Monday, June 14, 2010

Keith Haring - A pop life

Keith Haring is one of my art heroes. The latest issue of Juxtapoz Magazine features legendary New York artist as its cover story - "in honor of the 20th Anniversary of Keith Haring's passing, Juxtapoz celebrates the icon's artistic career and life with an exclusive interview with Haring's first exhibiting gallerist, Tony Shafrazi."

Well worth picking up a copy. I was lucky enough to talk with Tony Shafrazi for Pavement Magazine back in 1999, to coincide with a major international retrospective of Haring's work, showing in Wellington at the time (it's only stop in Australasia). I made the trip down to Wellington to see the show - it was incredible (view the works from that show here).  Here's that interview...

Keith Haring is one of the most important artists to emerge in the last twenty years. A major retrospective of his work makes it's only Australasian stop at the City Gallery, Wellington, from 13 March through to 7 June 1999. Peter McLennan looks at Haring's life and work, and talks with Tony Shafrazi, who was Haring's art dealer, representing him from 1982 through to his untimely demise from AIDS, in 1990.

Keith Haring's vibrant, sexy, comic-like imagery is some of the most exciting work ever to hit a gallery, or a badge, or a subway wall, or a nightclub, all methods which Haring employed to get his work seen as widely as possible. His work appeared on Swatch watches and the Berlin Wall.
He worked with Grace Jones and Brooke Shields, collaborated with the likes of Andy Warhol and William Burroughs, hung out with Madonna, and opened his own shops in New York and Tokyo, called the Pop Shop. He very much wanted to make his work accessible to anyone, not just the art elite. At the time of its opening, Haring said that "the main point (of them) was that we didn't want to produce things that would cheapen the art. In other words, this was still an art statement."

The show that is coming here includes a Pop Shop booth, featuring t-shirts, caps, badges and more paraphernalia. He had no desire to end up stuck in the art ghetto, preaching to the converted. He essentially established himself as an artist without following the traditional route, of seeking the critical approval of the art world, which didn't make him very popular with them, funnily enough.

This show, curated by the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York, is the first major retrospective of Haring's work to tour prestigious international art museums, which is somewhat surprising, given his huge popularity generated by his all too brief career. Shafrazi has said that he felt the reason the art museums were so slow to pick up on Haring's work is that they resist artists who already have an audience, as they would rather help create that audience. "Any work that addresses and reflects a more populist culture will be disdained by the art establishment."

Haring's work draws on the great heaving beast that is popular culture, borrowing from sources such as comic books, Disney cartoons, and the graffiti art styles that he saw in New York. Haring also drew on hip hop culture in other ways; if you look closely at his paintings, often you will see the dancing figures are performing breakdancing moves, one of the dance styles that grew up around hip hop. He was also influenced by his study of semiotics, and the writing and cut-up techniques of William Burroughs and Brion Gysin.

Haring first rose to fame when he started drawing on empty poster spaces on subway platforms, with chalk in 1981, a practise which would later end up getting him arrested by the Police. When he became successful he was forced to give up this practise, as people used to follow him around the subway and rip down the panels, and try and sneak them past the subway guards, hidden between sheets of plywood.

His first one man show, at Shafrazi's gallery, was a huge success. "The police had to block off the street", recalls Shafrazi, on the phone from New York. "You couldn't even move in the gallery, there was three thousand people there. The art crowd was there, the graffiti crowd was there, Warhol was there, so was Roy Lichenstein, Rauschenberg, Clemente. They were all flabbergasted, by the sheer energy he had. It was like a carnival. Because, already, within a year, he'd had numerous shows left and right, and he had a following.

"His premise was the faster he moved, the more people followed him, basically. He was doing drawings all over the place, like in the subway. And we became close friends, he was like a little brother. To know him, even then, was instantly attractive, because there was this buzz about this guy. So, you were immediately fascinated by what he was up to, not that he talked too much; he was exceptionally polite, but he was always doing something.

"Most artists, most of the time they spend in a state of normal life, or reflection, or preparation, and occasionally they go and work behind closed doors. With him, he was working constantly, morning, noon and night. He'd wake up in the morning, he'd jump into his jacket and running shoes, and whatever crazy outfit that he wore, and put a couple of boxes of chalks in his pockets. I'd say 'Where are you going?' He'd say 'Come with me, if you want', and I'd accompany him to the subway, and we'd go from station to station. Instead of doing graffiti, he was using the empty ad poster spaces to draw on. I think he was surprised that no one else had done it, really. So it became a sketching ground.

