best work. Once he was diagnosed, he just ramped up everything, working tirelessly, including a European business trip, just a month before the end.

A few days before he died at age 31 (in his parents' arms, with his mother later sewing his panel for the AIDS Memorial Quilt), he received a note from Walt Disney Studios inquiring about a possible collaboration, fulfilling Haring's dream, but alas too late.

Keith Haring's 'Earth Day,' included in the book 'Radiant: The Life and Line of Keith Haring' (photo: courtesy Keith Haring Foundation/HarperCollins)  

Vibrant legacy
Gooch argues that Haring's blurring the lines between commerce and art is perhaps his greatest legacy. For Haring, the Pop Shop and Keith Haring, the artist, was the same entity. Despite his fame and wealth, Haring never wavered from his goal of making art accessible for all people.

Having lived in Haring's world, Gooch is superlative in recreating the excitement and volatility of that burgeoning East Side New York art scene, with its accompanying cultural upheaval. His prose shines, but unless you're a diehard Haring fan, the descriptions of every artistic work become tiresome, hardly a page-turner. One wishes there was a deeper examination of the meaning behind some of his best-known works.

Still, it's amazing to reflect if Haring were still alive, he would fit perfectly into today's art scene, having helped birth it. Haring is a gay superhero, whose premature loss is incalculable.

'Radiant: The Life and Line of Keith Haring' by Brad Gooch. Harper/Harper Collins, $40. www.harpercollins.com

Brad Gooch will discuss his book and sign copies at Booksmith, March 18, 7pm. 1727 Haight St. www.booksmith.com

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