May 4th would've been Keith Haring's 50th birthday.
Keith Haring is my favorite artist. I arrived in NYC in 1987, a young impressionable eighteen year old, and among other lovely things there are to discover in Manhattan (pizza! unfrozen bagels! $20 rolexes!) I found art. I sighed at the Met, oohed at the Frick, pondered at the Guggenheim, scrunched at the Moma, exhaled at the Institute of Photography. And Keith Haring popped up in between, in graffiti, on billboards, his shop. I used to love going to the now-defunct PopShop and marveling at the art that eclipsed the floor, ceiling, and walls. (Interesting, during the late 80's I remember clutching my purse and then running through dark and shuttered warehouses, away from the lions, tigers, and muggers, down Lafayette en route to Little Italy. I returned in '96 and found the PopShop surrounded by galleries and outdoor cafes. Long live urban renewal.)
To put it bluntly, Haring's art made me -- dare I say it -- happy. It was bold, colorful, direct. I loved that he didn't title things, leaving the interpretation up to the viewer. I love that he had such a strong affiliation with children. He did installations at Children's Hospitals and Museums, and often ran workshops for kids. Art, for him, was all about accessibility and understanding, for children, commuters, everyone.
And then he announced he had AIDS, and watched (I wonder how) the value of his art begin to soar in front of his eyes.
Haring died February '90, during my Junior year. He was 31. His funeral was held at the cathedral across the street from campus.
The '80s were overshadowed by this new disease that seemed to strike down young men in their prime. It was unrelenting, and it was heartbreaking. I remember watching a Nightline ep on a man watching his lover die. I knew very little of gays in Arizona (although I would come to discover three of my classmates were as was my 5th grade teacher), but I really didn't need to in order to choke back tears. People's lovers were dying. People's sons were dying.
I'm incredibly impressed and grateful that medical advancements made it possible for so many to go on leading productive lives with this disease, but often wonder what our lives would be like if some of these men had lived: what would Haring be doing today? Would his art have changed at all? What political messages would he espouse? (during his brief life he took on a myriad of causes including HIV/AIDS, literacy and anti-apartheid) Would his art have been incredibly expensive, as it is today in its finite set, or would it have been completely accessible as he kept signing skateboards and freewheeling spray paint on subway walls?
I'm such a fan that I get email announcing benefit parties for Haring's 50th (not a date I had memorized). And I suppose when I saw this message arrive in my in-box, after the year I'd had, I could've reacted in one obvious way: so what. At least Haring got to express himself, got to love, got to interact with children. He left his mark, and my baby didn't even open her eyes. But you know, quite contrary to that, I was just sad. The lost potential of the famous somehow only magnified the lost potential of my own. Would she have been an artist? Someone who cared about children? How is it we can birth children and nurture and care for them only to have them struck down later in life by things we can't control?
I obviously didn't know Kieth Haring personally although we lived in the same borough, at the same time. But his work touched me deeply, and thus his death touches me too. I miss you. Happy Birthday.
I'm not a tat person. But I've often said, dating back to college in fact, that should I ever find myself in a tattoo parlor on the low end of a dare, drunk, or given the option in exchange for a million dollars, I'd get Haring's iconic "Radiating Baby" placed somewhere on my body:
I think at some point last year when Mr. ABF began discussing his memorial tat and whether I was interested in partaking of ink to skin, I mentioned this sentiment and how wholly inappropriate I felt it was now. The happy shiny baby? No thank you. But when the email arrived with the icon at the top, it somehow struck me differently: is it the radiant baby? the one that shines despite it's one-dimensionality? The imagined joy, scribbled with one deft thick black line and a few dashes around? Merely an icon, never to be realized in life? Haring never had children, so what was it about babies he was trying to say? Were they happy? Or did they represent some light? A flicker of possibility? of hope? It hit me that Maddy is this, the never-ending radiating pulsation within my mind and heart. For some reason, especially today, it still seems appropriate. Something to think about, you know, next time I'm strapped down in a tat parlor in need of inspiration.