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Haring, Keith - Jonathan Evens

Keith Haring: Personal Spiritual Imagery

By Jonathan Evens

Keith Haring was a revolutionary artist who transformed the art world during his short but impactful life, having become known initially for art that proliferated in the New York subway system during the early 1980s. A key belief was that “Art is for everybody.” He created a truly public art from chalk drawings in the subways to the establishment of his Pop Shop, where his artwork could be obtained at an affordable price. By expressing universal concepts – birth, death, love, sex, and war – through a directness of line and message, he gained an audience that was broad and secured the staying power of his imagery.

Simon Doonan, Creative Director for Barneys New York, tells Haring’s inspirational story in a new pocket-sized biography that is part of the Lives of Artists series published by Lawrence King. Doonan describes Haring as a revolutionary and renegade, an artist for the people, creating an instantly recognisable repertoire of symbols – barking dogs, spaceships, crawling babies, clambering faceless people – which became synonymous with the volatile culture of the 1980s. Like a careening, preening pinball, Haring playfully slammed into all aspects of that decade – hip-hop, new-wave, graffiti, funk, art, style, gay culture – and brought them together.

Keith Haring: Radiant Child, Icons # 1, 1990

Doonan describes how Haring’s fanatical drive propelled him into the orbit of the most interesting people of his time: Jean Michel Basquiat envied him; Andy Warhol, William S. Burroughs and Grace Jones collaborated with him. He and Madonna shared the same tastes in men. Famous at 25, dead from AIDS at 31, Doonan suggests that Haring is best remembered as a Pied Piper, who appeared happiest when mentoring a gang of kids, arming them with brushes and attacking the nearest wall.

Keith Haring: Radiant Gambit at World Chess Hall of Fame St Louis shows how Haring created work addressing issues including racism, the gay rights movement, and the AIDS pandemic. Many of these subjects are represented in the exhibition alongside exuberant depictions of contemporary culture filtered through his system of trademark images: dancing figures, a “radiant baby” (a crawling infant emitting rays of light), a barking dog, a flying saucer, large hearts, and figures with televisions for heads or holes in their bodies. Built on the idea of art for everybody, the exhibition includes a never-before-seen private collection of Haring’s works, including original Haring prints from a private collector and the Mildred Lane Kemper Art Museum in Saint Louis, two chess sets created posthumously by the Keith Haring Foundation, photographs of the artist from Allan Tannenbaum, four bespoke chess sets created by prominent street artists through Purling London, and newly commissioned work by four regional artists inspired by chess and Keith Haring.

The most recent of the two chess sets created posthumously through the Keith Haring Foundation is made by Vilac, a century-old French company specialising in wooden toys and has worked closely with the Foundation on making Haring-inspired products. The proceeds from such sales and other commercial tie-in’s, including collections with Dr Martens and Etta, continue to promote Haring’s legacy, including children’s hospitals and AIDS research. He loved children and their raw imagination, working with them all over the world on art projects. He also completed numerous commissions for playful murals and sculptures in children’s hospitals and orphanages. The Keith Haring Foundation was created in 1989, the year after he was diagnosed with AIDS, to raise awareness of AIDS and provide funding to AIDS organisations and children’s programmes. The Foundation continues to promote his artwork and his messages through the support of exhibitions, like the one at the World Chess Hall of Fame, various publications, and the licensing of his images.

