This interview was originally published in Sky Magazine, May 1990.
In Chicago’s Grant Park, across the road from the city’s cultural centre, Keith Haring and some 300 high school kids are busy working on a 520-foot-long mural on whitewashed plywood. Haring encourages and coaches the kids as they add to his dancing figures and abstract creatures and shapes. The sound of De La Soul fills the air — one kid paints dancing fairies, others content themselves with slogans, boldly proclaiming some of Haring’s greatest concerns: NO SEX UNTIL MARIGE • DON’T USE DRUGS. Many of the kids are wearing Keith Haring hats and T-shirts; they form around him in small clusters. “I really got to thank you,” one girl says. “Not many people pay attention to us. Most people think we’re eyesores”. Haring is the nicest person many of these kids have ever met.
Keith Haring, 31 when he died, rarely set down his paintbrush after he first gained attention in the late 70s for his drawings in the New York subways. With white chalk, he made simple, powerful and distinctive figures – crawling babies, dogs, flying saucers and the like – that were cartoon-like, reflecting his earliest influences, which included Walt Disney and his father, an engineer whose hobby was drawing cartoons. He arrived in New York in 1978, enrolled in the School of Visual Arts and became immersed in the art and social scene of the East Village. It was a vibrantly exciting period from which emerged such artists as Jean-Michel Basquiat, Kenny Scharf and a singer called Madonna. Four years after arriving, Haring had his first major exhibition. Andy Warhol, who became his close friend, attended. His work in and out of studios became more and more well-known. He made huge sculptures for playgrounds and public spaces and murals for inner-city walls, clubs and children’s wards of hospitals. Much of his art contained political messages about AIDS, crack and apartheid. He also began to work with inner-city children all over the country. For the hundredth anniversary of the Statue of Liberty, he and 1,000 kids made a building-sized painting. In 1986 he painted on the Berlin Wall. He had fast become one of the most popular artists in the world, although his ascent was controversial. Some viewed him as a pop, commercial media manipulator, while others took him very seriously, describing his work as an assimilation of some or all of Warhol, Lichtenstein, the minimalists, aboriginal art, American Indian art and primitivism. Prices for his paintings soared, one canvas recently sold for $100,000 – and Haring’s images became some of the most familiar of our time, partly because they were circulated on T-shirts, badges, posters, billboards, watches, walls and even clothes, many of which are now sold at the Pop Shop, his store in New York City.
Haring was openly gay and used his art to benefit gay causes. Two years ago he was tested HIV positive and when he was interviewed here he had Kaposi’s sarcoma, a skin cancer that often accompanies AIDS. A sticker on the heavy industrial door of his lower-Broadway studio reads: JUST SAY KNOW – TIM LEARY. Through the door, the studio is like the inside of a kaleidoscope. There are Warhol soup cans, Mobil flying horses, a Mona Lisa with coloured nails smashed into her face, toys – a talking Pee-wee and a Roger Rabbit Super Flexie – and stacks of art books. There are wrapped wall-size canvases, a huge hot-pink phallus, a larger-than-life black and white sculpture of a headless man and shelves of paints. There are photographs of Brooke Shields and Michael Jackson, and a pair of fluorescent bikes. Haring is wearing paint-splattered jeans, untied Nike Delta Force high tops and one of his SAFE SEX T-shirts – two cocks jerking each other off. He is thin and pale, eyes wide behind thick-rimmed grey glasses.
What made you want to be an artist?
My father made cartoons. Since I was little, I had been doing cartoons, creating characters and stories. In my mind, though, there was a separation between cartooning and being a quote-unquote artist. When I made the decision to be an artist, I began doing these completely abstract things that were as far away from cartooning as you could go. It was around the time that I was taking hallucinogens – when I was sixteen or so. Psychedelic shapes would come like automatic writing out of my unconscious. The drawings were abstract but you’d see things in them.
Were you taking drugs because it was fashionable?
