“I’m working on this idea for a store. It’ll be totally filled with low-priced art.”
It is early in 1985. We are in his studio. He tells me about the Pop Shop – a way to put his tee shirts, buttons, watches, and pictures in a storefront instead of a gallery – to sell art at prices people can afford.
“Some people will say you’ve sold out, you know. How do you feel about that?”
“People say all kinds of things. They say that about Andy all the time.”
“Yeah, I know. But that’s what his stuff is about.”
“For me,” he says, “it’s just a way of reaching regular people.”
“I know what you’re saying. But at some point, it’s like the artist becomes just…another institution.”
“I’m not really worried about that,” he responds. “You just use what’s available at the time. Good or bad is in how you use it.”
“Well, if anyone can do it the right way, you can, Keith. You have handled fame a lot better than most people.”
The examination room is grey-green and dark. The yellowed walls are chipped and paint is peeling. Dampness is everywhere. I’m wearing a soiled white robe. I am incapacitated in some way. My mild-mannered companion – a male nurse – is thoroughly helpful, caring, and sensitive to my increasing distress. I tell him I have a need to relieve myself.
We move through a succession of waste-filled hallways – each one worse than the one we just left. Every restroom we encounter is putrid and filled with patients. As bad as this experience feels, my companion is somehow able to assuage my anxiety with just a smile and a few kind words. I am in a horrifying situation, yet I feel comfortable with him looking out for me.
I am walking alone through vast steel and glass airline terminals. Luggage in hand, I am traveling around the world, sending and receiving text messages on the fly. Every message I receive calms me and gives me a sense that life is good. The person I am communicating with is the hospital nurse.
Now I am back home reading e-mail responses from my gentle companion. The correspondence is simple – mundane – and yet whenever I receive a message, a rush of warmth is generated within me. I feel confident and strong.
Dawn is outside in the garden. I walk out to see her – to talk to her.
“I have been communicating with someone for the past several weeks – my nurse in the hospital. I have kept up the relationship because it has helped me feel better about things. He is a gay man. It’s not anything for you to be concerned about. But I thought I should tell you.”
Image: Keith Haring studio, with “Andy Mouse” and vases on shelf, NYC, 1986, Photo by Tullio Francesco DeSantis.