Reviewed by Nancy
5 out of 5 stars
Keith Haring's talent was first recognized on subway platforms, where his trademark chalk-drawn figures could be seen for the price of a token. By the time of his death in 1990 at the age of thirty-one, Haring's career had moved from underground New York to the most prestigious galleries and museums in the world.
Here Keith Haring's story is told by those who knew him—and by the artist himself. He candidly reflects on all aspects of his life, including his approach to art, being gay, and how he came to terms with AIDS. John Gruen masterfully combines Haring's own words with the observations of those who knew him best, including art dealer Leo Castelli; Madonna; artists Roy Lichtenstein, Francesco Clemente, and Kenny Scharf; Claude Picasso; Timothy Leary; and William Burroughs, among others. Haring emerges as both a courageous and enigmatic personality—a champion of art for all people.
I became familiar with Keith Haring’s artwork while doing the AIDS walk in Boston with my friend, Mark, and a few of our close friends. Though it wasn’t the height of the AIDS epidemic, there were still an alarming number of deaths. Mark wanted to walk to honor the memory of his former partner, who died two years before. Our little group did three more walks together before Mark died of AIDS in 1995.
Keith Haring’s Ignorance=Fear, Silence=Death was one of his well-known artworks that raised AIDS awareness during a time when people had little knowledge and a lot of fear. People who had the disease kept silent for fear of stigmatization. I saw it on t-shirts, buttons, and posters. It was bright and colorful, with three yellow figures against an orange background. Each figure has eyes covered, ears covered, and mouth covered, and each has a pink “x” across their chest, representing the disease.
While I was aware of Keith’s death at 31 in 1990, I knew very little about his short life.
John Gruen’s biography is a perfect introduction to the artist’s life and work. Told chronologically from Keith’s perspective and through the eyes of family, friends, teachers, lovers, peers, collaborators, and employees, the reader gets a candid and intimate glimpse into a life lived fully and passionately in between gorgeous illustrations. Keith’s unflagging energy and devotion to his creative work, even after diagnosis, is inspiring.
He was a versatile artist, starting out with chalk drawings in subways and moving on to complex designs on a wide variety of surfaces. His work was colorful, energetic, and imbued with a childlike innocence. At the same time, it was personal and intense.
Madonna said it best:
“Anyway, I’ve always responded to Keith’s art. From the very beginning, there was a lot of innocence and a joy that was coupled with a brutal awareness of the world. But it was all presented in a childlike way. The fact is, there’s a lot of irony in Keith’s work, just as there’s a lot of irony in my work. And that’s what attracts me to his stuff. I mean, you have these bold colors and those childlike figures and a lot of babies, but if you really look at those works closely, they’re really very powerful and really scary. And so often, his art deals with sexuality – and it’s a way to point up people’s sexual prejudices, their sexual phobias. In that way, Keith’s art is also very political.”
If you love Haring’s work and want a glimpse into the gritty 80’s New York art scene, this is your book.