Keith Haring arrived in downtown Manhattan from Kutztown, Pennsylvania in 1978, at age 20. He discovered a city filled with urgent messages, taped to blank walls or spraypainted on the sides of buses. He was soon leaving his distinctive, unsigned chalk drawings on the black matte sheets pasted over outdated ads in the subway.
These drawings featured images that would become his basic alphabet: flying saucers, pyramids, ziggurat stairways, barking dogs, and crawling babies suffused in rays. Before long, Haring was a global artist, part of an influential cultural crowd that included Andy Warhol, Madonna, and Basquiat. He played a significant role in breaking down the wall erected between high art and popular culture, creating accessible work for all that provoked and inspired radical social change. Haring died of AIDS in 1990; his work, once radical, is now timeless.
“I saw my first Keith Haring circa 1980, though I can’t say exactly when, only that from the first crawling babies spotted in SoHo, his artworks were a marker, a sort of placeholder in my memories of the decade,” writes Gooch, whose memoir Smash Cut chronicled his exuberant youth in the New York art scene in the 70s and 80s.
“With his early belief that art could change the world for the better, and wishing to make it accessible and affordable for everyone, Haring, against all odds, succeeded at his democratizing mission. In our era of engagement by so many artists with any available surface; with personal icons and licensing; with activism, collaborating, communication; and with community fostering, Keith Haring seems more than ever one of us.”
This remarkable book provides a deep dive into the extraordinary life of Keith Haring. While I must admit that it was not the easiest read, I am immensely grateful for the opportunity to delve into Haring’s world. Through this narrative, we are given a glimpse into a life brimming with wonder and unparalleled talent.
Haring’s existence fulfilled a fundamental need that we all share – the desire to truly understand the essence of life itself. Before reading this book, I was familiar with the name Keith Haring, but it was only through these pages that I truly came to know and appreciate a man whom I had never met, yet will forever hold a special place in my heart.
Undoubtedly, this book presented its challenges. The constant name-dropping, featuring an array of individuals from various walks of life including artists, singers, dancers, actors, writers, socialites, and even street kids and art students, left me wondering who all these people were. In my quest for answers, I found myself lost in the vast expanse of Google, spending countless hours marveling at some of the most breathtaking art I had ever encountered.
The author of this incredible piece, Brad Gooch, reveals that he interviewed over 200 people, and it certainly feels like every one of them was mentioned in this vivid account of Haring’s life. Interestingly, this extensive inclusion not only sheds light on the experiences of Keith Haring, but also offers profound insights into other notable figures such as Andy Warhol, Madonna, Grace Jones, Dennis Hopper, and numerous other celebrities of the time.
From the very beginning, Keith Haring’s talent was undeniable. Born in Pennsylvania in 1958, he discovered his love for art at a young age. His unique style, characterized by bold lines, vibrant colors, and iconic figures, quickly caught the attention of art enthusiasts and critics alike.
His work transcended the boundaries of traditional art and found its home in the streets of New York City. Through his iconic murals, subway drawings, and public installations, Haring brought art to the masses, making it accessible to everyone.
One aspect that stands out in Keith Haring’s journey is his unwavering commitment to spreading messages of love, unity, and social activism. His art became a powerful tool for advocating for causes close to his heart, including AIDS awareness, anti-apartheid movements, and LGBTQ+ rights.
Keith Haring was undeniably a driven individual who embraced life with unwavering fervor. In his mere 31 years of existence, he managed to live a life more vibrant and fulfilling than most of us could ever imagine experiencing in 60 or more years.
Keith Haring’s life was a testament to the power of art, love, and the human spirit. Through his work, he encouraged us to embrace our individuality, challenge societal norms, and celebrate the beauty of diversity.
So, take some time to dive into the life and legacy of Keith Haring. Allow his story to touch your heart, inspire your creativity, and remind you of the incredible impact one person can have on the world.
Brad Gooch is a poet, novelist, and biographer, whose forthcoming book, Radiant: The Life and Line of Keith Haring will be published by Harper/Harper Collins in March 2024.
His previous books include Rumi’s Secret: The Life of the Sufi Poet of Love (Harper, 2017); Rumi: Unseen Poems (trans. Brad Gooch and Maryam Mortaz, Everyman’s Library, 2019); Smash Cut: A Memoir of Howard & Art & The 70s and the 80s; Flannery: A Life of Flannery O’Connor, which was a National Book Critics Circle Award Finalist, a New York Times Notable Book of the Year, and a New York Times bestseller; City Poet: The Life and Times of Frank O’Hara; as well as Godtalk: Travels in Spiritual America; three novels–Scary Kisses, The Golden Age of Promiscuity, Zombie00; a collection of stories, Jailbait and other Stories, chosen by Donald Barthelme for a Writer’s Choice Award; a collection of poems, The Daily News; and Finding the Boyfriend Within and Dating the Greek Gods.
His work has been featured in numerous magazines including The New Republic, The New Yorker, Vanity Fair, New York Magazine, Travel and Leisure, Partisan Review, The Paris Review, The Los Angeles Times Book Review, Art Forum, Harper’s Bazaar, The Nation, and The Daily Beast. A Guggenheim fellow in Biography, he has received a National Endowment for the Humanities fellowship, and a Furthermore grant in publishing from the J.M. Kaplan Fund. He is an emeritus professor of English at William Paterson University, earned his Ph.D. at Columbia University, and lives in New York City.