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Keith Haring’s Personal Apocalypse
2 The 1980’s was a decade of excess. Art shows infused with dance clubs, street art blossomed and mass media became an essential aspect of artistry. Often thought of as a decade of excitement and growth, the New York art scene and homosexual scene ripened during that time. Despite the celebration of individuality, sickness and death had etched a permanent scar into the history of the 1980’s – everyone, it seemed, was affected by the peculiar disease that arrived in the early part of the decade. The epidemic of AIDS became rampant. It spread to men and women alike, bearing down on the homosexual population especially, plucking its victims one by one. Unfortunately, many artists on the verge of stardom became fatalities of the disease – Keith Haring was one of these people. His career was short but permanent within the art world. As the creator of a cartoonish universe using his iconographic dogs and babies, Haring was known to the general public as much as he was to art dealers.1 Often colorful, his paintings were in tune with the youth of the 80’s: the break-dancer and graffiti artist, the outcast and the flamboyant. Even though his exterior was vibrant and favored by the masses, Haring created disturbing images that dealt with his idea of the apocalypse, known as AIDS. The disease intertwined itself into Haring’s life immediately; the epidemic began devouring his friends as early as 1983 until conquering the artist himself by 1990.2 The concept
Andrew L. Yarrow, “Keith Haring, Artist, Dies at 31; Career Began in Subway Graffiti,” New York Times, February 17, 1990, 33. 2 Ibid. Haring died on February 17th, 1990. He was 31.
3 of AIDS made a prominent indention into Haring’s work from the early 80’s until the time of his death, evoking fear and the realization of mortality through his apocalyptic imagery. Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS) is the final stage of the Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV).3 HIV is a transmitted disease that is largely acquired through sexual contact or needle sharing; the body’s immune system is broken down so that common bacteria normally fought off in healthy immune systems become fatal with AIDS carriers.4 Before the onslaught of the disease, homosexuality in New York was thriving. Haring says, “And the whole gay thing was everywhere. I mean, it was almost too much. You couldn’t go to the post office without cruising or being cruised – without being totally aware of sex.”5 At the time of Haring’s transition to the city, AIDS was not widely acknowledged and sexual encounters became a nightly routine within the scene.6 In the beginning of the 80’s, Haring first learned about AIDS. “We started to hear rumors of these mysterious deaths of gay men, first in New York City and in San Francisco where there were large populations “AIDS – Symptoms, Diagnosis, Treatment of AIDS,” New York Times Health Guide, accessed March 1, 2011, http://health.nytimes.com/health/guides/disease/aids /overview.html. 4 Ibid. 5 Quote from John Gruen, Keith Haring: The Authorized Biography (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1992), 35. 6 Ibid. An in-depth survey of Haring’s life using only quotes from Haring himself and his friends can be found in John Gruen’s book Keith Haring: The Authorized Biography (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1992).
4 of gay men. At first we were just hearing rumors and then it was building up in the news, where they called this thing ‘the gay cancer’.”7 One year later, Haring experienced the first death of a friend from the disease.8 From then on, Haring says, “I checked my blood periodically – not specifically for the HIV virus, but at this point I was living as if I had the HIV virus. Even if you know that you’re HIV-positive, it’s not going to make a hell of a lot of difference – except to make you a lot more anxious and scared.”9 It seems as though Haring always knew what his fate would be even from the beginning. In 1988, when his ex-boyfriend got tuberculosis, a sickness related to AIDS, Haring knew he most likely had the disease as well.10 The doctors, in fact, confirmed that Haring was diagnosed with AIDS. “At first you’re completely wrecked. It’s like I knew it was going to happen, but somehow it doesn’t prepare you any more for that moment.”11 Two specific paintings that Haring completed, Untitled, 1981 and Untitled, 1988, both address the issue of AIDS. Similarly, they expose Haring’s fears of his impending fate but are quite different in outcome because of his perspective at the time of execution. Haring’s painting, Untitled, 1981, was completed upon the cusp of
Haring quote from Jeffrey Deitch, et al., Keith Haring (New York: Rizzoli International Publications, Inc., 2008), 346. 8 Gruen, Keith Haring: The Authorized Biography, 35. His friend was Klaus Nomi, an operatic New-Wave singer who once sang backup for David Bowie on Saturday Night Live. 9 Quote from Jeffrey Deitch, et al., Keith Haring (New York: Rizzoli International Publications, Inc., 2008), 444. 10 Ibid. 11 Haring quote from Ibid.