Drugs were a way to rebel against what was there and at the same time to sort of not be there. I remember that all the anti-drug things on television at the time only made me want to do them more. They showed you these things to scare you: a gas burner turning into a beautiful flower. I thought, that’s great! You mean I can see like that!
If you had conformed to your parents’ expectations, what would you have turned out like?
We were in a little conservative town. You grew up there, went to high school there, stayed there, married someone from there, had kids there and your kids stayed too. I had been a good little kid. My parents had taken us to church and things like that but I became this little Jesus freak and my parents were appalled. I had fallen into the movement out of a lack of any other thing to believe in.
I had started sleeping with men. I wanted to get away from the girl I was living with. She was pregnant. I was in the position of having to get married and be a father or making a break. One thing I knew for sure: I didn’t want to stay there and be a Pittsburgh artist and married with a family. I decided to make a major break. New York was the only place to go.
There was a group of people using the streets for art then, like Jenny Holzer, who was putting out these handbills with things she was calling truism, these absurd comments. i was altering advertisements and making these fake Post headlines that were completely absurd: REAGAN SLAIN BY HERO COP or POPE KILLED FOR FREED HOSTAGE.
The idea was that people would be stopped in their tracks not knowing whether it was real or not. They’d stop because it had familiar words like ‘Reagan’ or ‘pope’ and it was in a familiar typeface – so they had to confront it and somehow deal with it.
What was it like living in the East Village?
It was just exploding. All kinds of new things were starting. in music, it was the punk and new wave scenes. There was a migration of artists from all over America to New York. It was completely wild. And we controlled it ourselves. There was the group of artists called COLAB Collaborative Projects doing exhibitions in abandoned buildings. And there was the club scene —the Mudd Club and Club 57 at St Marks Place, in the basement of a Polish church which became our hang-out, a clubhouse where we could do whatever we wanted. We started doing theme parties— beatnik parties that were satires of the sixties and parties with porno movies and striptease. We showed early Warhol films.
How did you first start drawing in the subways?
One day, riding the subway, I saw this empty black panel where an advertisement was supposed to go. I immediately realised that this was the perfect place to draw. I went back above ground to a card shop and bought a box of white chalk, went back down and did a drawing on it. It was perfect – soft black paper; chalk drew on it really easily. I kept seeing more and more of these black spaces and I drew on them whenever I saw one. Because they were so fragile people left them alone and respected them; they didn’t rub them out or try to mess them up. It gave them this other power. it was this chalk-white fragile thing in the middle of all this power and tension and violence of the subway. People were completely enthralled.
Except the police.
Well, I was arrested, but since it was chalk and could easily be erased, it was like a borderline case. The cops never knew how to deal with it. The other part that was great about it was the whole thing was a performance. When I did it there were inevitably people watching — all kinds of people. After the first month or two I started making buttons because I was so interested in what was happening with the people I would meet. I wanted to have something to make some other bonding between them and the work. People were walking around with little badges with the crawling baby with glowing rays around it. The buttons started to become a thing now, too: people with them would talk to each other. The subway pictures became a media thing, and the images started going out into the rest of the world via magazines and television. I became associated with New York and the hip hop scene, which was all about graffiti and rap music and break dancing. It had existed for five years or more, but it hadn’t really started to cross over into the general population. It was incredibly interesting to me that it was reaching all kinds of people from different backgrounds. Then, in 1982, I had my first one-man show in New York at a big gallery.
What happened to your resolve to stay away from the traditional art scene?
As an art student and being sort of in the underground and having very precise and cynical ideas about the art world, the traditional art-dealer gallery represented a lot that I hated about the art world. But people started to see an opportunity to make a lot of money buying my work. I got disillusioned with letting dealers and collectors come to my studio. They would come in and, for prices that were nothing, a couple of hundred dollars, go through all the paintings and then not get anything or try to bargain. I didn’t want to see those people any more. I wanted to sell paintings because it would enable me to quit my job, whether as a cook or delivering house plants or whatever else I was doing – and paint full-time. But I had to have a gallery just to give me distance.
