In the summer of 1979 I interned with a poets workshop in New York City that hosted weekly open readings at the East Village’s Club 57. One of the regulars was Keith Haring, a pale, nerdy-looking art student with Elvis Costello glasses from Kutztown, Pennsylvania. Week after week, he would hop up on the makeshift stage and repeat a small number of words over and over in his gentle, deadpan voice: “baby. car. apple. dog. baby.” He wasn’t much of a poet but he was adorable.
Soon after, Haring gave up on naming objects and instead began drawing them on the walls of the city’s subway stations. He became an art world star practically overnight, and had his first one-man gallery show in 1982, at the age of 24. Within a couple years you could hardly turn around in any major city in the world without bumping into one of his iconic, cartoonish images.
What I like most about The Universe of Keith Haring, opening Friday at NWFF, is its extensive footage of the artist working, which he almost always was. Dealers told him to draw less in order to decrease supply and thus increase prices, but he couldn’t stop covering public space with his whimsical doodles. He painted murals all over the world, and opened a store in Soho called the Pop Shop which sold nothing but items bearing his images. Although I’ve always loved Haring’s work, I used to think he was either greedy or egomaniacal; after watching this documentary, though, I now think he was just compulsive, and actually very generous. He had a Really Big vision that he needed to share with everyone, which often meant giving his work away, especially to political causes. (See an example here.)
The documentary is also a nostalgic chronicle of downtown New York in the 1980s, where punk, hip hop and art school cultures came together in a legendary way. Haring painted to the music of the B-52s and the Ramones, and befriended Jean-Michel Basquiat, Madonna and Grace Jones. Through interviews with friends and family we learn that he became a dance club fixture, fell in love often, embraced AIDS activism, and claimed he didn’t feel white. In many ways, he was the ’80s. If he had lived into middle age (he would have turned 50 this year), who knows what kind of artist – or person – he might be now. Sadly, though, he died of AIDS at the age of 31.
Keith Haring Is Here!