5 the epidemic’s outburst. At 21, Haring was still naïve to the virus and the deathly grasp AIDS would soon have on his community. But Untitled, 1981 proves that he was not unaware of something seeping through the cracks. The work, a diptych painted in acrylic and enamel on fiberboard, is drawn with intensity: the marks of the paint are choppy and staccato-like, a sense of urgency is revealed. The left panel is split into three scenes; the first frame, Don Rubell, an art collector, explains: “You have these spaceship sombreros shooting some imaginary rays down and people being shot by them. It was understood that sex was related to this.”12 Next, the brown colored figures run for their lives – some have already been trampled upon and beaten into the brown earth. At the bottom, two white figures are celebrating by hugging and dancing as three smaller figures raise their arms up to a light bulb. The two celebratory figures could be the attackers, enjoying the victory over the common man. On the right panel, the narrative is divided into four scenes. First, a white figure grasps his penis as the brown figures scramble to remove themselves from the terror of the phallus. The next two scenes depict the white figure’s penis swelling until transforms into a serpent. The painting concludes with an image of a television – on the screen is the Mera and Don Rubell are the owners of Untitled, 1981. They collected many of his post-graffiti works, which can be found in Mark Coetzee’s book, Against All Odds: Keith Haring in the Rubell Family Collection (New York: Distributed Art Publishers, Inc., 2008). Quote from Mark Coetzee, Against All Odds: Keith Haring in the Rubell Family Collection (New York: Distributed Art Publishers, Inc, 2008), 48.
6 serpent, now engulfing the white figures that created the monster. Again, a lone light bulb hangs in the sky. The violence of the work is apparent even though Haring’s iconographic stick figures are depicted.13 Within Haring’s art, the symbol of the serpent and penis seem to become equivocal to destruction and death. The penis in Untitled, 1981 bloats into a monster, mirroring horror and destruction of the brooding disease that would become so prevalent in Haring’s life. Mera Rubell states, “The light bulb reference was the first thing that jumped out at me, something I am always conscious of: the bare light bulb in [Picasso’s] Guernica. This is Keith Haring doing Guernica for me. I felt that same power.”14 Much like Picasso, Haring depicts devastation and death. Bodies are mangled and the destruction has evoked an apocalyptic-like reaction from the figures of hysteria and uncertainty. The light is a symbol for hope but both paintings leave the viewer with a sense of uncertainty: is there redemption from this hell?
Coetzee, Against All Odds, 48. Quote from Ibid.
Haring, Keith, “Untitled,” acrylic and enamel on fiberboard, 1981. In Mark Cotzee, Against All Odds: Keith Haring in the Rubell Family Collection, (New York: Distributed Art Publishers, Inc., 2008) 152-3.
Haring, Keith, “Untitled,” acrylic on canvas, 1988. In Jeffrey Deitch, et al., Keith Haring (New York: Rizzoli International Publications, Inc., 2008), 446-7.
Untitled, 1981 reveals Haring’s fear of the future and the ambiguity of the looming epidemic that had yet to reveal its nasty head. Something was happening, but no one knew quite yet what it was. During this period, many of Haring’s images narrate apocalyptic horrors, visualizing the apprehensions of many. As the decade progressed, his nightmare became his reality. The year 1988 marked the beginning of Haring’s end: he was diagnosed with AIDS. The painting, Untitled, 1988, depicts a much different outlook on the subject from Untitled, 1981. Though a similar terror is illustrated through his tribalesque stick characters, the response is more personal and mature in its finality. Untitled, 1988 is black and white without a trace of color, very unlike his famous expressive artwork that exploded with bright hues. The image is frightening: a horrifying sperm with devil horns erupts from an egg. A figure attempts to flee from the monster by exiting up a flight of stairs left of the canvas. Instead, the egg from which the sperm came is bound to the figure’s back – suggesting the egg as both an inhibitor and a burden. The sperm icons have appeared in other artworks by Haring. Natalie E. Phillips, author of “ The Radiant (Christ) Child: Keith Haring and the Jesus Movement” cited Ralph Melcher as coining them as “devil sperm.”15 Phillips says that these creatures are a representation of
Further investigation on Christian iconography in Haring’s work can be found in Ralph Melcher’s essay, “Keith Haring: Heaven and Hell.”