Had you met Warhol by this time?
Before I knew him, he had been an image to me. He was totally unapproachable. I met him finally through [photographer] Christopher Makos, who brought me to the Factory. At first Andy was very distant. It was difficult for him to be comfortable with people if he didn’t know them. Then he came to another exhibition. He was more friendly We started talking, going out. We traded a lot of works.
You were hanging out with Madonna, Michael Jackson, Yoko Ono, Boy George – pretty glamorous.
I knew Madonna from before. We were in that scene in the lower East Village at the same time. She was just starting. She used to go out with Jellybean [Benitez, now a record producer], and I’d see her sing at the Fun House, where he was the DJ. But I met the others through Andy. He had a way of sort of making things happen around him. I don’t go to those parties much any more; I’m not leading the same glamorous life. I don’t miss it a lot, but when it started happening I was young and naive and it was really exciting. It was like incredible to go, you know, to meet Michael Jackson backstage with Andy. When he brought me to Yoko’s apartment the first time it was incredible You can’t believe that you’re there. The ultimate one was a dinner at Yoko’s. I brought Madonna and the artist Martin Burgoyne. Andy was already there. Bob Dylan was there. David Bowie was there. And Iggy Pop. Just sort of in the kitchen. At first you are more in awe of things like that, but you adapt.
What do you think was the basis of your friendship with Warhol?
Andy always had young people around him at all points of his life. Fresh blood with fresh ideas. It was good for him to be around, and for us it was good because it was giving us this whole seal of approval —the ultimate approval you could get was from Andy. Everyone looked up to him. He was the only figure that represented any real forerunner of the attitude about making art in a more public way and dealing with art as part of the real world.
What was it like being with him?
He was easy to know, easy to be with. I learned a lot from him. Some of the best things were about generosity and about how to conduct yourself. I always learned from watching quietly and listening or seeing the way that he would deal with things, like someone coming up to him at an art event or seeing a reaction that he would have to something that would be written about him. He was really supportive. He was a big supporter of Pop Shop. I was scared. I knew I would be attacked. The art world thrives in its little elitist world. The rest of the world can get access if the art dribbles down, like Mondrian shoes or Warhol whatever or window displays that look like Jackson Pollock. What happened to me is that it started in the subways, it began in popular culture and was absorbed and accepted by the popular culture before the other art world had time to take credit for it. By opening the Pop Shop, it was the ultimate in cutting them right out of the picture.
Some think that the Pop Shop is about crass commercialism.
Other artists had been accusing me of selling out since my paintings started selling. I mean, I don’t know what they intended me to do. Just stay in the subway the rest of my life? Somehow that would have made me stay pure? Everyone was stealing the pieces. I’d go down and draw in the subway, and two hours later every piece would be gone. They were turning up for sale. My work was starting to become more expensive and more popular within the art market. Those prices meant that only people who could afford big art prices could have access to the work. The Pop Shop makes it more accessible. If it was about money, I could have been the most successful commercial designer and illustrator in the world. I’ve turned down numerous huge things.
But you did a poster for Absolut vodka and the Swatch watch. What’s the difference?
There were challenges in each thing I’ve done, and they circulated the work, and the quality was controlled and limited. But the point wasn’t to try to get rich. The money has been the least interesting thing and, in some ways, the biggest drawback.
At the Pop Shop, you sell FREE SOUTH AFRICA posters and a lot of AIDS-related art. Were you always politically conscious?
I learned a certain sensitivity to things at home. My parents weren’t in any way politically involved. They were straight Republicans and have voted straight Republican up until now. But they were concerned about things. I guess I reacted to their politics. I remember driving somewhere, like to New Jersey to the shore for vacation, and being in the back seat and seeing hitchhikers and hippies and feeling like I was on the wrong side. I was the enemy, my father and me with our crew cuts driving by. When Nixon or someone asked Americans to show their support for the war effort by driving with their headlights on for this one day, we were driving to New Jersey with the headlights on. I was only eleven, but I was embarrassed.
