*There is no good reason for the enmity and name-calling that has peppered the recent and current county-wide dialog engendered by the consideration and ultimate exhibition of the artwork of Reading native, Keith Haring. I have a great deal of respect for the responsible citizens with positions on both sides of the often polarized discussions that have occurred and continue to occur here. I have also called attention to the irresponsible invective hurled by extremists of both stripes upon those who disagree with their own strongly held positions.What is clear is that those with the loudest and most contrary voices on both sides have politicized and emotionally loaded the debate with their own problematic belief systems. Keith was a social activist but he was not interested in mere politics. In all the years I knew him I never heard him utter a disparaging word against even those who virulently opposed his work. Keith saw the kind of political and emotional battles conducted by people predominantly as issues of knowledge versus ignorance. He had compassion for those who generated and expressed negative emotions – even those directed at him. He expressed himself very clearly about this. Keith was a gentle person who held ill will toward no one.For these reasons it does seem to me that to conduct a dialog or debate that involves either criticizing or supporting Keith’s work with name-calling, disrespect, or undue emotionalism is actually disrespectful of the sense of decorum that Keith maintained. I recall a situation in which he was pursued by a band of East Village radicals who accused him of “selling out” when he opened his first Pop Shop. They actually threw buckets of sticky black tar and bags of feathers upon him as he ran as fast as he could to escape. Afterward Keith had no negative words to say about the gang except to say he felt sorry for them and their level of personal disturbance.During my recent interview on WEEU’s Feedback program, I made it a point to note my respect for those whose opinions about Keith’s work differ from mine. I also indicated I understand the reasons why Keith’s “City Kids” mural was not hung. Furthermore, I acknowledged that the Commissioners who were doing their elected jobs acted in good faith.There is no acceptable reason to descend into the emotional nether regions of human relations when discussing the merits or lack of same of Keith’s life and work. If you feel a need to do so, no matter what your personal belief system may dictate, it would be better for all of us if you would restrain yourself. As I see it, the most sensible citizens hold the position that this dialog is and has been a good thing for us. It is one of the reasons art has value.
Monthly Archives: February 2006
Keith Haring, Untitled (detail), 1983, vinyl paint on vinyl tarpaulin*Gazing into the splendidly intense untitled vinyl painting from 1983 in the Keith Haring exhibition at the Reading Public Museum, I am lost in a reverie of recollections unleashed perhaps by the gravity-induced drips of vinyl paint that cover its surface.I remember driving with Keith through the Lower East Side of Manhattan in 1982 – searching for a paint store that sold a certain type of vinyl paint. This was a reconnaissance trip and we picked up enough for some small pieces. He had been using vinyl as a paint and support material for some time and he changed brands and suppliers looking for the right stuff. He talked about the thin quality of the paint and that the way it dripped down the surface of the paintings added a spontaneous quality he was increasingly learning to appreciate.That memory jogs another – from 1984 – Tony Shafrazi had filled his expansive white space with huge hanging vinyl tarps that were just waiting for Keith to work on. The gallery was closed for the event. As we arrived at the gallery, I anticipated an unforgettable experience – Keith painting a roomful of giant works with no sketches, no preparation whatsoever. After some socializing, the hip-hop soundtrack was cranked up and Keith took to the ladder with paint cup and brush in hand. The paint had its own insistent consistency. The occasional drip ran from his brush when, for example, a line abruptly changed direction. For Keith, the act of drawing and the act of painting were so close they melded into a single activity. Over the years, I watched him draw and paint things from little marker drawings to huge tarps and mural-size works.The deftness, sureness, and pure skill of his draftsmanship were uncanny. Perhaps the most astounding thing about his method of working was that as he worked on the most intricate and complex designs, he would pause, look at you and talk, relate, laugh, and generally be involved with things around him. He reflected a serious laser-like focus of concentration while he was painting but he could tune in and out of it so precisely that he never missed a mark.That day he filled each tarp with complex whirling two-dimensional imagery in just a few hours. The calligraphic lines were telegraphed from his brush in rapid-fire sequence. He raced up and down the ladder like an athlete. The few of us that were present just looked at each other and shook our heads. We had never seen anything like it.Keith always followed some pattern while distributing his imagery across the surface. This allowed him to wind the spiraling forms into unendingly complex compositions. His mark-making existed as a radical two-dimensional procedure with an extreme quality of flatness. Nevertheless, it could be employed to represent the illusion of any number of multidimensional spaces.The drawings and paintings often evolved in a circular fashion, emanating from a central focal point out toward increasing complexity and resolution. Sometimes they moved in a linear fashion from left to right, emphasizing their textual aspects – ciphers of mystery and meaning. Keith’s work is a permanent record of the incredible fluidity of his execution. The pieces reveal much about the sequence of evanescent moments Haring inhabited during his remarkable lifetime. Their magnificent looping arcs embody the cyclic thought forms of some infinite ineffable organism.
