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Keith Haring Journals.

Of all the American artists who rose to prominence in the '80s, Keith Haring was arguably the one to achieve the broadest international appeal. In a decade when artists came close to rivaling pop stars, Haring's egalitarian aesthetic and fuzzy, family-of-man politics caught and, for longer than most, held the attention of an enormous audience. He was the public artist of the decade and his legacy is still very much in evidence as murals on the sides of buildings or on T-shirts or in promotional advertising. His simple, curvilinear drawings with their sound-bite narratives were meant simultaneously to entertain and edify and instruct. There was no mystery (nothing remotely hieratic) in the work and its sweet intentionality (even when driven by anger or despair) was democratic in its intelligibility.

Haring died of AIDS in 1990. He was thirty-one. His journals, which begin in 1977, make very clear just how young thirty-one is. They also make clear that Haring was a nice kid who somehow managed to remain a nice kid right up to the end. We meet him first at age eighteen hitchhiking west. "Today we got to Interstate park and camped and met people and sold T-shirts. Tripped. Met people going to see the Grateful Dead in Minnesota. The Grateful Dead in Minnesota! We're going to see the Grateful Dead!" There is an ingenuousness in the early entries that never really goes away as the years fly by. "I found a tree in this park that I'm gonna come back to, someday." So he writes in '77. In '89 (the last year in which he kept a journal), the voice is essentially the same. "I think riding on the front of this boat (lying down with Nina's [Nina Clemente's] head on my arm), with warm water splashing my hand, the cool ocean breeze and the landscape of the cliffs of Amalfi lit up like an opera set, was one of the most incredible moments of my life. This is why I want to be alive, for the moments like this." It's the same boy as the one balancing over the St. Croix River, only, in '89, the boy is dying and knows it.

Haring was also aware of how the remarkable trajectory of his career had affected him, for better and for worse. Like Rodney Dangerfield, what Haring wanted most was respect and, in ways that mattered to him crucially, he never got it. The book is crammed with his meditations on the art of others - Pierre Alechinsky, Matisse, Picasso, Rothko - and aspirations to be counted among them. The musings are very dormitory-at-midnight: earnest, rambling, and naive. The artists he gets close to in life (George Condo, Jean Tinguely, Andy Warhol) are essentially pleasure givers and, like Haring himself, instinctive rather than intellectual. He sees these artists, however, accrue the kind of critical and institutional credibility that he's denied. It's a bone of contention on which he chomps everywhere. "Some girl brought a poster for me to sign which she said she got at the Tate in London. It's really funny to me how all these museums sell posters and postcard reproductions of my art, but refuse to . . . acknowledge it within the museum. I bet they didn't sell Peter Max in art museum bookshops ever. They want to play with me, but they don't have the balls to stand up and support me now." The Peter Max reference is key to Haring's problem about placement. He wasn't cast into the Parallel Art World inhabited by the likes of Peter Max or Mark Kostabi (one of the few people, along with Julian Schnabel, Haring has an unkind word for), but neither was he ever thought worthy of comparison to any of the artists he adored. He was just Keith - a pleasant, productive, lucrative bantamweight.