"They were very clear, distinct images. It was like some Martian, out of this world language was being communicated to the city, and it was electric, and it was happening daily. It was a very simple, animated language, that appealed to the child in all of us.

"Most artists will draw in a certain way where they draw a little with pencil, then use an eraser. With Keith, you have to realise, he never used an eraser. He'd already made up his mind, the manner in which he was going to be. He used iconography; if you look at the cartoon alphabet he invented, he made them all move around.

"To do that efficiently, all he did was use a single line, like an animated, electric line. So that whenever he came to do a drawing or a painting, he knew exactly what he was doing. He would start at one end and finish at the other without making any mistakes. He was very interested in the automatic, unconscious, Zen state. If you are in that fearful state, of 'What am I going to do?', if you trust yourself, let yourself go, then you will never make a mistake. He always operated from that place."

Shafrazi first met Haring in 1979, when he was a student at the School of Visual Arts in New York. Haring started working for him at the Tony Shafrazi Gallery, as a gallery assistant.

"He was quite lanky, very tall, and he worked for me for quite a while. My first impressions of him were that he was an immaculate worker, I was very impressed with him right away, because I had been an artist for many years myself, in England. If you are a professional, if you are good at what you do, you have a certain work ethic, which is meticulous, and his was extraordinary. His versatility, his body language, his energy was like a gymnast, moving left and right constantly, without stopping. He was never one for sitting round, going 'what do I do now?'

"Most of us, especially when we are at that age, 18, 19, up until our thirties, sometimes later, go through our lives in a state of searching, fighting demons, fighting ideas, trying to find our way. With Keith, it was totally the opposite. From the word 'Go', he knew exactly what he was doing. It was very surprising in someone so young, and that was of course very attractive.

"The first thing I remember is he handed me a card, to come to his shows. And I was taken aback that he was so organised. He'd come and work at my gallery, he wouldn't say a word to me, and then hand me this invitation to come to his show. Obviously he'd seen how I was doing my opening cards, and he'd hand drawn one of his famous little figures on it. It was for a show that he put together at PS122, which was a school where they were using the rooms as studios.

"He did a couple of shows like this. When I went to the show, I saw his work, these ink on paper drawings he'd done. My first impressions of his cartoon-like drawings were that they were a little crude, a little shocking. They were all different sizes, some small some huge, and they were mounted all over the walls, from floor to ceiling. They told a very disjointed, animated story.

"There was a disrupted narrative going on. And I thought it was extraordinary. You couldn't help but do a double take, it was a little shocking, but the sheer energy of it, the animation of the figures immediately caught my attention, and I talked to him about doing something, and he was in no rush. He didn't need my help, so I had to chase him for a year or two before I got him.

"By this stage he was no longer working for me, he was doing shows all over the place, with Jean Michel Basquiat, Kenny Scharf, all those people. After the famous PS1 show, he had every gallery in the world after him. It was mainly from knowing that I was an artist, he got on very well with me, and he respected the way I handled artists, that he decided to show with us."

Shafrazi gained his own notoriety, for defacing Picasso's famous anti war painting 'Guernica' in the mid Seventies. He spray painted 'Kill all lies' on the work, an act which Haring had some difficulty in accepting. He loved Picasso, and saw it as an assault. This happened during the time of Vietnam War. Shafrazi felt the painting had lost it's original intention, of acting as a symbol for the horrors of war. Of course, his action immediately thrust the painting back into the news.

When Haring departed his hometown of Kutztown, Pennsylvania and came to New York in 1978, to attend the School of Visual Arts, he was immediately taken with hip hop culture; the music, the style, the dancing, and particularly the graffiti art. "He immediately spotted the electric element that existed in the young graffiti writers at the time", says Shafrazi.

"He started to recognise each signature, each character, and then he got to know them. He found a very interesting recognition there. After all, his boyfriend was black, he loved black culture. If anything, what he introduced was the element of the drum of black music into white culture. It was partly with his help and encouragement that Basquiat started to be recognised.