*Keith HaringJourney of thge Radiant BabyReading Public MuseumInstallation view021806, TFD*Desiring an early view unencumbered by droves of visitors, I managed to arrive at the Reading Public Museum shortly after 11 a.m. on Saturday – fully six hours before the show’s official send-off opening ceremonies. It was as remarkable a sight as being alone with Keith late at Night at Tony Shafrazi’s spacious Soho gallery the day before one of his spectacular exhibits opened to the multitudes.Ron Roth, Director and CEO of the Museum, was methodically checking last-minute details. Over the years, I’ve encountered many of the individuals who were there to assist Keith with the exigencies of his astounding public career – Tony Shafrazi, Leo Castelli, even Andy Warhol. These art world movers and shakers always seemed to me to be transformed from mere mortals into angelic figures, hovering over this radiant being who was nothing if not unique, young, and somehow supremely innocent and in need of their loving care. I picked up this same sense of pure dedication from Roth during these early hours after the exhibition’s public birth. I mention all this because it reminds me of the transformative power of Keith Haring’s life and work. Being in the presence of Keith’s work changes people. When all is said and done, his work creates its own magnetic magic. You can see it in the maelstrom of figures dancing themselves into overarching multicolor form. It can be sensed in the tribal and shamanistic mysteries of Keith’s mandala-like compositions. And it is palpably alive in the pure celebratory energy of the vast works.And so, I do ultimately see how words are incapable and even unnecessary to describe the metaphysical sensation that surrounds one in the presence of Haring’s art. It is manifest – unavoidably present. Once one has experienced, in the flesh, a thorough presentation of even a portion of his work there is no convincing necessary. This stuff moves you, it just does…
I am doing some interviews on my recollection of, relationship with, and opinion of Keith Haring – the man, the artist, and the work. They are progressing well enough but I do have the sense that this is an instance of the dictum: One never quite accomplishes exactly what one sets out to do.The anticipation over the exhibition of Keith’s work at the Reading Public Museum is generating interest, curiosity and controversy in the place of his birth. That in itself tends to conflate the personal and the public aspects of his life and career. As I observe the development of all this, I am reminded of the contradictions and problematic nature of the personal and private spheres of action that we experience daily. There is something significant about it requiring pointing out and keeping in mind. I am working to emphasize this and other contradictions – the ones most difficult to ferret out and discuss – during the various interviews and writing I am doing about the events surrounding Keith’s life and work. These are the thoughts I have had since I first discussed the idea of a conceptual collaboration between Keith and me. Keith did not feel understood as a young man in his hometown and he was concerned that his work would not be understood by the generations that succeeded his own. He lived to see significant aspects of his art misinterpreted in the media and he did not appreciate it. I am reminded of a story he told me one day in his New York City studio. He spoke of a reporter whose questions had to do with how his work was influenced and inspired by the various Pennsylvania Dutch country symbols and patterns – hex signs, fraktur, and other such folk art – that he must have experienced during his childhood here.Keith said he spent the entire interview trying to convince the reporter that her ideas were irrelevant to his work and his intentions. He told her that, as he felt himself treated as a social outcast here, he consciously sought outside influences, such as television and mass media. He told her that he left here because he did not want to be here. He told her none of her notions was correct.Of course, when the reporter’s story appeared in print, she pointed out the significance of Pennsylvania German folk art – especially hex signs – in his artwork. Keith’s point was that she had the story written before she talked to him. As his work became increasingly well known, he saw that kind of thing happening more frequently.If you ask me for one way in which this area affected his later work, I would say it was affected by his desire to be understood on his own terms. In addition, I would tell you how misunderstood he felt here and why that was the case.As a result, he spent the rest of his life creating a personal language of signs and symbols and teaching that language to the world. It is a difficult, complex, and evocative language but it is not inscrutable.