10 AIDS.16 The use of the “devil sperm” alludes to the “demonical embodiment of death in physical love.”17 Haring firmly believed AIDS was a government scheme against his generation, the disease was “perfectly invented.”18 In religious terms, the symbol of horns represent demonic beings; in this case, the sperm and the disease it carries both become a version of evil in itself. The sperm has bound the figure in the painting, having captured the scared soul in order to devour its victim. Yet the figure is carrying the weight of the disease – the baggage of death hoisted upon his back. Could the figure have been ascending up the stairs, heading to a light in the distance? If so, Haring has once again shown his doubt of redemption from God. Untitled, 1988, possess many similarities to Untitled, 1981 in Haring’s reaction to the virus as an indicator of the end of the world. However, his later painting seems less chaotic. In Untitled, 1981, the viewer can understand the fear of uncertainty by Haring’s quick, urgent strokes as the horror engulfs many figures. The Untitled, 1988 painting
Natalie Phillips, “The Radiant (Christ) Child: Keith Haring and the Jesus Movement” American Art 21, No 3 (Fall 2007), 71. 17 Ralph Melcher, “Keith Haring: Heaven and Hell,” in Keith Haring: Heaven and Hell, ed. Gotz Adriani (Ostfildern-Ruit, Germany: Hatje Cantz Publishers, 2001) 23. 18 Additional information about Haring and his work dealing with religion and the apocalypse can be found in Phillip’s essay. Haring is quoted within the essay saying: “We know they’re capable of making diseases. They have laboratories for germ warfare. They could have done it. The original targets were just homosexual men and IV drug users. Perfect people to wipe out.” Natalie Phillips, “The Radiant (Christ) Child,” 70.
11 is a similar structure because a figure struggles to survive the wrath of the “devil sperm”. But Untitled, 1988 evokes loneliness in the singularity of the figure – perhaps Haring understands that he will die alone, just like his friends and ex-lovers who had passed away. The work symbolizes those who were taken by the dark abyss, restrained by the grip of AIDS. Despite any attempts of escape from Haring’s figures in the paintings, the viewer knows and understands their tragic fate. Lives of many artists were affected in the 1980’s from AIDS. Though all were comparable by the connecting thread of the disease, artists dealt with the epidemic in different ways from Haring. No one interpretation of the disease existed – all varieties of artists were influenced by the pandemonium of AIDS.19 Douglas Dreishpoon wrote “Art’s Revenge in the Time of AIDS” in 1995 that overviewed the topic of AIDS as the context of work within art shows. He says, “Art about AIDS runs the gamut from an enraged and militant activism to a more meditative spiritualism.”20 His research revealed that there are two personalities of these artists: one is activist and involved; the other is internalized (similar to the disease itself) and introspective.21 However, he says both can co-exist within the artist depending on “disposition and circumstances.”22 His theory seems to be true within Haring’s artwork
Douglas Dreishpoon, “Art’s Revenge in the Time of AIDS,” Art Journal 54, No 4 (Winter 1995) 87. 20 Ibid., 88. 21 Ibid. 22 Ibid.
12 timeline. With the introduction of the disease, the artist was scared and vulnerable; his only way to deal was through activism – Haring completed “Safe Sex” posters to expose mass audiences to the harm of unprotected sex. He also joined ACT-UP, an organization that helped change the way America dealt with AIDS.23 David Wojnarowicz, an artist who also dealt with AIDS in his work, created a series of photos called the Sex Series. With his black and white collage photos in Sex Series, Wojarnowicz depicts images of “unapologetic, unbounded sexual expressions” playing off the social banishment of AIDS sufferers.24 His take on the epidemic is more from the political standpoint, and rightfully so because at the time, AIDS was not hugely understood. And though his concept aimed toward militarism, Wojarnowicz seemed to hold back his fear instead of fully embracing the fatal disease that would eventually take his life as well. Dissimilarly, a contemporary artist, Andy Fabo, recently lost his partner to AIDS and took a more internalized standpoint within his artwork. In his 2002 series, Phantom Limb, images of his deceased lover are drawn with heavy strokes until by the end of the fourth drawing, the face has begun to dissolve into the paper.25 Baird, who wrote about the series, says,
More information about Aids Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT-UP) is available online at www.actupny.com. They are still an active group whose slogan is “Silence = Death.” Phillips, “The Radiant (Christ Child),” 70. 24 Reid, Calvin, “Beyond Mourning,” Art in America 78.4 (April 1990): 53. 25 Baird, Daniel, “The Craft of the Contaminated: Andy Fabo’s Activist Elegies,” Canadian Art 23.1 (Spring 2006): 52.
