Keith Haring’s “Red” (detail), on view at the Gladstone Gallery through July 1.1982-1984. Gouache and ink on paper. Complete work 106 3/4 x 274 inches (271.1 x 696 cm). ©Keith Haring Foundation. Courtesy Gladstone Gallery, New York.
By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2011, 2018 Paul Ben-Itzak
(First published on the DI/AV on May 9, 2011 and re-published today in memory of Randy Shilts. Keith Haring is one of the 100,000 Americans and one million people world-wide who had died from AIDS-related illnesses by the end of George H.W. Bush’s presidency, a presidency largely indifferent to their plight. Bush died on Saturday, World AIDS Day, at the age of 94. And the band played on.)
NEW YORK — “These are markers,” Bill T. Jones was telling me. We were at last Wednesday’s opening for the Gladstone Gallery’s ambitious exhibition of the three mammoth works Keith Haring painted in real-time during a series of performances by the Bill T. Jones / Arnie Zane Company in 1982, as well as two long display cases packed with drawings taken from Haring’s notebooks, including a couple of dozen sketches of penises, most poignantly several under which the artist has written, “Drawing penises in front of Tiffany’s.” Jones looked from tableau to tableau, reflected, and added: “I’m a marker.” Only Bill T. Jones can say this without seeming ostentatious or self-important. What he meant is that, like Haring and like the affliction they shared, the one ultimately succumbing and the other surviving, still here, he signified the artistically audacious and personally daring gestalt of a certain New York epoch. Where he was being unfair to himself, though, was that his tone implied the word *was*, and of the three iconic signifiers of the ’80s NY art scene I encountered last Wednesday meandering from Gladstone’s vast Chelsea gallery near the Hudson to the intimate Rattlestick Theater on Waverly Place, where Suzanne Vega was holding court as Carson McCullers, or pretending to, Jones was the only one who was of his time without being trapped in it. That said, with this courageous exhibition, Barbara Gladstone has liberated Haring from the sanitized version that has been passed down to us in the two decades since his death from AIDS-related illnesses in 1990, at the age of 31. If Jones is “Still / Here,” thanks to Gladsone, Haring is here again, in his full unadulterated glory.
It’s not that Haring’s animated tableaux don’t appeal to adults as well as children — they do. But I suspect my own fascination with them is in large part nostalgic, because they recall the at least surface innocence of that period in Greenwich Village, a sort of resurrection of the down but not out Beat spirit of New York in the ‘50s after the anarchic disarray of the ‘60s and the downer of the ‘70s, with its taint of corruption and its tint of soot. Jones danced, Haring made figures who danced — cartoons that managed to be simultaneously hip and naive, innocent rather than ironic — and Vega sang of an innocent neighbor child (his name was Luca, in case you’ve forgotten), beaten by his parents. Even the monotone vocal delivery and accompanying a-musicality of “Tom’s Diner” didn’t prevent that anecdotal anthem from being playful, a romp in an older Manhattan — the diner — seen through the eyes of a hip young singer, perhaps slightly jaded but still able to appreciate the scene she was describing. This was when irony still seemed a novelty.
But wait. Look more deeply at Haring’s murals painted for Jones’s 1982 shows and you see a serpent extending from the prolonged body of one of the dancers. Consider the dozens of drawings of penises, apparently including at least one of his own (one ageing original hipster at Wednesday’s opening, picking a penis to pose by so his friend could take a photo, passed on one which Haring noted was a a true depiction of the author’s, erect, saying, “Not accurate.”), and, being told earlier in the day by another survivor about what John Giorno wrote about having anonymous sex with Haring in the subway bathrooms of New York while others watched, one also has to recall the moment it all came crashing down in a shower of T-cells, and Haring’s death at 31 of AIDS.