While Haring was everywhere at once during a combustively transitional period in contemporary art, his career essentially happens around the margins. By 1984, when he is at the peak of his commercial success, you can almost feel the dry rot setting in as he spins from one ill-advised expenditure of talent to the next, never really stopping to measure the gain or the loss. He was quickly becoming a Global-trash court painter tossing off mural after mural while press-agented cameras clicked and tourists gawked. Increasingly, entries read: "Taxi to airport. Concorde to New York." Or Tokyo, or wherever there was a Pop Shop franchise to inaugurate or a blank wall to paint or an exhibition to open. Occasionally, he looks over his shoulder at someone other than Condo and gets nervous and a little grumpy: "All of the unnecessary application of wax, straw, towels, broken plates, chairs, utensils and wood constructions, which serve to 'build up, the surface, is merely an excuse for not knowing what to paint" (neatly and vaingloriously dismissing Brice Marden, Anselm Kiefer, Sigmar Polke, David Salle, and the less easily identifiable utensil and wood people). But, more often than not, he soldiers on from deadline to deadline. Entourages come and go, as do dealers and, less frequently, lovers. Cultural icons (William S. Burroughs, Brion Gysin, Timothy Leary) wander on and off the set, but they are curiously mute and one has the feeling that Haring was talking to them rather than the reverse. There are guest appearances by gilded lilies like Grace Jones (whom he clearly adores) and Gloria von Thurn und Taxis (whom he clearly loves mentioning), There are rhapsodies about other people's children and children in general and you feel the artist just wanting to curl up and have a lollipop or a nap; it never happens. Instead, it's a seeming succession of days like this one in 1989: "See exhibition of Max Ernst collages w/man who curated it./To factory to see new sculpture./To paint factory to see progress. . . . /To dinner w/collectors and Hans./To Hans's gallery to do interview w/Gabriel Henkel./To hotel-to gay bookstore-to hotel." You almost want it to stop for him, but it doesn't.

The ambiguity of Haring's dilemma is quite clear. An entry in 1987 is particularly provocative: "The length of time it takes for something to go through the process of consumption and acceptance and imitation has been getting shorter and shorter. . . . My works appeared on T-shirts and clothes in every continent of the world before I had even made one real KH T-shirt. Before I had even one museum exhibition. Before I was dead. . . . This is art of an Information Age that is moving so quickly that it may soon go beyond . . . and actually surpass itself, so that the popular culture dictates the actions of artists and makes an elitist separatist culture obsolete." He really did believe in a Pop-ulist culture but he also really wanted acceptance by an elitist culture. The problem was that the ubiquity of his images and the proliferation of his product, which satisfied the belief, frustrated the desire. What in 1980 was fresh and startling and charming had, by 1987, become formulaic and moribund. Haring's inability to discern how the daily reinforcements of his success (the swirl of movement in which he was caught, and his availability to the next project, the next deal) hindered his creative growth was his undoing. An indulgent entry from 1989 captures Haring's problem as an artist perfectly. "I feel like each thing I do has a logical conclusion and the entire process of arriving at that conclusion is the art itself. There is never a question of changing something or rearranging things. Some would say that is my biggest fault, but I think it may be my biggest asset. Most art is about striving to 'become' or 'attain.' I don't think it's about that necessarily. . . . I believe the process of 'making' is a complete thing in itself." Which neatly leaves out the process of self-reflection and elevates the act above the accomplishment of the act.

The hardest part of the book is, sadly, the most universal. It's not about art or making art; it's about being alone in a crowd and trying to stay alive. The way that Haring puzzles out the awfulness of it all is extremely tender. Here is someone who fought to stay young before he ever got a concept of what being old was, then suddenly, swiftly he's dying. An entry about a friend he has come to depend on gives some sense of the struggle of every young man or woman carrying the virus. "I have tried to accept the fact that sex of any kind is not part of this relationship. Except I've never had a relationship without sex before, and I've never loved someone so much without the reaffirmation of that love that comes from a physical relationship. I'm sure if I become an old man, I'd have to deal with the same thing, but I don't feel like an old man yet. I'm turning bald, which helps me realize I'm getting old, but inside I still feel like a kid. I don't know how to change." He was a kid and time, which is the only thing that allows for change, simply wasn't available. In the end, this savage, prolonged twilight that is the epidemic took him. And, like thousands of others before him, he left significantly more than a little behind. The journals are part of a larger legacy left by that galaxy of novas who only had the time to contribute the vigor of their intuition and not its refinement.

Richard Flood is chief curator at the Walker Art Center, Minneapolis.
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Author:Flood, Richard
Publication:Artforum International
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Nov 1, 1996
Words:1594
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