By 1980, Keith Haring had befriended the newest, most exuberant young artists working on the fringes of the New York art scene. It would be less than a year before he would be discovered by a succession of gallery owners, collectors, and critics. In a few years he would be on his way to becoming one of the world’s most famous artists.
I was his elder by ten years. By the time we met, my paintings were in uptown galleries. A drawing of mine had travelled with an exhibition mounted by the Smithsonian Institution. My work was distributed by the Museum of Modern Art’s Art Lending Service.
Keith wasn’t interested in the established art scene. But he was rapt in his enthusiasm for “underground” art. When I talked about the counterculture of the sixties, he was fully attentive, engrossed in tales of my experiences. He wanted to know about my relationship with Allen Ginsberg. We talked at length about Allen’s participation in the culture of the Beat Generation. Keith had read Howl and other poems by Allen and his compatriots. Jack Kerouac’s, On the Road, inspired Keith to begin his own road odyssey in the same way it had inspired my journeys through the underside of American culture.
Haring was an avid student of the rebel art movements of the 20th century. He was especially interested in the various strands of the subcultures of American art from the 1950s onward. He collected knowledge from the best sources he could find. When he discovered I had personal knowledge of the psychedelic movement, Timothy Leary, the Haight-Ashbury district of San Francisco during the “Summer of Love,” and that my art and writing was published by the Rip Off Press along with many of the underground comics artists of the late sixties and early seventies, he probed my memory like a Crusader after the Holy Grail.
He wanted to know everything. He would constantly draw connections between American cultural history and the stories I was telling. We felt the same sense of personal involvement in the rapid aesthetic evolution of the twentieth century.
We shared a particular mental wavelength. It defined our relationship and made it unique. That bond transcended our differences. It lived until he died. Now, it continues on with a life of its own. It was and it is still called The Project.
DeSantis: “What if we could give people a kind of manual or stake out a path for comprehending the hidden messages of art at any time – past, present, or future?”
Haring: “It should be possible to do it. There is this collective wisdom in every culture – and it’s the same things that are being said. It’s more important now, too – because of media. And it always increases.”
“I think we can work it out. I’ve written about iconography in your work in a way that leaves things open to interpretation…”
He finishes my thought: “…instead of trying to make a name for yourself trying to say you know what it means. I don’t even know what it means! I have some ideas but…”
He reminds me of the way people are always trying to read Pennsylvania German symbolism into his work.
“I’ve even denied it to their face when they’ve asked me about it…and they go back and write about it anyway. People think they are on to something and they feel like it’s their job to say, ‘this is what’s it’s all about’.”
A long white drawing table separates us. We are in his studio. There’s a frenzy of activity. Assistants are mixing paint. Some friends are playing music – partying in a laid back mid-afternoon way. He is paging through a portfolio of work I’m preparing for my show at Tradition 3000 Gallery. He moves slowly from image to image – giving them complete attention. This goes on for over an hour. The phone rings, people answer it and write down messages. The entire time he doesn’t look up.
When he is finished, he closes the cover, smiles, and says, “Cool”.
Image one: Keith Haring float, Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, NYC, 2008, videophoto, TFD.
Image two: Allen Ginsberg, untitled poem for Tullio DeSantis, 1985Collection of Tullio Francesco DeSantis
Image three: “Mindstream,” (detail), art and text by Tullio, “Rip Off Review of Western Culture,” Volume 1, Number 3, San Francisco, 1972
Image four: Tullio Francesco DeSantis, card from “New Worlds” exhibition, Tradition 3000 Gallery, NYC, 1987