13 “Eventually the drawings are smeared, erased and violently scored… they acknowledge the ambivalence and aggression that are part of the process of mourning.”26 Those left behind become victims as well, the termination of a loved one’s life is heartbreaking. Artwork created from the onslaught of AIDS is an act of survival alone. The realization of mortality is brutal – there is nothing quick about AIDS; the disease slowly digests the body until there is nothing left to consume. Haring adopted the maturity of acceptance. Though his own personal apocalypse had taken place, he found happiness amidst his sorrows. He says, “You can’t despair, because if you do, you just give up and you stop... I’ve always believed that you live life as fully and as completely as you can – and you deal with the future as it comes to you.”27 It seems fitting, in a way, that Haring’s life ended at the very beginning of the 1990’s. His artwork symbolizes the excitement and fervor of his generation but also injects the often hidden panic of AIDS and the sorrow that came along with the decade of the 80’s. Though his life ended at the early age of 31, his death did not terminate his vibrant spirit. “I’m sure when I die, I won’t really die, because I live in many people.”28
Ibid. Gruen, Keith Haring, the Authorized Biography, 187-188. 28 Quote from David Galloway, “Marriage of Heaven and Hell,” in Keith Haring: Heaven and Hell, ed. Gotz Adriani (Ostfildern-Ruit, Germany: Hatje Cantz Publishers, 2001) 56.
14 Bibliography Baird, Daniel. “The Craft of the Contaminated: Andy Fabo’s Activist Elegies.” Canadian Art 23.1 (Spring 2006): 50-54. Coetzee, Mark. Against All Odds: Keith Haring in the Rubell Family Collection. New York: Distributed Art Publishers, Inc., 2008. Deitch, Jeffrey, Suzanne Geiss and Julia Green, eds. Keith Haring. New York: Rizzoli International Publications, Inc., 2008. Dreishpoon, Douglas. “Art's Revenge in the Time of AIDS.” Art Journal 54.4 (Winter 1995): 87-91. Published by: College Art Association (JSTOR). Galloway, David. “The Marriage of Heaven and Hell.” In Keith Haring: Heaven and Hell, ed. Gotz Adriani, 48-57. Ostfildern-Ruit, Germany: Hatje Cantz Publishers, 2001. Gruen, John. Keith Haring: The Authorized Biography. New York: Simon & Schuster (1992). Hager, Steven. Art After Midnight: The East Village Scene. New York: Steve Martin’s Press (1986). Leary, Timothy. “'One Rent in the Fabric is all it Takes for Pandemonium to Sluice Through'.” In Keith Haring: Future Primeval, ed. Barry Blinderman, 10-13. Normal, Illinois: University Galleries, Illinois State University, 1990. Melcher, Ralph. “Keith Haring: Heaven and Hell.” In Keith Haring: Heaven and Hell, ed. Gotz Adriani, 10-27. Ostfildern-Ruit, Germany: Hatje Cantz Publishers, 2001. New York Times Health Guide. “AIDS – Symptoms, Diagnosis, Treatment of AIDS.” Accessed March 1, 2011. http://health.nytimes.com/health/guides/disease/aids /overview.html. Phillips, Natalie E. “The Radiant (Christ) Child: Keith Haring and the Jesus Movement.” American Art 21.3 (Fall 2007): 54-73. Published by: The University of Chicago Press on behalf of the Smithsonian American Art Museum (JSTOR). Reid, Calvin. “Beyond Mourning.” Art in America 78.4 (April 1990): 5057.
Sheff, David. “Keith Haring, An Intimate Conversation.” Rolling Stone, August 10, 1989, 58-66, 102.
Van De Guchte. “'Chance Favors the Prepared Mind': The Visual Anthropology of Keith Haring.” In Keith Haring: Future Primeval, ed. Barry Blinderman, 80-89. Normal, Illinois: University Galleries, Illinois State University, 1990. Yarrow, Andrew L. “Keith Haring, Artist, Dies at 31; Career Began in Subway Graffiti.” The New York Times, February 17, 1990, 33.
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