Keith himself and me

It wasn’t a coincidence that the first image to earn Keith Haring a wide audience was the crawling baby. It became a universal symbol–for the perfect innocent inner child in everyone.That first pictogram appeared on the streets of New York in early 1980. It was before Keith started doing subway drawings. His reputation was limited to the street artists, some people from the School of Visual Arts, and those of us back home–Kutztown and nearby Reading, PA–who knew him as a young man from our area who was in New York, studying and making art.He peppered the city with images of the little infant. It was his tag, his signature. When you saw the baby–uptown, downtown, anywhere–you knew Keith had been there.Soon the subway drawings appeared. I was subletting Bob Berlind’s studio on West 20th Street. Every few days, I would encounter a new drawing. The sureness of line, the perfect composition, the incredible energy and mystery of those early drawings blew people away. Keith was unknown to most of the world, to the throngs of commuters who saw his drawings. His anonymous images became instantaneous urban mythology the moment he started to create them.It was at this point that I made an effort to meet Keith. I had heard about him from James Carroll. He filled me in about “the kid from Kutztown who is doing amazing drawings in the New York subways.”Being the sole art critic in the Eastern region of Pennsylvania–outside of Philadelphia–who had a national readership (writing for the New Art Examiner), as well as being the art reviewer for the newspaper Keith had delivered as a child, made it a simple matter for me to just ring up Keith’s parents and ask for an interview with their son.His mother answered the phone.”Hello…Yes I read your reviews in the Reading Eagle…You’d like to interview my son?…Well, he’s in New York City. He’ll be coming home for the holidays. You may gladly come by then.”Two weeks later, I parked my car on Normal Street, walked over to White Oak, and knocked on the door. I was greeted by Keith’s parents, who were excited their son was to get some recognition. Behind them, smiling, stood a young man of 21. He looked more like an intellectual–a physics major or even a librarian–than a “graffiti artist.”His thin body and pale complexion belied his energetic personality. Wire-rimmed glasses hung across a somewhat owlish countenance capped by tufts of close-cropped golden hair. His face became animated when the talk turned to art and relaxed into a thin-lipped grin when I spoke of the impact his work was having in New York.”I just got arrested,” he said. He showed me a copy of the previous week’s Daily News. A little four-inch story and a photo documented the “Graffiti Artist Arrested For Vandalizing Subway.””You’re famous Keith,” I said.”Hardly,” he replied. “It’s just part of this anti-graffiti campaign the politicians are using to stir people up. They can’t do anything about the real problems in the city, so the police go after street artists for publicity.”The arrest didn’t amount to much. He paid a small fine and was released. But it was the beginning of a wave of publicity that would make him world-famous within five years. Of course, no one could have known it then. Keith was just a kid from Pennsylvania trying to make it as an artist in New York. He had this incredible drive and an unshakable belief in himself and in the power of art to change the world.We talked about other artists–his favorites: modernists–Dubuffet, Pollock, Calder; and contemporaries, Anselm Keifer, Warhol, Keith Sonnier–his teacher at the SVA. Mostly though, he spoke about the young street artists he was hanging with.I mentioned my involvement with the psychedelic art movement of the 1960s and that I had worked for the Rip Off Press, in San Francisco–drawing and writing a column for the Rip Off Review of Western Culture. Keith reacted with real interest. He said he always admired the psychedelic movement and had left home in the mid-1970s to “become a hippie.” We laughed about how, by then, it was too late, that he must have been the last one–the last hippie, reading On The Road, hitching around the country, smoking grass, dropping acid, expecting the world to wake up to the Aquarian Age.When it was time to leave, I said I hoped we could get together again soon. He mentioned he needed a ride back to New York. I was going back too. We made a date for after the first of the year. For some reason, I said, “I love you, man,” as I shook his hand. He smiled. I left.

Comments Off on Keith himself and me

Filed under ARTology Now

Comments are closed.