Interestingly, and perhaps surprisingly, some of the imagery and many of the approaches that Haring adopted in life and art may derive from time spent during his teens with the Jesus People. Julia Gruen, Haring’s former studio assistant, has since his death in 1990 served as executive director of the Keith Haring Foundation. She has said that he “cared very deeply about the role that religion plays in peoples’ lives” despite experiencing first-hand “the negative counterpart of that—the way authoritarian, dogmatic philosophies of various religions harm the very people who perhaps could benefit most from faith.” Religion was “omnipresent” in his work, she says, and he was “a spiritual person.” [i]

Gruen’s remarks were made in the context of Personal Jesus: The Religious Works of Keith Haring and Andy Warhol, an exhibition at The Andy Warhol Museum in 2007. Warhol collaborated with Haring, Basquiat, Francesco Clemente, and more, all of whom inspired him to return to painting prior to his death; one of his last works being a reproduction of Leonardo da Vinci’s The Last Supper. Haring owned paintings from this period of Warhol’s work, saying in a 1989 Rolling Stone interview that one of the “favourite Warhol paintings I ever got from Andy” was “a small, hand-painted portrait of Christ at the Last Supper.” [ii] Haring also owned a screen-print by Warhol depicting a meditating Jesus under the all-seeing eye that was inscribed with the text ‘The only way out … is in!’ Warhol grew up as a Byzantine Catholic, attended mass almost every day of his life, volunteered at local soup kitchens and made donations to shelters regularly. Through Personal Jesus Thomas Sokolowski, director of The Andy Warhol Museum, suggested that, while Haring and Warhol recognised the weaknesses of traditional religion and observed the extent to which people use religion, they also uncovered the possibility that one who does not conform may be more of a believer than one who conforms solely to follow tradition.[iii]

Haring’s Christian influences were also explored in 2007 by Natalie E. Phillips in an article for American Art. Michael Wright has helpfully summarised Phillips’ article:

“Haring grew up in a Christian home in Kutztown, PA, went to church every Sunday and church camp every summer, and read the Bible voraciously. He even carefully read and rated each of the 150 Psalms. In his youth, he found his way to the Jesus People movement, most likely through communes local in the area, and his early journals are filled with Christian symbols and apocalyptic ideas…

The Jesus People movement was a counter-cultural Christian movement of people who were anti-establishment (including church), highly critical of materialism, and committed to living with and supporting the poor. They shared their convictions through the Hollywood Free Paper, a free mailing that featured cartoons lampooning politicians, new age hucksters, and lukewarm Christians. While Haring no longer officially participated as an adult … there’s a “direct iconographic connection” between his style and the imagery of the paper. The Jesus People left an indelible mark on his “visual memory”…

In his early subway drawings, Haring often drew the Radiant Child, a small crawling baby surrounded by beams of light. In one of the earliest versions, the baby is the central figure of a nativity scene: the Christ Child. Here’s his own description: “lines radiate from the baby indicating spiritual light glowing from within, as though the baby were a holy figure from a religious painting, only the glow is rendered in the visual vocabulary of a cartoon.” Another common image Haring used was the figure with a chest-sized hole. Sometimes filled with dollar signs, other times broken open by packs of wolves, the imagery evokes unfilled (or wrongly filled) longings and desire. And do you know what was common throughout the Hollywood Free Paper? Chest-sized holes in cartoon after cartoon, an image of spiritual voids filled by Christ himself.

On top of this, some of his late works were explicitly religious. He created a monumental series of the Ten Commandments, he created a mural for a convent in Pisa, and, most poignantly, his final work was an altarpiece of the Last Judgment, on view at both New York’s Cathedral of St John the Divine and San Francisco’s Grace Cathedral.” [iv]

Roberta Cecchi writes that: “The idea of creating a mural in Pisa happened by chance when a young Pisan student met Haring in the street of New York. The theme is that of peace and harmony in the world, which can be read through the links and divisions between the 30 figures, which, like a puzzle, occupy 180 square metres of the south wall of the church of St. Anthony.

