On the eve of my 32nd birthday, I’ve been thinking about Keith Haring.
He was a gay man who died of AIDS on February 16, 1990. He was 31. His work was very concentrated on bringing to life the vibrancy of the queer experience, to act out and manifest yourself in an uncompromising way. He was unsilent, he was alive. In many ways, he still is alive, his work living on museum walls and, somewhat crassly, on the breasts of shoppers. The Keith Haring of 2018 is a far cry from his former self: he’s become a product. Such is life, such is death, such is America.
He was born on May 4, 1958. He was a Taurus, his birthday six days before mine. He would have been sixty this year, an age twice that of what he lived, twice my age. How would the world have been different had we not lost him? It’s a question we’re led to wonder with the dead, with ourselves. What will happen if we’re able to stay longer? If we leave earlier? Everything changes, everything dies yet everything stays the say and everything lives. Haring is proof of this.
He had such a life. He was a Downtown New York icon, someone tapped into the Warhol Factory to quickly boom and blossom, becoming attached to everyone from Madonna to Grace Jones to Basquiat. As It’s Nice That pointed out, he did this by trying to put art at everyone’s fingertips – and used it to share a piece of his mind in order to make meaning. This easily caught the eyes of many.
In 1986, Haring opened up his Pop Shop boutique on New York’s Lafayette Street and began selling his own T-shirts, badges and all kinds of other things for everyday prices. This was what he was really about: art for all.
[Haring] invented characters that they use to take on very serious subjects, such as death and nuclear Armageddon, in a playful, flattened, comic style: in 1982, for instance, Haring designed an anti-nuclear poster, printed 20,000 copies himself and handed them out at a protest in Central Park. In the late 1980s, when he was at the height of his fame, he confronted the many homophobic and racist prejudices surrounding the AIDs crisis by painting works with slogans like “Silence = Death” and “Ignorance = Fear”. He was, undoubtedly, an inspiration for so many of today’s new wave of protest artists.
Can you imagine the foresight? Imagine being at this age and knowing that your work cannot be silent? It’s awe striking and a constant inspiration. One wonders how that would materialize now. How would it have changed?
The ever fabulous T attempted to resurrect Haring to wonder what we have missed. Written by Haring’s sister and historian Kristen Haring and artist, friend, roommate, and classmate Kenny Scharf, the reminiscing captures a momentum needlessly thwarted. A forced ending. A blunt cut.
“Over the years, I have met many people who swore they were close with him,” Haring’s sister explained in the story, conjuring his gravity. “I suspected they were exaggerating their relationship with Keith, but then I realized that even people who had very casual contact with him felt immediately connected.”
Scharf felt similarly and highlighted the Keith that we have missed out on. To be remembered so fondly, to have made such an impact. We can only dream.
He was so much fun — I think people forget that. He used to paint one stroke at a time to the rhythm of whatever he was listening to. But he also used to talk about how he knew he was going to die young. I didn’t believe this at the time, but he seemed to understand it. I’m glad Keith got to see success in his lifetime, because he did quite well while he was alive. Everyone knew his work, and they still do.
Can you believe his foresight? I, for many years, was convinced I was going to die before I was thirty. I didn’t know what that meant. Now, in many ways, life seems to be spilling out of me in the best way possible. I’m trying to capitalize on what I have, on all these many moments of love and life, of the pain and the pleasure. It all has a meaning, it all is of import.
I now know that this “die young” inclination is a fantasy, perhaps an intoxicant. I’m very lucky to have been able to look the other way. The tragedy of Haring’s being forced to look, to face fate so prematurely, will never not be devastating. Every death is devastating – but that is no reason to not keep creating, to continue to press into this world. If anything, his life and his death are lessons of that.