Keith Haring, Times Square Spectracolor Billboard, NYC, 1982Photo by Tullio Francesco DeSantis*Continued from the previous entry.The first entry in this series can be found here.*Listening to some of the many tape-recorded conversations between us, hearing his evocative voice, the ambience of place and time, brings me back to those days – before he died, before he had any idea that he would be dead within 5 years.Since his death, I’ve reconsidered my trajectories, reoriented my priorities, and have paid attention to life in ways I previously had not. We talked often about life and death, the meaning of it all, the real reasons for making art. After his death, I would never be the same. I did not know that then. Now, I do.*TFD: But what about evil?KH: You could write a whole book just about evil.TFD: As soon as you start thinking about it all there’s a problem that comes up right away. And it’s wanting to do something about it.KH: Forever, people have been trying to figure out what good and evil were. I mean why they existed… or whether they were ideas or real things.TFD: Right. And so they dress them up as angels and devils…KH: But it’s also more… It goes beyond the mess of what they are. I mean there are real good and evil energies that make people…TFD: It’s something inside of a person. It’s inside of each person… like before, when you were talking about happiness…KH: Yeah… and well about evil though, theoretically, I mean, if you take it to a natural disaster being evil also….TFD: But then doesn’t the artist have a responsibility to somehow do a good thing? But then isn’t that politics?KH: Yes and no. Well, it becomes politics but it’s also morality.TFD: … And you can see how art is one of the major aspects of it. Somehow communicating in a way, and in an ethical way, becoming like political. And I think you can tie it in, like, real basic kinds of thinking. At least the stuff you’re sure you believe…. What god is–like, that’s up to you–what you think and how you define it, but it’s good to start there. You know what you think is real. Is it atoms or energy?KH: I’m not sure I believe anything. Everything is, like, what you think you believe.TFD: But where does it start? Like where do things come from? And also, what happens when you die? And what can we do about it, consciously? Can we do anything consciously about it? And is there anything that doesn’t die?KH: I don’t believe anything dies really. It all goes in circles.TFD: You could draw a picture of it, even for yourself. You could draw a very simple picture.KH: It might have pictures… but I don’t know if it’s necessary. It depends what kind of things come out of it.TFD: That was good. I got you to slow down.KH: I mean, my thing is that I have so many… I’m trying to do so many things at the same time….TFD: I’m concerned about how all this takes you away from yourself, man… Everybody wants your time… and wants you to do things….KH: It will all come back to me, really.TFD: I think its important to take the time to create this thing that comes more directly and to try and give it some significance in your life. To take the time to do it.KH: Right.TFD: I think we got something accomplished… I never know if I’m bugging you or not. You know because you are so busy. KH: No, that’s just the way it is. I mean, the only way it’s going to happen is if you bug me, so… I mean you should. It’s the only way I’m going to make myself do it.TFD: That’s why the feedback is good from you–for me to know that you’re interested.KH: Yeah, I want to do it. That’s right. I just have to balance my priorities. I mean this is going to be around for a long… and I’m giving it as much time as I’m giving the Playboy piece. And it shouldn’t be like that. This should be the number one priority in my life…and I’m not sure what that says, but…TFD: Yeah, try and put it in order, take first things first, and make sure that you’re doing it the way you want to do it. Everybody’s time is limited. And you never know. You want to do the best with it.KH: OK. We’ll do it.