Each figure represents a different aspect of peace in the world: the “human” scissors are the image of solidarity between Man in defeating the serpent (that is evil), which is already eating the head of the figure next to it; the woman with a baby in her arms represents maternity, and the two men supporting the dolphin refer to Man’s relationship with nature…

On the first day, working independently and without any preparatory sketches, Haring drew the black outline. For the rest of the week, he was assisted by students and craftsmen from the Caparol Center, the suppliers of the acrylic tempera paint, selected because it keeps its colour for a long time, filling in the outlines. The mural’s title is ‘Tuttomondo” a word which sums up the artist’s constant pursuit of interaction with the public, represented in this case by the yellow figure which is walking or running in the centre of the composition on the same level as a passer-by.” [v]

There are nine versions of Haring’s Altarpiece: Life of Christ triptych, cast in bronze and covered in white gold. One is located in the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in Manhattan and was dedicated during Haring’s memorial service. Other examples can be found at The Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; The Denver Art Museum; Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum; The Ludwig Museum, Cologne: Grace Cathedral, San Francisco; and Church of Saint-Eustache, Paris.

Sam Havadtoy has explained the unplanned way in which the altarpiece became his final work: “In 1989, Keith asked me to help him decorate his new Manhattan apartment. In his living room was an old brick fireplace which he hated, so I had it plastered over. The plaster was wet and I suggested that he draw into it. He thought it was a cool idea. It was as if the plaster were a three-dimensional textured canvas. He loved drawing in the plaster and got very excited about the new medium. When he finished, it was very beautiful. I asked him if he wanted to make an edition of the fireplace and he loved the idea. Later, I asked him if he wanted to do other works in editions — perhaps, panels and tables. He laughed. But he said he liked the idea — he would do it.

Trays were made for the panels and tables. I also had a last-minute inspiration and had special trays made in the shape of a Russian icon, an altarpiece, a large version of a miniature icon I saw in a shop in Geneva. All the trays were then laid out in a quiet, womblike room in the Dakota. Trays were filled with fresh clay. Keith arrived. He snapped a tape into the ghetto blaster, turned up the music, sipped a Coke and set to work.

Instead of a brush, for the first time, he used a loop knife. He handled the knife freely and spontaneously like he wielded his brushes. As he worked, he became more and more excited. He said that he couldn’t believe it had taken him so long to discover this kind of sculpture. He made no preliminary drawings except for a quick sketch of the dancer on the third panel, which he made on a two-by-four piece of wood. Yet, he was completely sanguine as he cut into the clay. The images came directly from his head. He placed the knife in the clay and carved a continuous running line, a quarter-of-an-inch deep groove, which wound like a swollen stream during the spring thaw. He never stopped to rethink the line; he never edited himself and never made corrections. The lines he carved in the clay were seamless, flawless.

Keith finished the panels and then, for the first time, saw the three altarpiece sections. He stared at them and was silent. Then he set to work. He cut into the clay and began to carve free-flowing lines. The images that emerged were unlike the others. They were religious: an inspiration of the life of Christ; a baby held by a pair of hands; hands ascending toward heaven; Christ on the cross. On one side panel, he depicted the resurrection. On the other, a fallen angel. When Keith finished, as he stepped back and gazed at this work, he said, ‘Man, this is heavy.’

When he stopped, he was exhausted, and it was the first time I realised how frail he had become. He was completely out of breath. He said, ‘When I’m working, I’m fine, but as soon as I stop, it hits me …’ The altar was Keith’s final piece of work.” [vi]

Phillips notes that: “Haring’s altarpiece depicts a Last Judgment. Overseen by a large creature bearing a glowing ring, all of the figures in the scene anxiously await their destiny. But unlike most Last Judgments, it is not clear who has been saved and who has been condemned.” [vii] Phillips comments too on the extent to which the Last Things featured in the theology of the Jesus People and also feature in Haring’s work through the imagery he used for anti-nuclear protest posters and his collaboration with William S. Burroughs entitled Apocalypse.

