A New Keith Haring Biography Leaves Out Half the Story

Keith Haring was born in a White, working-class town in Eastern Pennsylvania. After briefly attending a commercial art school in Pittsburgh, he studied semiotics at the School of the Visual Arts in Manhattan in 1978. His timing was impeccable, for he arrived just when a newly created market in contemporary American art began to prosper. Life was very inexpensive, and gay culture was flourishing.

Since an authorized biography was published a year after Haring’s death, Brad Gooch’s goal with Radiant: The Life and Line of Keith Haring was, he notes, “to write a full-scale biography of the artist for a new generation.” He talked to many survivors of the AIDS epidemic, studied the archives, and read the critical literature. Radiant is a bountiful source of information: We learn about Haring’s childhood, his gradual discovery that he was gay, and his career. And we get an exhaustingly full account of his social life. But it says oddly little about his art, which was what made that career possible. If you want to see images of his work, or read a detailed interpretation of it, you need to look elsewhere.

When Haring arrived in New York, public spaces were falling apart and graffiti covered the subway cars. But in December 1980, he discovered an unused public space: the “empty panel(s) covered in soft black matte paper on a station wall,” Gooch writes, were blank spaces ready to be pasted over by advertisements. He purchased chalk and made drawings, which had a vast audience for a couple of weeks, before they were covered by commercial posters. He soon became well known through these artworks, resulting in invitations into art galleries, where was able to scale up his work in response to the new context. None of his fellow graffiti artists made this surprising transition, except for his frenemy Jean-Michel Basquiat. Leo Castelli, David Hockney, and James Rosenquist were all astonished at Haring’s uncanny ability to improvise, making large works without doing drawings. 

Haring showed widely in Japan and Western Europe thanks to the American art market’s lavishly funded industrialization, but he was frustrated because he was not taken seriously as an artist. (In fact, in the 1980s I myself scorned his art.) In Radiant, Gooch writes that Haring once said, “I am not a beginning. I am not an end. I am a link in a chain.” He certainly was the true successor of artists such as Andy Warhol, who admired his work. This book reveals how gentrification and AIDS destroyed his art world. But it doesn’t suggest who might be his artistic successors.

Radiant: The Life and Line of Keith Haring (2024) by Brad Gooch is published by Harper and available online and at independent booksellers.

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