Your safe sex campaign is very explicit like the recurring character Debbie Dick.
Yet people respond really strongly. Teachers everywhere ask me for safe sex stickers. In the United States people are too shy to talk about safe sex. In Europe it’s completely acceptable. A lot of what we see here is more tame because of some people’s preconceived notions of what they think people can handle. In fact, when people are treated as if they have some intelligence and are given explicit information, they appreciate it. And it’s the only thing that gets a through to kids, the people that need it.
You did a pretty well-known anti-crack painting — CRACK IS WACK —on a wall In New York. What’s the difference between kids doing crack now and your doing drugs when you were younger?
Crack is a businessman’s drug. It was invented to make someone profit. Smoking pot never made you go poor. And crack is completely different than the mind-expanding drugs like LSD or pot. It’s the opposite of mind-expanding; crack makes you subservient. Instead of opening your mind, it shuts it and makes you dependent on whoever’s providing you with the drug. What’s most repulsive is that I don’t think the powers that be really want to stop the crack problem. It makes people very easy to control. They’re supposedly having a war on drugs now, but the whole time Bush was vice-president the amounts of cocaine coming into this country were phenomenal.
Was it a shock to you when Jean-Michel overdosed on heroin last summer?
The last few years his friends were really scared for him. He was really playing with death, pushing it to the extreme. But there was no point in telling him. He knew the risks. His friends could only hope that it wasn’t going to happen. But it was not a surprise to anyone.
It must have been particularly difficult after losing Andy the year before.
Jean-Michel was like … icing on the cake. There are artists whose work I appreciate, but there aren’t a lot of artists that I have a relationship with that I’m totally inspired and intimidated by at the same time.
Why were you intimidated?
You think that they are so good that it makes you think that you’re not good. Or that you think you’re not doing enough.
With all the close friends who have died, do you sometimes wonder why?
Unfortunately, death is a fact of life. I don’t think it’s happened to me any more unfairly than to anyone else. It could always be worse. I’ve lost a lot of people, but I haven’t lost everybody. I didn’t lose my parents or my family. But it’s been an incredible education, facing death, facing it the way that I’ve had to face it at this early age. I guess it’s similar to what it must have been to go to war and to lose your friends while you’re at war. A lot of people don’t start to lose their friends until they’re fifty or sixty years old. But to start having it happen when you’re in your mid-twenties — especially because a lot of the people that I’ve lost have been lost because of AIDS – to have it happen that way, in a way which can be very slow and very horrible and very painful, you know, it’s been really hard. It’s toughened me. It’s made me, in a way, more respectful of life. I’ve watched people who were much younger than me and in much better physical shape than me deteriorate to nothing. The first person I know that died of AIDS was the performer Klaus Nomi, in 1983 probably. It wasn’t until later that it started to be a lot of people. Since then, the list, it’s incredible, amazing, a long list of people. You toughen yourself up. You prepare yourself in this crazy way for it. It has taught me many things and shown me so many more things about love and about people.
Did your parents know you were gay from the beginning?
My parents have been so amazing about the whole thing, but in their own way knowing but not saying anything. I never tried to hide it from them, and they never asked me about it. When I lived with Juan, they would come visit the house. By that time I had sort of proven myself. They knew that I had turned my life into something good, and that’s what they cared about.
But it was never discussed?
No, but they would come to the house and there was only one bed. And Juan came with me at Christmas to a family reunion thing for the entire family. My father has ten brothers and sisters. It’s a marine-corps family. All my father’s relatives are marines. On one side there is this really macho thing, but there is also this thing of pride in yourself and in family and in real simple things. I could have done all that, but it was even more incredible to have their respect even though I was not a marine and even though the whole family knew, by figuring it out, that I’m gay. Haring is their name, too, and what I’ve done makes them incredibly proud. And though we never talked about it, after coming to New York and visiting me when I was living with Juan, my parents finally accepted him as part of the family.