None of this, as Michael Wright notes, is to claim Haring as a Christian artist; as “a gay man dying of AIDS,” Haring was rightly and “vocally critical of the institutional church and kept his distance during his adult life.” Nor should it be said that “this is his ‘religious art’ and everything else is the popular stuff.” [viii] Noting the religious influences and imagery found in Haring’s work – as in that of Warhol and others with whom he was associated like Robert Mapplethorpe and Ed Ruscha – is both to do the postmodern thing of re-telling stories that have often been ignored or overlooked and a means of noting the continuing influence of Christianity in Western culture even when, as for Haring, allergic reactions to the religious right fuel decline in churchgoing.

Keith Haring: Radiant Gambit reminds us that throughout his career, Haring 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 worldwide, many of which were created for charities, hospitals, children’s daycare centres and orphanages. Haring 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. Doonan, as we noted, writes that Haring was an artist for the people, best remembered as a Pied Piper, an unpretentious communicator who appeared happiest mentoring a gang of kids, arming them with brushes and attacking the nearest wall. Wright suggests Haring’s “compassion for the weak and vulnerable, his critical eye to unjust systems, his celebration of the body and human dignity—this was all part of Haring’s sensibility, and it’s deeply Christ-like too,” [ix] while also being characteristic of the Jesus People whose community he left but whose influence remained.

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This article was first published on Artlyst 13 April 2021, https://www.artlyst.com/features/keith-haring-personal-spiritual-imagery-revd-jonathan-evens/.

Jonathan Evens is Associate Vicar for HeartEdge at St Martin-in-the-Fields, London, UK. Through HeartEdge, a network of churches, he encourages congregations to engage with culture, compassion and commerce. He is co-author of The Secret Chord, an impassioned study of the role of music in cultural life written through the prism of Christian belief. He writes regularly on the arts for a range of publications and blogs at https://joninbetween.blogspot.com.

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Notes:

Simon Doonan, Keith Haring: Lives of Artists, Lawrence King Publishers, 2021 – https://www.laurenceking.com/product/keith-haring/#tab-downloads.

Keith Haring: Radiant Gambit, World Chess Hall of Fame, Saint Louis, MO, through May 16, 2021 – https://worldchesshof.org/exhibit/keith-haring-radiant-gambit.

[i] Justin Hopper, ‘A New, More Personal Jesus’ in Carnegie Magazine, Summer 2007 – https://carnegiemuseums.org/magazine-archive/2007/summer/feature-17.html.

[ii] Justin Hopper, ‘A New, More Personal Jesus’ in Carnegie Magazine, Summer 2007 – https://carnegiemuseums.org/magazine-archive/2007/summer/feature-17.html.

[iii] Personal Jesus: The Religious Works of Keith Haring and Andy Warhol – http://www.tfaoi.com/aa/7aa/7aa757.htm.

[iv] Victoria Emily Jones, ‘Michael Wright on Keith Haring’s “Jesus freak” connection’ in Art & Theology, March 10, 2021 – https://artandtheology.org/2021/03/10/michael-wright-on-keith-harings-jesus-freak-connection/

[v] Roberta Cecchi – https://www.comune.pisa.it/english/doc/the_mural_of_keith_haring.htm

[vi] https://www.sothebys.com/en/auctions/ecatalogue/2013/nov-2013-contemporary-day-n09038/lot.246.html

[vii] Natalie E. Phillips, ‘The Radiant (Christ) Child: Keith Haring and the Jesus Movement’ in American Art, Vol. 21, No. 3 (Fall 2007), The University of Chicago Press on behalf of the Smithsonian American Art Museum, p. 71.

[viii] Victoria Emily Jones, ‘Michael Wright on Keith Haring’s “Jesus freak” connection’ in Art & Theology, March 10, 2021 – https://artandtheology.org/2021/03/10/michael-wright-on-keith-harings-jesus-freak-connection/

[ix] Victoria Emily Jones, ‘Michael Wright on Keith Haring’s “Jesus freak” connection’ in Art & Theology, March 10, 2021 – https://artandtheology.org/2021/03/10/michael-wright-on-keith-harings-jesus-freak-connection/