As former Speaker of the House Tip O’Neill was fond of saying, “All politics is local.” And, after viewing the scope of “Keith Haring: The Political Line,” the collection of Haring works currently on display at the de Young Museum in San Francisco (which closes on February 16), it appears that all art is local, as well.
In this excerpt from DINOSAUR No. 3’s feature on the exhibit, two of Keith Haring’s friends — artist/actress/singer/writer Ann Magnuson and artist Frank Holliday — share memories of what it was like to be in Haring’s circle then, and to always have him in their (and our) orbit now.
Always in Our Orbit
The UFOs were the first things I noticed when I opened my invitation for the new Keith Haring show at the de Young Museum. Two of the iconic Haring spaceships were on its cover. One UFO was zapping two barking dogs, and the other was directing horizontal cosmic rays onto what appeared to be a stick held aloft by a man riding a frolicking dolphin. The stick, or wand, was clearly being infused with magical powers. Likewise, the barking dog in the other painting looked as if it were suddenly possessed and dancing in a state of transcendental ecstasy.
Keith’s art zapped us with similar cosmic voodoo. He wielded his black magic marker (or brush, or aerosol spray-paint can) like a magic wand. The art that seemed to effortless flow from him also felt guided by an extraterrestrial force. Surely this was a kind of Morse code from a more enlightened being who understood the best way to communicate with us wayward humans was through archetypical images: happy, life-loving, modern-day pictographs drawn in bright, eye-catching colors that spoke a universal language of joy and justice and delivered a clear directive to live life to its fullest.
While looking at those UFOs on the de Young invitation, I was also immediately transported back in time to 1980. Keith had just had his first studio show at P.S. 122. I recall noticing that most of the other artists presented their work fairly traditionally, as if they were in a run-of-the-mill gallery. Not Keith. His studio was a Sensurround experience. The walls were covered, ceiling-to-floor (including the ceiling and floor), with his signature hieroglyphics and kinetic squiggles that were already causing a sensation as graffiti art in the New York subway system. There were the radiant babies, the barking dogs, the winged angel figures, the mischievous snakes, the playful dolphins, the even more playful penises (oh how plentiful and playful were those penises!), and, of course, the UFOs.
When my birthday came around, I asked if I might have one. Keith was always so generous with his art, giving all his East Village friends paintings, woodcuts, or prints to liven up our barren apartment walls. The one he gave me featured a UFO radiating cosmic orange Day-Glo beams over the iconic nuclear cooling towers at Three Mile Island.
Keith grew up in Kutztown, Pennsylvania, a small town about seventy-five miles northeast of the nuclear power plant that nearly became our Chernobyl in March 1979. We were all very freaked out about it. Nuclear disaster, in one form or another, was on everyone’s mind then. All of us who knew each other in the New York Downtown art and music scene grew up during the Cold War. We used to “duck and cover” under our desks during air raid drills that convinced us that nuclear annihilation by the Russians was imminent. Although the threat seemed to ease somewhat as we became distracted by Glam and then Punk, the threat reared its ugly head again when Reagan seized power in 1980. We were so convinced that none of us would live to see old age that all our creative engines were constantly in overdrive. Keith’s was in over overdrive.
Ironically, it would not be a massive H-bomb but a tiny virus that would kill so many. Still, we circled the wagons and encouraged the fight against AIDS and the shameful silence that delayed treatment and killed most of our friends. Keith was in the front lines of that fight. But we also fought to retain the nonstop creativity that kept us alive, kept us hopeful. No one was more alive, more hopeful, or more encouraging than Keith. When he died, we lost one of our most important life forces.
Thankfully, his art remains, hovering over us like a friendly UFO and still zapping us with continuous rays of light and love and encouragement — even if its pilot beamed back to a galaxy far, far away.
It’s About the Underdog
I met Keith in Semiotics class at the School of Visual Arts in 1978. [We] were in a tough position. We were gay boys that were artists, loved poetry, William S. Burroughs, and rock ’n’ roll. We didn’t fit the gay scene. It was much too regulated. There was no place to go. But I discovered Club 57 because of my involvement with New Wave Vaudeville. I sent Keith down there, and the rest is history. We found our tribe.
So, yes, Keith was political in his life.
The last time I saw Keith was at an ACT UP demonstration at St. Patrick’s Cathedral. It was the coldest day. Keith showed up in a thin leather coat and was shivering. I gave him my scarf. We had to keep moving around in a circle, yelling protests. At one point in the middle of the circle, some guy was burning a Bible. I don’t think he was a part of ACT UP. I looked up, and Keith was on the opposite side. Our eyes met over the burning Bible. That was our goodbye. I will never forget that moment. So much had happened since that class. Keith used his outsider political talents and reached so many people. Even today, you see a Keith Haring T-shirt and you know it’s about the underdog.