About Keith, 1

I am doing some interviews on my recollection of, relationship with, and opinion of Keith Haring – the man, the artist, and the work. They are progressing well enough but I do have the sense that this is an instance of the dictum: One never quite accomplishes exactly what one sets out to do.The anticipation over the exhibition of Keith’s work at the Reading Public Museum is generating interest, curiosity and controversy in the place of his birth. That in itself tends to conflate the personal and the public aspects of his life and career. As I observe the development of all this, I am reminded of the contradictions and problematic nature of the personal and private spheres of action that we experience daily. There is something significant about it requiring pointing out and keeping in mind. I am working to emphasize this and other contradictions – the ones most difficult to ferret out and discuss – during the various interviews and writing I am doing about the events surrounding Keith’s life and work. These are the thoughts I have had since I first discussed the idea of a conceptual collaboration between Keith and me. Keith did not feel understood as a young man in his hometown and he was concerned that his work would not be understood by the generations that succeeded his own. He lived to see significant aspects of his art misinterpreted in the media and he did not appreciate it. I am reminded of a story he told me one day in his New York City studio. He spoke of a reporter whose questions had to do with how his work was influenced and inspired by the various Pennsylvania Dutch country symbols and patterns – hex signs, fraktur, and other such folk art – that he must have experienced during his childhood here.Keith said he spent the entire interview trying to convince the reporter that her ideas were irrelevant to his work and his intentions. He told her that, as he felt himself treated as a social outcast here, he consciously sought outside influences, such as television and mass media. He told her that he left here because he did not want to be here. He told her none of her notions was correct.Of course, when the reporter’s story appeared in print, she pointed out the significance of Pennsylvania German folk art – especially hex signs – in his artwork. Keith’s point was that she had the story written before she talked to him. As his work became increasingly well known, he saw that kind of thing happening more frequently.If you ask me for one way in which this area affected his later work, I would say it was affected by his desire to be understood on his own terms. In addition, I would tell you how misunderstood he felt here and why that was the case.As a result, he spent the rest of his life creating a personal language of signs and symbols and teaching that language to the world. It is a difficult, complex, and evocative language but it is not inscrutable.

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