"Keith was very ethical. He was the one in New York who introduced us to the idea that street graffiti (and he wasn't really a graffiti artist) was something that was predominantly done by kids from the ages of 8, 10, all the way to 18. It was a way for them to talk together, communicate together. The very famous ones, they built their own sense of notoriety, their own sense of fame, and some of them were far better than others. And it was always a puzzlement to most of these kids how this guy came to do the things he did, the way he did. So, they started to recognise each others styles, that's why they had the graffiti wars. But Keith was the one who deciphered all of this, and he bought it into recognition.

"He hooked up with one young kid, his name was Angel Ortiz, and his tag was LA II, for Little Angel. He invited LA II to come and work with him, and Angel was only 15 years old at the time. There are a number of pieces you will see in the show where LA II's work is incorporated into Keith's work. As he started to sell pieces in the early eighties, Keith would split the money, give half of it to LA II."

The first time Keith gave Angel half the money from a sale, he took it home. Next day Angel called up Keith, asking him to come over and see his mother, to explain to her where the $700 had came from, so that she knew for certain her son hadn't got it from selling drugs and the like.

Shafrazi remembers that time, in the early Eighties as a very vibrant time.
"I went with Keith to Madonna's first performance. She was a friend of his. I first met her, hanging out at his loft. The performance was extraordinary. It was at a gay, black club called Paradise Garage, which had the best dance music in the world. Madonna came onto the stage in a bed, which was tilted slightly towards the audience, singing 'Like a Virgin'. At that time in New York, there were lots of underground clubs opening, like the Mudd Club, which Keith was very involved in. He used to curate one day exhibitions, with one hundred artists, for example."

Haring never restricted himself to the flat surface, the traditional canvas. "He used anything, whether it was a cheap vase he bought somewhere, or a subway wall. Industrial tarpaulin was his answer to canvas, which is used on the back of trucks, to tie down the goods so they don't blow away. He hunted around and found a particular paint that adhered to it very well. And it didn't matter what the surface was, or whether it was very big or very small.

"He did a backdrop for a very famous ballet company, the Roland Petit company, in Marseilles France. Roland Petit had gotten many famous artists to do his backdrops, like Picasso, Chagall, Leger, and so on. The backdrop measured something like sixty feet by thirty feet or there abouts, and he had to do it in an aircraft hanger. This was laid out on the floor, and all the stagehands, who had worked with all these famous artists, when they caught sight of this young kid in jeans, tags and emblems all over his jacket, sneakers with the laces undone - he made that famous, more than any black athlete. He used to have about forty pairs of sneakers, covered in paint. He was the hottest character Nike ever had, and then of course you have the famous basketball players, who came along in the nineties.

"Anyway, these stage hands looked at this skinny, kooky kid, and were not very impressed. They were really uptight about working with this kid. It was an insult to them, they'd worked with great artists. They didn't trust his manner, because he didn't have a sketch, he didn't ask them to blow up the sketch, project it and trace it out for him. this guy arrives with nothing, doesn't even have a drawing.

"Then he starts to draw, with ink, and he continues to work for a day and a half, without a single pencil mark. Imagine you are standing in the middle of a canvas, and it's 30 feet in front of you, and 60 feet to your left and right. It's like, if you try and draw parallel lines on a big piece of paper in front of you, it's impossible, you can't get the scale right. He did the whole drawing from that position. Occasionally he would go up on the scaffold to check it. When he finished it, the stage hands had gone off, had lunch, and come back to see the end of it, and they all stood around and they applauded, and asked him to make little drawings for them. That is how he worked."

Do you miss Keith?

"Oh yes, enormously, every day. I have been in the centre of the art scene in England since 1961, I knew all the famous artists; I've been in the centre of the art scene in America since 1965 and 68, when I first got to know Warhol, all the pop artists and all the West Coast artists; as well as having a solid knowledge of all the artists in Germany and France. I've never, ever, ever met a person so full of life as he, and so full of loving, and thoughtful and considerate, and so much cool. He was really the coolest of the cool that I've met. It's a peculiar thing to try and define what is cool, but he was that, in all ways". the official Keith Haring site. All images are copyright - Keith Haring
Originally published in Pavement Magazine, February/March1999.

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