Image: Keith Haring, Untitled, 1981Collection of Tullio Francesco DeSantis*After more than five years of personal interaction, dialog, collaborative interviews, art and writing, I suggested to Keith the idea of a comprehensive work in which our notes and conversations would be used to help him and his audience to better comprehend potential messages and meaning in his work. In the mid-’80s, I received a grant from the PA Council on the Arts to initiate the process. Keith died before we completed the project. Many of his notes were incorporated into the publication of his notebooks. “The Project” – as we referred to it – is still in process and evolving. Various versions of it have been published anonymously on the Net. It is continually recreated in ever more open-ended, process-oriented, and conceptual ways.Here is a part of a conversation we had in June of 1986 regarding the methodology and content of what we were committed to doing together. I think Keith’s exact words – unedited – provide an illuminating view of his inner self. To my mind, this was the most phenomenal aspect of the man.*KH: Well… let’s just start taking notes. I want to start taking notes. I have a rough idea in my head of what I think I want the thing to be but that’s sort of, I guess, partly determined by what I write.TFD: That’s right. That’s like the process. You know what I mean? Just thinking about it….KH: And hopefully, you will help put it together in some kind of sense….TFD: …I would rather define it in an open-ended way… I think that you can see that there’s value in a thing like that–that you invent as you go along. You don’t know exactly what it is…. Now I think we’re narrowing it down. And whatever you get on paper, whatever you put down… because all of this stuff, man…like, the interviews are good. The interviews are really good. It seems like you start to touch some place inside of yourself… but it’s really like only hinting at stuff.KH: But we’re trying to be more specific. I could be much more specific if I write it myself. I want to do it. After I write some of these things down–put all these things together and we’ll do an interview, where… I mean, in interviews usually what they write down is just pieces of the whole interview. You spend hours with someone talking…TFD: Oh, and not only that, they put it together in different….KH: They start re-arranging it.TFD: Right. So the order is one thing. Now one thing that I want you to think about is structure. Before you get an idea clearly in your mind in words, you can still have a sense of the direction that you want it to go and the structure. But then, there’s always some kind of repetitious pattern… some kind of sense that seems to be below it or beneath it… some kind of language… something trying to be said. You’ve got to take the time. KH: I’m sure I’m going to have some time. I have to have some time to do this. I’m sure.TFD: OK.KH: Actually, I used to write a lot in airports. I’ll just start carrying a notebook with me and it will just happen.TFD: There you go…KH: And I mean, it’s just a matter of forcing myself to do it, really, like anything else.TFD: Right. Exactly… not forcing it like it has to be bad. It doesn’t have to be, you know…. Alright, ah, how do you want to use me? You tell me.KH: Well, just keep pestering me, I guess… and then when we get some stuff–it will be about how we put it together. And we’ll see then… you know, how we’re going to put it together. I mean probably… it will be interesting if there’s not only these, sort of self-whatever, self-referential writings… but if there was some kind of interview, something that was more of a dialog also. So that one part of the book might be interview and one part of the book would be these writings.TFD: Right. It’s a way of reaching the truth, like Socrates. It was his way of reaching the truth–dialog. You put a dialog together. Like, Andy does that sometimes. Like he just uses the interview format–but you put it together the way you want, so that it leads to something.KH: I mean, just so we get more, yeah… I mean, I guess that would be better to do… after we have all these notes, after you’ve read the things I wrote. So then we can take these little bits and pieces and then talk about that. So, it takes it one step deeper into the whole thing… ties the whole thing together both ways, instead of just like some kind of simplistic idea.TFD: Yeah. That starts one place and goes to another place and you know where it’s going and you know finally where you want it to go… I’m putting it together in one way and you’re putting it together in another…KH: Write down your new address again. I mean, I have it written down somewhere but write it down on a separate thing and I’ll put it with my stuff that I’m taking to Europe. And I’ll have a constant reminder of what I’m doing.TFD: Right. Now I’m available. I got this place on 20th Street. If you get… any ideas that you might have, right before you have words…We’ve been thinking about this for six months, man. We ought to have something to say by now! You must know. Like, take a couple of stabs. What’s this about… like, beyond religion… other universes? Does it connect to something? Is there some sense or connection to all of this? And what’s it about?…You know, it leads to another place. Now what can you say about that? And isn’t religion, or like, philospohy a good place to start? KH: …. The thing is what all of these supposedly different religions have in common, you know. That there is some basic need for people to express or find…to express their belief in something… And in some…whether it comes out as Christianity or Voodoo or Allah or Buddah or whatever…There are a lot of common denominators between all these things that make it seem like there is some sort of–always has and all through time–like a need for people to really have something by believing in this other and bigger thing. And what that means in a more objective way, is how people really think about themselves and how people think about the world.*