Keith Haring's diaries -- a life in art, acutely aware of personal mortality


Keith Haring was a joyfully exciting artist, though not a great one. Had he lived and kept on working at the explosive rate that he had done from almost childhood till he died at 31 of AIDS in 1990, he would have extended, developed, evolved, but I doubt he would have become a master, ever. Yet for his 10 years of blazingly productive artistry, he lives on as an important figure in international art.

Now his on-again, off-again diary - "Keith Haring Journals" (Viking. 303 pages. $27.95) - has been published. It is engaging, instructive, sometimes deliciously entertaining, sometimes deeply, touchingly sad.

He was newly out of New York's School of Visual Arts in 1981 when his chalk drawings on New York streets and subways became inescapable and charming in a faintly mysterious way. Phenomenally, within a year, his work was in Documenta 82, the most important of the big international art fairs.

How to describe Haring's work? You know its signatures: an utterly simple cleanness of line and form, all exuberantly representational and two dimensional, often suggesting Dubuffet, redolent of comic-strip usages such as motion, noise and light lines.

His declarative, emphatic cartoon-like characters and forms quickly became visual icons for tens of millions of people around the world. They leapt into a huge commercial stream ranging from record packaging to T-shirts to Lucky Strike ads. Haring did enormous amounts of commercial art, but somehow never really became a commercial artist, at least in the pejorative sense.

There are critics who see him as a fluent, clever cartoonist and little more. That overlooks the power and the capacity of revelation of the best of his work. It had immense influence on how a lot of people saw and see things - in commercial forms, sure, but also in broader ways. His work is an ineradicable part of the mainstream of American visible culture - today.

The book runs over with delightful insights into the fizz and crackle of the tribal rites and values of the trans-Atlantic glitterati as well as the frenetic homosexual world he embraced. Once Haring's work was recognized and celebrated, he became the curried and collected darling of what seems to have been every bit of Eurotrash who could afford to launch a yacht or book a palazzo - many of them spuriously titled - and masses of true-blue American art slugs as well.

An indisputably endearing, sweet-natured boy/man, Haring was lionized - and clearly loved - by lots of genuinely admiring and affectionate people. He adored children, for their energy and for the innocence that, alternately, he spontaneously shared and poignantly envied.

But for all the bubbles, the book significantly examines a life in art.

By the beginning of 1979, Haring was writing of an immensely active New York, reading enormously - William S. Burroughs, a particular hero, but also Gertrude Stein and John Cage, voraciously Vincent Van Gogh's letters, Paul Klee's diaries, works by Wassily Kandinsky, Carl Jung, Fernand Leger. John Keats from 1817 and 1818. Music, dance, poetry were also important. He was an insatiable autodidact.

The book's better passages are often acutely, sometimes naively, self-aware stuff. On March 18, 1982, a couple of months before his 24th birthday, he wrote: "I think I was born an artist. I think I have a responsibility to live up to that ... I will draw as much as I can for as many people as I can for as long as I can. Drawing is still basically the same as it has been since prehistoric times. It brings together man and the world. It lives through magic."

Lest anybody think that because of the sweet nature of his work and indeed of his personality, Haring was not an orthodox outsider, he wrote on Oct. 2, 1987:

"The art market is one of the most dangerous, parasitic, corrupt organizations in the world, next to the Roman Catholic church or the justice system in the United States. How naive of me to even think that art was an island of 'purity' in the is vast chaos of business and 'reality.' The only time it remains pure is when you are going it at a real public level without monetary compensation or when you do it totally for yourself in seclusion."

Diagnosed as HIV-positive, he was aware he did not have long to live. Except for brief bouts of terror and depression, that goaded him into greater productivity. And of that he wrote: "I'm sure that what will live on after I die is important enough to make sacrifices of my personal luxury and leisure time now. Work is all I have and art is more important than life."

On June 19, 1989, while filling a three-story-high wall of Pisa's Church of Sant'Antonio with joyful figures, eight months before he was to die, Haring wrote: "This really is an accomplishment. It will be here for a very, very long time and the city really seems to love it. I'm sitting on a balcony looking at the top of the Leaning Tower. It's really pretty beautiful here. If there is a heaven, I hope this is what it's like."

I do hope there is one, and that Keith Haring is there to make it lovelier - and a great deal more entertaining.

Pub Date: 7/28/96

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