Transcending the Trends of a Fickle Art World
April 26, 2000
Keith Haring Journals by Keith Haring. Viking. 303 pages; illustrated. $27.50.About a decade ago, there was one of those big, splashy cover stories in The New York Times Sunday Magazine about what was happening in the art world. It concluded that people were paying more money for trendier works and that, as a result, art had become as much about money as it was about, well, art.The hottest names were Julian Schnabel and Jean-Michel Basquiat, whose art sold for huge sums. They and their work were obligingly cooed over by those venal, shallow New York arrivistes who flitter from one thing to the next, thinking they're social butterflies when they're in fact just a bunch of spastic gnats.At about that same time, Keith Haring was working, writing and staying very excited about his vocation. He was also wary of art that spilled over into fashion, even as his deceptively primitive style lent itself brilliantly to prints, posters, t-shirts, buttons and even inflatable sculptures. He saw art as something that required a certain accessibility if it was to remain honest.Think of Haring as Andy Warhol's principled kid brother, more interested in genuine communication than in phony ennui.All of those qualities and more are revealed in Keith Haring Journals, which arrived in bookstores merely a month ago. Holding the book in your hands, you wonder why a major house like Viking saw fit to publish the observations of an artist who died half a dozen years ago (another brilliant casualty, dammit, of AIDS). When you open it up, you know right away.Haring was everything popular artists aren't supposed to be. He wasn't jaded and he never lost his sense of wonder. In fact, it seemed to grow as he did. "Life and death are inevitable," he wrote in May of 1987 (ironically only a year before he was diagnosed with AIDS himself), perplexed that many of his friends were becoming obsessed with whom among them would next get sick and die. "I think I've had a great life and every day is a surprise. I'm happy to be alive today."Haring knew he wanted to be an artist from a very young age. The earliest entry in his journal is from 1977, when he was 18 and headed from Pittsburgh to the School of Visual Arts in New York. "If I always seek to pattern my life after another," he writes, "mine is being wasted re-doing things for my own empty acceptance. But, if I live my life my way and only let the other [artists] influence me as a reference, a starting point, I can build an even higher awareness instead of staying dormant."And that's exactly what Haring did with his bold designs. He didn't see any reason why art had to be tied to either commerce or the whim of fashion. And his disdain for wasted or misused space helped make him famous. He first attracted widespread attention for using blank, black rectangles designed for advertising posters in New York City subway stations as canvases in the summer of 1980."A whole vocabulary of forms streamed from his hand, hieroglyph after hieroglyph, all freshly minted, curing, with meaning, an age that dared to call itself post- modern, as if the apocalypse were a matter of style," writes Robert Farris Thompson in an introduction that is refreshingly unpretentious, (unlike David Hockney's preface). "When the smoke cleared, Haring had invented, by means of sexual aliveness transmuted into line and gesture, a hundred interlacing bodies in a score of social situations. And also from his hand, luminous and innocent, emerged soon thereafter the 'radiant baby' and the 'family dog' crawling, barking babies took the sting out of feeling obsolete in the age of the smart machine."To be sure, there are swells of minutiae that at times recall the excruciating details that turned up in Warhol's diaries and Haring's journals probably would read better without them. At the same time, that Haring reached an impressive level of self- knowledge at a very young age makes what's happening to him compelling. "In some ways it is the situation I always wanted or always dreamed of," Haring writes of the onset of his international fame in 1982. "I'm not sure where that dream came from, but it is hard to make it go away once it has started. I think the most important thing is keeping it all in perspective. Knowing that it is up to me what happens next. (And knowing when it is out of my hands.) The one thing (and in the end it was always the only thing) that I have control of is what comes out of me and into the world."What came out was sophisticated, benevolent artwork: glowing babies, dancing creatures of indeterminate origin, humanoid figures all tangled up with each other. Haring's was the first serious art that spoke to the very young and the very old with the same eloquence. That there is still a market for Keith Haring Journals is yet another reminder of his enduring appeal.