It was the first meeting with my students after returning from Montreal. In September I informed them I had a trip coming up concerning an art project and classes might have to be rescheduled. My trip was delayed several times and there was some drama building before I left. Now, I was relaxed and glad to be back.
“We have a few options today,” I said. “I have a video on portrait drawing, we could take a look at your work, or I could tell you about the art project and what I was doing in Montreal.” Not surprisingly, the response from all four classes was the same: “Tell us about the project.”
“Ok, this gives me a chance to practice telling the story in a general way without giving out all the details.” I said. “It’s a story that involves the artist, Keith Haring.”
Most knew something about Keith’s work and of my relationship with him. A few came to class with the occasional Pop-Shop item, Haring tee shirt, or “radiant child” notebook sticker. Some knew he died from AIDS and had been a cultural activist for social and humanitarian causes. Others knew he was born in Reading and had grown up in Kutztown. The students from this area had an increased awareness of Haring’s life and work based on his celebrity status as a local hero.
“For me, the story starts in 1980,’ I began. “I had just returned from San Francisco, where I was working as an artist. I decided to spend the next few years working in New York City and in a few months I had rented a studio loft in Manhattan.”
I told them about my weekly commutes to Berks County where I taught college art and that I was writing on art for the New Art Examiner and the Reading Eagle Company newspapers.
“Around that time, these mysterious chalk drawings were appearing in the subways of New York.” As I spoke I showed images of Keith’s work in chronological order – starting with the subway drawings.
“I found out a young artist who had grown up in Kutztown was responsible for this anonymous artwork. I met Keith at his parents’ place. He needed a ride to New York. We went back together. We became friends. I wrote some of the early stories about him.”
I sketched a brief outline of the conceptual project Keith and I conceived in the mid-eighties and referenced some of the writing I’ve published on the subject.
As the projected images moved forward in time, I talked about the rising star of Keith’s international fame and also the downfall of so many of his generation.
“The New York art scene at that time was one of great joy and artistic achievement. It was also a scene of desperation and devastation.” I said.
“Speaking about that time in my life and of Keith’s life and death is an emotional thing. Shared emotional experience is, for me, one of the most important things about art.”
I shared some of those feelings with my students that day. I hope they hold on to them and pass them on to others.
Having set the scene, I moved the time-frame forward to six months ago and told them about my out-of-the-blue phone call from Victor Lallouz, his astonishing collection, and the ensuing events. At this point they wanted to know more about the work I had seen in Montreal and whether or not it is really Keith’s.
“I saw what I needed to see and I urged Victor to move forward as quickly as possible and seek their authentication.” I said.
A student commented that if they were authentic, it would be big news.
“Just imagine… hundreds of lost Keith Harings, never before seen in public, coming to light now – almost 20 years after his death. That would be huge!” he said.
I agreed and added, “It’s a big story either way. If the work is not authentic – because of its history – it would be a historic forgery. Millions of dollars have already passed between people who have traded parts of this collection.”
I described some of the history of the events surrounding the work, including Keith’s relationship to those involved, an international cast of art-world characters, murder and misdemeanor, loyalty and intrigue, the truth and lies of life and art.
Students lingered as each class ended. Some acknowledged they were deeply moved. Others wanted to shake hands and wish me luck in moving forward, telling the story, and continuing in the collaborative spirit spawned so many years ago. A few said they felt themselves a part of the project with their own lives and artwork.
As I shut down the projector, turned off the lights, and locked the studio, it occurred to me – the essence of Keith’s vision and my own. Filled with energy and inspiration, I walked the open hallway suffused with sensations of living and working in the world – collaboratively, with heart, mind, and spirit, moving toward some profound, ecstatic, and imminent transformation.
First image: Keith Haring, Untitled, 1981Collection of Tullio Francesco DeSantis
Second and third images from the collection of Victor and Sultana Lallouz