The Avatar of Art

On Saturday, I had occasion to accompany my students on a tour through the Reading Public Museum. On exhibit in the lobby of the main entranceway is The Keith Haring Altarpiece in the Chapel of Saint Savior, on loan from the Cathedral Church of Saint John the Divine in New York city.I’ll have more to say about Keith when a more complete showing of his work appears at the Reading Public Museum in February. Viewing the altarpiece on Saturday jarred a recollection of a piece I wrote about him shortly after his death. It’s part of a larger work but, in my life, it has taken on a life of its own.*The Avatar of ArtHe was the Avatar of Art. He believed the hieroglyphic images he created were supernatural – encoded transmissions from conscious cosmic entities or Entity, entering him and through his work the mind of man is refashioned. He was a religious fanatic, describing himself in an earlier time as a “Jesus freak”. Feeling he was born too late to be a hippie, his admiration for the psychedelic edge of Pop culture impelled him to recreate it. At 21, he declared his hero-worship of John Lennon. He considered the moment of Lennon’s death as the most significant in his life.The evolution of his personal philosophy began in the late 1970s, through the turn of the next decade when he drifted away from the world of professional art and hit the street with the young graffiti artists, or “tag writers,” whose work and world he unabashedly romanticized and adored.The erotic magnetism of these Black, Hispanic, Oriental young men made him risk his life in obvious, subtle, invisible ways – avoiding barbed fences, guard dogs, and the electric third rail to tag subway cars in a street-as-studio world of spray-cans, chalk, and marker art, going everywhere mindless of a hint of the fear that a skinny white kid would doubtless experience in the dangerous city, sharing sex and drugs with the fallen angels who would die so young from overdose and AIDS.He loved their courage. He saw their youth, ethnicity, raw nerve, wild intellect, and sheer talent creating a coursing network of vast and beautiful public painting – the city infused with brilliance, intelligence, even magical incantation. His favorite, “SAMO”, tagged his messages citywide. Keith’s exegesis of “SAMO” was a complex cosmological interpretation of the precise locations and exact encryptions of the messages, and their place in cosmology. Keith imagined him as a god.Keith chalked his first image on a subway wall and knew his life would undergo rapid, self-directed, sub- or super-consciously willed change – and that this change would be in history, as history, as he was in this moment — innocent and perfect.He did not claim to know the source of the pyramidal, saucer-shaped and humanoid pictographs he was compelled to compose but he sensed from the start their metaphysical significance.He was a singular genius, uncanny not simply in his execution, but in his grasp and visual elucidation of complex, completely contemporary ideas, philosophies, world-views, and in his assimilation of them into his personal creative vision. Increasingly, he believed he drew perfect supernatural truth.He had to work hard though, putting it into words. He was confounded often by the meaning of his evolving imagery. He needed dialog with others in order to comprehend his own messages. He cultivated global multi-media relationships with writers, artists, thinkers. He was, as well, a collaborative presence in the work of his friends. Consciousness and creativity were, to him, connective, communicative, manifold, and paradoxically both isolate and relational.He was never still and his beliefs were not static. He lived the truth. He died knowing the secret of life. He knew life is short, nothing is real, existence is a dream, living is dying, desire is suffering, fame and fortune are meaningless, religion, politics, and economics are mind-control, conventional thought is mental slavery, and the so-called “real world” is an illusion. He knew in the end nothing matters, yet he knew also love, peace, freedom, the human heart, the mind of the child, and the evolution of consciousness toward conscience matter more than the history of art.I know these things and I knew him. In the days before his last day, we renewed our pledge to carry on our collaboration. I gave him my copy of The Tibetan Book of the Dead. And then he died.*Image: Keith Haring, The Keith Haring Altarpiece in the Chapel of Saint Savior, 1990, on loan to the Reading Public Museum from the Cathedral Church of Saint John the Divine, New York, NY.

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