A New Keith Haring Biography Draws the Most Complete Picture Yet

A New Keith Haring Biography Draws the Most Complete Picture Yet

Born in 1958, the same year NASA launched its first spacecraft, Haring wanted to be an artist from pretty much the moment he could clutch a crayon. He was plainly influenced by Disneyland, television and other boomer eye candy. His father, Allen, an electronics technician, amateur cartoonist and basement ham radio tinkerer, was in the same Marine squadron as Lee Harvey Oswald (“That’s Ozzie!” he exclaimed, seeming him shot on TV); his mother, Joan, sewed little Keith a bat-eared hat to watch “Batman.” (Later, with terrible poignancy, she would help sew his memorial panel for the AIDS Memorial Quilt.)

In perfect sync with his much-hyped generation, Keith turned on, tuned in and would drop out of two art schools; he was a workaholic, but on his own terms. He adored the Monkees more than the Beatles and was briefly a Jesus freak. His homosexuality emerged gradually and was not much discussed with his parents, even after he became a prominent member of ACT UP.

He always liked being part of something bigger. “It was never just Keith; there was always a circle around him,” the curator and reliable bon mot generator Jeffrey Deitch tells Gooch. “He was like a Pied Piper.” Starting at around 15, and later at the Paradise Garage, Palladium et al., Haring did an unholy amount of drugs.

Once he gets to Ed Koch’s Gotham, it’s black and white and bled all over. The artist Kenny Scharf, a friend, rival and onetime roommate, describes the stabbing victim who wanders into one of their parties: “People thought it was an art performance and just watched him wander around.” Gooch likens Haring’s homage to Michael Stewart, a Black graffiti artist who died after police brutality, to Edvard Munch’s “The Scream.”

Such highbrow comparisons have been late arriving. Haring may have out-Warholed Warhol, a mentor and collaborator, in enjoying celebrity friends — “there goes the neighborhood” The Village Voice captioned a photo of him with Brooke Shields — and the Concorde. But he was less cool than hot, eager and earnest: handing out free buttons and selling cheap merch at his prescient Pop Shop but fretting about his place in the canon and firing off indignant letters to editors.

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