Are you emphatic in believing that people should be open about their homosexuality? Normal about it. It’s not an issue to me. It doesn’t have that much to do with the rest of my life. It shouldn’t prevent me from being able to work with children. It doesn’t mean I’m going to molest them. A lot of people can’t even imagine the idea of someone gay working with children. It’s very sad. And now, within the last few years, AIDS has changed everything. AIDS has made it even harder for people to accept, because homosexuality has been made to be synonymous with death. That’s why it is so important for people to know what AIDS is and what it isn’t. Because there is the potential for more hysteria or more fascist reaction.
Did you find out you were HIV positive from getting sick or from a test?
I had been tested before. But even if you’re positive, it doesn’t sink in until you’re sick. I’ve been having safe sex for a very long time, before I ever got tested. I knew it was a possibility. I was here at the peak of the sexual promiscuity in New York. I arrived, fresh from coming out at the time and place where everyone was just wild. I was major into experimenting. If I didn’t get it, no one would. Now the thing I’m most concerned about is how it’s going to affect other people. I have so many friends, kids that are friends. My godchildren I really, really, really don’t want them to see me get the way that I’ve seen other people get. I don’t know which is more noble, to fight to the end, until your last breath, no matter what you turn into, or to cut it off and die with dignity. I don’t know which would leave a better impression in their minds. Would it be worse for them to know that you took your own life? Or to know that you had a will to fight?
I think part of the reason grown-ups have such a hard time dealing with Illness and death is because we have no experience with It growing up; kids are always kept away from It. I was struck by your reluctance to talk at first about being sick because you’re afraid that people ignorant of the disease will stop you working with kids.
I know they won’t invite me. But I think it’s not fair for them not to know and to go on and then find out: `He was here, and he had AIDS!’ I think that what will happen with people knowing will be far more interesting than just going on as if nothing had changed and having them find out later. It will force things to happen. Maybe they won’t be good. There will be people who will make a stand and want me to still do the work with kids and a lot who won’t. To me, one of the most important things is that being sick is not going to make me go back on anything in my life. I don’t regret anything I’ve done. I wouldn’t change anything. Everything was natural and out in the open.
How has having AIDS changed your life?
The hardest thing is just knowing that there’s so much more stuff to do. I’m a complete workaholic. I’m so scared that one day I’ll wake up and I won’t be able to do it.
Do you make time for life outside of work?
You force yourself to. Otherwise I would just work. I spend enough time enjoying, too. I have no complaints at all. Zero. In a way, it’s almost a privilege to know. Part of the reason that I’m not having trouble facing the reality of death is that, in a way, it’s not a limitation. It could have happened any time, and it is going to happen sometime. If you live your life according to that, death is irrelevant.
Do you get more impatient with the trivial things in life?
The opposite. Nothing is trivial. I wish I didn’t have to sleep. But otherwise, it’s all fun. There’s one last thing in my head. With the thought of… of summing up. My last show in New York felt like it had to be the best painting that I could do. To show everything I have learned about painting. The thing about all the projects I’m working on now – a wall in a hospital or new paintings — is that there is a certain sense of summing up in them. Everything I do now is a chance to put a crown on the whole thing. It adds another kind of intensity to the work that I do now; it’s one of the good things to come from being sick. If you’re writing a story, you can sort of ramble on and go in a lot of directions at once, but when you are getting to the end of the story, you have to start pointing all the things toward one thing. That’s the point that I’m at now, not knowing where it stops but knowing how important it is to do it now. The whole thing is getting much more articulate. In a way it’s really liberating. ❑
***This interview appeared in the May 1990 issue of Sky Magazine and is reproduced with the greatest respect to share the insights of an incredible artist*** All intellectual property belongs to Sky Magazine.