When I told my AIDS survivor friend that I was considering publishing Haring’s sketches under which he has written “Drawing penises in front of Tiffany’s,” (part of his 1978 series, “Manhattan Penis Drawings for Ken Hicks”), juxtaposing them with the fact of his dying of what Prince called the big disease with a little name, my friend suggested I would be stigmatizing Haring, and by inference other gay men who died of AIDS. In other words, I would be saying, “This is what all their penis fancies lead to.” Perhaps, if the art in question was called, “Drawing penises in front of the subway restroom,” but what’s jarring here is the tragic transformation signified by the Tiffany’s context and framing. When Truman Capote’s Holly Golightly (Audrey Hepburn in Blake Edwards’s 1961 film) stands in front of the famous Fifth Avenue display window after a night of partying staring winsomely at diamonds while eating her croissant and coffee one early New York morning, the route that might open that window for her is sleeping with wealthy men. When Keith Haring stands in front of the same window some 20 years later, the baubles, bangles, and bright shiny beads he’s dreaming of will (probably; the exact reason he contracted AIDS was not divulged) ultimately serve as the instrument of his death. Both Holly and Haring arrived from small towns with Big Apple dreams, but oh how the booty of those dreams — of the free lifestyle celebrated by Golightly and pursued by thousands of Hollys and Harings afterwards, perhaps inspired by her story — had changed! And as far as stigmatization goes, well, look at the way society treated each: Holly was lionized — never mind that her means were greased by a lighter form of selling herself; and Keith, or at least the larger social strata which encadred him, gay men, was stigmatized — never mind that unlike Holly he wasn’t using others to get rich, he was just a guy who wanted to have fun.
Keith Haring, “Manhattan Penis Drawings for Ken Hicks,” 1978. Graphite on paper. 8 1/2 x 5 1/2 inches (21.6 x 14 cm). ©Keith Haring Foundation. Courtesy Gladstone Gallery, New York.
Are Haring’s drawings of penises in front of Tiffany’s great art? In my view, no. (But, as a colleague here at the DI pointed out to me, who am I to judge?) Viewed with the awareness that he would die of AIDs a decade later, do they make a powerful statement about a prodigious artist, and about how the consequences for innocents who arrived in New York with the dream of living an artful life changed so direly over the span of just two decades, and about the death of innocence? Absolutely. (And even without this social context, when juxtaposed with Haring’s later, technically more sophisticated and graphically more involved and intricate work — as we’ve done on this page — they do in fact help complete the portrait of the artist.)
Contrast this tribute with Suzanne Vega’s “Carson McCullers Talks about Love,” a shallow homage to a complicated artist which takes absolutely no risks in what was billed as an effort to understand the author of “The Heart is a Lonely Hunter,” “The Member of the Wedding,” and other work that played its own part in signifying an earlier era. McCullers championed misfits, and in probing her story, one would have hoped that Vega would have taken a deeper look at the personal idiosyncracies that informed her oeuvre, particularly ‘Heart,’ and made it ring so true. Vega not only avoids exploring these facets — including McCullers’s sexual ambidextrousness – but after making the decision to go with a generic southern accent, she can’t even bother to develop its nuances. Every line has the same cadence, except when she flubs one, which is frequently. The lyrics of the dozen or so songs are trite, which almost has the effect of trivializing their subject; how can one treat a personality whose chief talent was verbal lyricism with such one-dimensional language? The evening appears to have had a director, Kay Matschullat, but desperately needs a dramaturge. Vega’s fascination with McCullers seems to have started with seeing her photo on a book jacket — “She looked like a wise old child,” the singer recalls in a short introduction spoken as herself before dawning a wig and the unfortunate accent — but her stage portrait doesn’t really delve deeper than that one dimension. In effect, Vega has become the man standing outside the window of Tom’s Diner. She has not ventured inside the restaurant, leaving us to wonder if she really sees her subject. One gets the feeling that we’re beholding a sanitized version of an artist, McCullers, who was anything but. Consequently, she has taught us nothing new about the author; we leave the theater no more enlightened than we were coming in.
Barbara Gladstone, the owner of the Gladstone Gallery, could have gone the same route. She could have just presented the three large works on paper Haring painted during the Bill T. Jones / Arnie Zane performance, which, lustrous and enjoyable as they are, would simply have confirmed the Keith Haring we already know, the one who’s art is safe enough to put on coffee cups. But she clearly didn’t want to just profit from the artist — she wanted to serve him and enchance his reputation and the public’s appreciation of his authenticity and understanding of his art. Personally, on a visceral level, I was repulsed by the penis images. But as an art maven recently returned from France, where the performing arts at least still have some intellectual heft and pose difficult questions, to a New York — New York City, skyscrapers and everythang! — where the lively arts (at least as manifest in what I’ve seen) rarely seem to go beyond the surface any more, where the former town crier the Village Voice is a shadow of its former self, where the spectators don’t seem to know the difference, and where the majority of the artists who populate the Chelsea galleries seem to be so lightweight, and most of the curators not to know the difference, I celebrate the opportunity to get to know an artist I thought I already knew even better, and I applaud a gallery owner’s caring enough to provide the opportunity