This is the last post in my study of Keith Haring for October.
Keith is one of a small group of artists to to become rich and famous while alive. And he did it for the most part without the art establishment.
Haring’s work was featured in over 100 solo and group exhibitions. He completed numerous projects ranging from an animation for the Spectacolor billboard in Times Square, designing sets and backdrops for theaters and clubs, developing watch designs for Swatch and an advertising campaign for Absolut vodka.
Throughout his career, he devoted much of his time to public works which often carried social messages. He produced more than 50 public artworks between 1982 and 1989, in dozens of cities around the world, many of which were created for charities, hospitals, children’s day care centers and orphanages. He also held drawing workshops for children in schools and museums in New York, Amsterdam, London, Tokyo and Bordeaux, and produced imagery for many literacy programs and other public service campaigns.
By expressing universal concepts of birth, death, love, sex and war, using a simple line and direct message, Haring was able to attract a wide audience and assure the accessibility and staying power of his imagery, which has become a universally recognized visual language.
Keith was diagnosed with HIV in 1988. He had lived for years with the thinking that he either had it or would get it. His ex-boyfriend Juan Dubose had AIDS at this time. Keith regularly had his bloodwork done and kept an eye on his health. After reading a book that mentioned Kaposi's Sarcoma, Keith began checking his body for the purple splotches and he found one on his leg. He was in Japan and by the time he got home and to the doctor, he had another on his arm. At that time, they did his bloodwork and his T-cells were down, indicating he fit the classification of having full blown AIDS.
There's a really great interview with Keith from 1989 for Rolling Stone. It's by David Sheff and here's a few questions from it that relate to this time in Keith's life:
So you knew you were HIV positive before you got symptoms?
Yeah, and even before, I knew. I’ve been having safe sex for a very long time, before I ever got tested. I knew it was a possibility. I was here at the peak of the sexual promiscuity in New York. I arrived, fresh from coming out of the closet, at the time and place where everyone was just wild. I was major into experimenting. If I didn’t get it, no one would. So I knew. It was just a matter of time.
Now the thing I’m most concerned about is how it’s going to affect other people. I have so many friends, kids that are friends. My godchildren. I have a lot of kids almost like my own, because I can never have kids but I always wanted kids; other people’s kids were like my kids. I just can’t imagine. I really, really, really don’t want them to see me get the way that I’ve seen other people get. I don’t know which is more noble: to fight to the end, until your last breath, no matter what you turn into, or to cut it off and die with dignity. I don’t know which would leave a better impression in their minds. Would it be worse for them to know that you took your own life? Or to know, even if it wasn’t pretty at the end, that you fought and had a will to fight and tried to survive? Even though at a certain point it’s killing everyone around you.
How has having AIDS changed your life?
The hardest thing is just knowing that there’s so much more stuff to do. I’m a complete workaholic. I’m so scared that one day I’ll wake up and I won’t be able to do it.
Do you get more impatient with the trivial things in life?
The opposite. Nothing is trivial. I wish I didn’t have to sleep. But otherwise, it’s all fun. It’s all part of the game. [He is quiet, and then he looks up.] There’s one last thing in my head. With the thought of – of summing up. My last show in New York felt like it had to be the best painting that I could do. To show everything I have learned about painting. The thing about all the projects I’m working on now – a wall in a hospital or new paintings – is that there is a certain sense of summing up in them. Everything I do now is a chance to put a – a crown on the whole thing. It adds an-other kind of intensity to the work that I do now; it’s one of the good things to come from being sick.
If you’re writing a story, you can sort of ramble on and go in a lot of directions at once, but when you are getting to the end of the story, you have to start pointing all the things toward one thing. That’s the point that I’m at now, not knowing where it stops but knowing how important it is to do it now. The whole thing is getting much more articulate. In a way it’s really liberating.
The painting above is from 1989 and is a self-portrait. Keith knew that he would never have the time to complete all the work that he wanted to do and this piece reflects that.
Keith Haring died on February 16, 1990 of AIDS-related complications at his home in Manhattan. He was 31 years old.
Keith is one of many commemorated in the AIDS Memorial Quilt. If you aren't familiar with that project...
In June of 1987, a group of strangers gathered in a San Francisco storefront to document the lives they feared history would neglect. Their goal was to create a memorial for those who had died of AIDS, and to thereby help people understand the devastating impact of the disease. This meeting of devoted friends and lovers served as the foundation of the NAMES Project AIDS Memorial Quilt.
Today the Quilt is a powerful visual reminder of the AIDS pandemic. More than 48,000 individual 3-by-6-foot memorial panels — most commemorating the life of someone who has died of AIDS — have been sewn together by friends, lovers and family members.